GI Jews

GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation. Harvard University Press; 368 pages; $25.95.


Whether they came from Sioux Falls or the Bronx, over half a million Jews entered the U.S. armed forces during the Second World War. Uprooted from their working- and middle-class neighborhoods, they joined every branch of the military and saw action on all fronts. Deborah Dash Moore offers an unprecedented view of the struggles these GI Jews faced, having to battle not only the enemy but also the prejudices of their fellow soldiers.

Through memoirs, oral histories, and letters, Moore charts the lives of 15 young Jewish men as they faced military service and tried to make sense of its demands. From confronting pork chops to enduring front-line combat, from the temporary solace of Jewish worship to harrowing encounters with death-camp survivors, we come to understand how these soldiers wrestled with what it meant to be an American and a Jew.

Moore shows how military service in World War II transformed this generation of Jews, reshaping Jewish life in America and abroad. These men challenged perceptions of Jews as simply victims of the war, and encouraged Jews throughout the diaspora to fight for what was right. At the same time, service strengthened Jews' identification with American democratic ideals, even as it confirmed the importance of their Jewish identity. GI Jews is a powerful, intimate portrayal of the costs of a conflict that was at once physical, emotional, and spiritual, as well as its profound consequences for these hitherto overlooked members of the "greatest generation."


From Publishers Weekly: Serving in WWII made American Jewish soldiers feel both more Jewish and more American, writes historian Moore in this insightful study. Relying mainly on memoirs and oral interviews of 15 veterans, Moore shows how many of them had taken their Jewish identity for granted in the Jewish enclaves where they grew up -- and that only in the army did they begin to see its value. For some, simply eating nonkosher food was a challenge. "It was horrible," one soldier wrote home, "but with the help of the coffee I swallowed it much as one would an aspirin." They also had to contend with stereotypes of Jews as weaklings and with outright anti-Semitism and saw how many anti-Semitic soldiers were also racist, suggesting that the seeds for the black-Jewish alliance of the 1960s were sown during WWII. For many, their Jewishness resonated as they fought for Uncle Sam: they searched for European Jews while on leave, and then saw their worst fears confirmed in the prisoners at concentration camps: one soldier remembered this as his initiation into "Jewish manhood and responsibility." The stories these soldiers tell are compelling, and Moore does an admirable job of knowing when to interpret and when to let the experiences speak for themselves.

Library Journal Reviews: In this impressively written book, Moore takes as her focus a number of Jewish individuals -- among them rabbis, college graduates, manual laborers, and her own father -- and demonstrates how military service in World War II transformed their worldviews. The transformation often began during military training, where many Jews broke out of their insular ethnic world and discovered the diversity of America. During their military service, they confronted anti-Semitism, racism, the fear of combat, the loneliness of being a minority, and the challenge of living a Jewish life in a military that regarded ham products as one of the four basic food groups. Moore's greatest strength is her ability to integrate the story of the individual into the wider issues facing America. In the process, she helps lay to rest the notion that there was a single Jewish response to the wartime experience.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "I'm a New Yorker. And my parents are New Yorkers. And my grandparents were New Yorkers," said Professor Moore. "I was born [in 1946] and raised in Manhattan. I used to say, 'I live over Barney's,' then Barney's moved. My area was urban. Now all the factories are being converted to co-ops. But when I was growing up. it was a factory neighborhood with a handful of residential buildings."

"And great shadows late in the afternoon."

"Oh yes, beautiful shadows. We lived on the 11th floor and could see the cars coming down Seventh Avenue. We could see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building."

Ms. Moore took her B.A. in history at Brandeis and her graduate degrees at Columbia, again, in history. "I loved history," she said, "from third grade on. There were two formative things that happened. One was when we were studying Lower Manhattan, and we went on a field trip and did rubbings of manhole covers. We learned how to interpret them and learned the hidden history of the city underneath those covers. The other thing was I started reading Landmark books. The first I read was about the making of the Declaration of Independence, and that got me hooked. I went from that book to the next book. I read tons of them in that series."

"Did your parents read?"

"Oh, yes, they were readers. My father read mysteries. But my mother read broadly. When I was in high school, my mother decided to go back to school. She got a doctorate eventually at Columbia, in Shakespeare. She is, in fact, a Shakespeare scholar now.

"I teach at Vassar. I'm in the religion department, not in the history department. Coming to Vassar broadened my education because I had studied religion only in the context of history, especially American history and Jewish history, but not more generally."

