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Title: G.I. Jews; How World War II Changed A Generation

Title: G.I. Jews; How World War II Changed A Generation
Author: Deborah Dash Moore
Publisher: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

 

 

More than a half-million of all Jewish citizens of the United States, nearly ten percent, served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Entirely out of proportion to those who served from other ethnic groups, it did much to disprove those anti-Semites who considered Jews to be draft dodgers.

The military service of American Jews transformed how Americans came to view the Jews, and it also transformed our own communal self-image of ourselves as Americans – and as Jews.

Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, an icon of that group, was the Jewish member of the “Four Chaplains” who went down with the U.S.S. Dorchester – a troop ship sunk by a German U-Boat. In one heroic action, Rabbi Goode, followed by the two Protestant Chaplains and the Catholic Chaplain aboard ship, gave away his own life preserver to soldiers and sailors abandoning the sinking ship. The four chaplains then linked arms, prayed, and disappeared under the waves. The event has been commemorated in several books and a Unites State Post Office stamp.

Prof. Deborah Dash-Moore, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion at Vassar College and Director of its Jewish Studies program, documents the struggles of the Jewish GIs – men who not only had to battle the common enemy but the prejudices of their fellow soldiers. An historian of American Jewry, Prof. Moore specializes in twentieth-century urban Jewish history and recants how Americans learned that Jews were prepared to extend help to all Americans regardless of their race or religion. African-Americans specifically, broadly discovered that Jewish members of the services were more prepared, much sooner, to fully accept them as equals than any other group of Caucasians.

Throughout the book, Prof. Moore follows the life of her father, Martin Dash, and fourteen other members of a Brooklyn social club – The Dragons – that they all belonged to while growing up in Flatbush. The group became lifelong friends in and out of the military. Many of the Jewish members of the armed services, Prof. Moore asserts, had even more reason to do their part in the conflict against Fascism and Nazism than other Americans. Early on, they were quite aware that Hitler had been interning Europe’s Jewish population in concentration camps, and after 1942 it was widely known that our brethren were already being liquidated in great numbers.

The book is divided into eleven chapters – each refers to a different aspect of Jewish service. Topics covered include the conflicted feelings of those volunteering to serve, observant Jews who stopped keeping kosher, joint religious observances with non-Jews, and their experiences upon homecoming – particularly in the realm of higher education under the G.I. Bill.

In a chapter titled “Liberation and Revelation,” for example, Moore relates that the very first Army chaplain who arrived at the liberation of the death camps with Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton, after units of the 4th Armored Division liberated the camps, was a Catholic chaplain who recited the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew. Most of the chaplains were capable of dealing interreligiously with each other’s ‘congregants,’ most of the Christian clergy being conversant in Hebrew, and their collegial Jewish counterparts learning to deal with Christian prayer in the colloquial Hebrew as well as other biblical languages.

It was on the battlegrounds of Europe and the Pacific that Jewish Americans re-discovered their religiosity. People who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since their bar/bat mitzvot soon became mainstays of their synagogues.

On a lighter note, the popular Jewish motto: “Send a salami to your boy in the army” gave the Jews in the armed forces an opportunity to share culinary customs with their cohorts. As Prof. Moore describes it, members of the armed forces were introduced not only to salamis and Jewish delicatessen, but also to blintzes and dozens of other items that arrived either in ‘mom’s’ packages from home or Jewish Welfare Board ‘Kosher Paks.’ Especially noteworthy were the complete Passover Seder Paks issued before the holiday which not only introduced Matzoh, Kosher Wine and Charoseth to non-Jewish participants at Passover Sedorim – but even to many Jewish soldiers who may have never previously participated in their own religious observances.

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