"Were you raised as an observant Jew?"

"I was raised as a Reconstructionist. A Reconstructionist is a movement that was started by Mordecai Kaplan, an American Jewish rabbi. I suppose it's located between reform and conservatism. It's got a fairly radical theology. It rejects any kind of supernatural god and rejects the idea of the Chosen People, but it couples that with a fairly conservative attitude towards practice. The main synagogue in New York was a place called 'The Society for the Advancement of Judaism,' and that's where I went. I went to Hebrew School, and my folks were members and my grandparents were members. We were a Reconstructionist family. There is a Reconstructionist congregation in San Diego, I believe."

"Do Reconstructionists have female rabbis?"

"Oh yes, yes, the bat mitzvah was pioneered by Reconstructionists. Kaplan had four daughters. The first one who came of age, he created a bat mitzvah for her. Then each one after that, and it caught on. I was lucky. I had a bat mitzvah. Had I been more observant, I wouldn't have."

We talked, then, about Professor Moore's book. I read to her from page 104 of GI Jews: "In the Pacific Jews fought alongside other Americans in a war that mattered to them as Americans, but in Europe many Jewish GIs felt that they were also in combat as Jews."

I said that I had never thought about that before, how different the Pacific war and European war must have been for Jewish soldiers.

"That was important for Jews. It was one of the things that I discovered. They were so aware that they were Jewish and that there was a double enmity. That is, not just as Americans but also as Jews they opposed the Germans. The Pacific theater was different. It was much more isolating. The Jewish piece of who they were was much more submerged. I love that part of the poem -- 'To Jewishness' -- by Kenneth Koch that I quote near the book's beginning."

I read:

You went with me

Into the army, where

One night in a foxhole

On Leyte a fellow soldier

Said where are the fuckin' Jews?

Back in the PX. I'd like to

See one of those bastards

Out here. I'd kill him!

I decided to conceal

You, my you, anyway, for a while.

Forgive me for that.

"I thought that was a wonderful poem," Professor Moore said, "It's not the whole poem, it's a fragment [see page 98 for entire poem], it's so apt; how he felt was representative of how a lot of Jews felt. Especially later on."

"Another thing I learned from your book," I said, "was that for young Jewish boys in that generation, what we used to call 'physical culture' was important."

"Right. Physical culture was important for them. Boxing and basketball and baseball, these were important sports. And the building of the body to be a soldier was crucial. It also involved becoming comfortable with machinery, which is something that urban Jews were less familiar with because in big cities you didn't drive cars. You certainly didn't have tractors. They didn't live in houses, so they didn't repair stuff, and they had none of the machinery. Learning how to handle a weapon is also another piece of building up who you are as a man."

We talked then about how young Jewish, mostly urban, men worked to integrate themselves into the U.S. military during World War II. "Because they were integrated," said Professor Moore. "They were integrated and therefore one assumed that their story was the same as everyone else's and that there wasn't necessarily anything different to talk about."

"When did you first know it was a story -- GI Jews?"

"I wrote a book on Miami and Los Angeles. The first chapter had to answer the question, 'How did Jews find these cities?' I discovered they found them through World War II, because the Air Corps was in Miami, so you chose Miami, right? L.A. was a place where a lot of Jews shipped out through the Pacific. In the process of doing the research for that introductory chapter, I started reading people's memoirs about the war years, and I realized 'Oh, there's a story here.' I was moved by what I read. That was when I first realized that there was a story to come back to.

"I guess also it was a matter of timing. That book came out in '94, and there was all of this World War II stuff happening the following year in '95. Everybody was talking about the war and 50 years. All the celebrations affected me."

"I was moved," I said, "by something you wrote on page 91, that when these young Jewish men found themselves in the military, they also discovered that their 'Jewishness needed to be submerged and protected.'"

"They were young. This was hard for them to do, but they managed eventually, most of them, to find a way to recognize that it would stay inside them, and it would follow them wherever they went. But it was difficult. I think it was difficult, too, because it challenged so many of their natural assumptions."

"About who they were."

"Yes. About who they were. Which was connected with their families and their neighborhoods and their friends and their school. And the urban setting. And their interests. Guys did have to disguise their interests to a certain extent. For instance, one of the men I interviewed had an interest in poetry. After the war he became a poet. But he couldn't show that interest then. It was too private a part of who he was."

"And poetry was thought feminine."

"Oh yes. That's correct. Along with classical music."

Another aspect of the professor's book that interested me was that she showed, through interviews with a variety of Jewish men, that many different ways existed of practicing the Jewish faith.

"I worked hard on that," said Professor Moore. "I did not want to paint a uniform picture. I wanted one with many facets. I wanted people to get a sense of the differences. I thought this is so important to realize. Because part of the war is this big homogenizing experience. Everybody is putting on a uniform, right? Everybody is picking up a weapon. That's the homogeneity of it. But the differences are crucial.

"And interesting. These men are struggling with moral issues and notions of responsibility and guilt and their emotions, their feelings of pity or their feelings of anger or their feelings of revulsion. I thought, 'Here you can grasp what it was like. And how difficult it was. And how diverse. Facing the German enemy. Facing German civilians.' "

Chapter Three is titled "Eating Ham for Uncle Sam."

"Isn't that great?" Professor Moore said. "I love that one. That was one of those surprises. Again, it was something that was so great, to have it in the letters I read that soldiers mailed home at the time. Because these letters have such immediacy. 'Okay, I'm going to swallow it like aspirin,' one young man wrote about eating pork. I've done a couple of talks about food. Inevitably, some veteran comes up and says, 'Oh yes, I remember.' Recently, one guy told me a story about going to observe Yom Kippur in Paris. He had fasted. He comes back at the end of the day and he goes to the Red Cross. They say, 'Oh, the kitchen is closed and we don't have anything. The only thing we have are pork chops.' So he broke the fast for pork chops.

"In the states people who kept kosher often had their parents or their wives send food. Jewish chaplains had food. But this was to supplement. Let's say they'd eat a vegetarian diet. And then they'd get salami or canned gefilte fish from their families. But once you shipped overseas, that was it. There was no way you could keep kosher. They made compromises. Even the rabbis said that the more dangerous the position you're in, the greater the stress, the greater the leniency in what you eat. Certainly, once you're at the front, you eat anything. But often there was revulsion. It's hard to overcome that.

"What's interesting, too, is that virtually all the men ended up going back to their pre-war observance. None developed a taste for pork. They were happy to leave that piece of the Army behind.

"Food is a formative piece of identity, which used to be dismissed by people as, 'Oh, well, it's just food,' or they would say, 'It's kitchen Judaism.' It was dismissed for a long time as unimportant."

"What," I asked, "were relations like between young urban Jewish boys and, for instance, 'country' Southern Jewish boys?"

"It was a strange experience. And the southern Jews didn't like the New York Jews especially. They found them far too brash and far too 'pushy,' or, in today's lingo, we might say they were too 'out' as Jews. It isn't that the other Jews were in the closet, exactly, but there was a sort of discreetness about it. And it was difficult to get to like these other Jews. They were friendships that were eventually made, but oftentimes it was hard for that to happen. I think it's more a matter of style, culture, taste -- those kinds of issues. I don't have a lot of Southern Jews in this book."

"How much has the attitude toward Jews changed in the services since World War II?"

"Well, I think it has changed. I think that especially since integration has become the defining feature of military service. First African-Americans, then women, that has changed the army. And the military service, in general, has figured out how to incorporate difference and to respect it. That's my sense. I was moved, for example, after the Challenger disaster, when a Navy chaplain spoke at the memorial service and quoted from the Hebrew poet Bialik. It was perfect. It was the right thing to say because it was what Bialik had written on the loss of a dear friend, and so it was a moving piece. But that seemed to me to signify how much was accepted now."

"I thought, as I read your book, that people wouldn't dare speak to one another in the way that they did in the Second World War. The 'Jew boy,' kind of talk, I think, would get you in trouble."

"I think so too, yes. A number of the guys, when I was interviewing them, said, 'Look, in those days, "Jew boy" wasn't considered so bad. There were worse things.' Today, somebody called you 'Jew boy,' you'd be furious. So I think that's changed."

"Are there rabbis with our troops in Iraq?"

"There are. Not enough, because the men have integrated, they're scattered around. But I think there are two or three. They fly around to try to be where there are clusters of men. So that most recently with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there were services that were held, and Jewish soldiers got passes, and in several cases, people took some perilous trips in order to make it, let's say, to Baghdad from where they were stationed, to have services, and then to go back on what were dangerous roads."

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