Such a Generation…


GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation
By Deborah Dash Moore
342 pages. Harvard University Press. $25.95.


On the Monday morning following the history-shifting December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Sy Kahn listened to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt address Congress alongside his classmates in New York City's George Washington High School. "It seemed," writes Deborah Dash Moore in GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, "as though the President spoke to him personally. Kahn wanted to do his part." He wasn't alone. Over 500,000 Jews served in the American armed forces during the Second World War. Kahn was one of them. GI Jews introduces us to Kahn, and to some of the others.

Indeed, Moore notes that "scarcely a Jewish family existed that did not have a son or a brother, a father or an uncle, in the service." Despite this prevalence, however, relatively few histories have chronicled this aspect of American Jewish history. Moore's book thus adds something most important, and needed, to our libraries and bookshelves.

Moore begins the book by introducing readers to 15 American Jewish veterans, including her father, Martin Dash, and Kahn. These 15 men appear frequently throughout the text: their experiences, recounted in chapters titled "Joining Up," "Eating Ham for Uncle Sam," "Crossing Over," "Worshipping Together," "Under Fire," "Liberation and Revelation," and "Coming Home," take the reader from 1939 to 1945, from various parts of the United States (with an emphasis on New York, home to Moore's father and his buddies) to Europe or the Pacific and back.

Not surprisingly, much of Moore's interest in her subject can be traced to her familial connection. But her academic background (she is the William R. Kenan Jr., Professor of Religion at Vassar College; her previous books include At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews and To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.) lends her special analytic insights. "Even when one wore the same uniform as one's fellow Americans," she explains in GI Jews's preface, "I assumed that being a Jew mattered, as it mattered in all other aspects of pre-World War II life." The veterans' stories ultimately lead her to a perhaps unexpected conclusion, that "donning an American uniform made Jews both more American and more Jewish."

Some of this transformation Moore attributes to wartime military policy itself, in particular the military's emphasis on a "Judeo-Christian" tradition. In a section not directly connected with any of the fifteen men introduced early in the book, Moore recounts the story of the USAT Dorchester, torpedoed in February 1943. All four of its officer chaplains drowned in the freezing Atlantic, having given their life preservers to members of the crew. "The deaths of Protestant Chaplains George L. Fox and Clark V. Poling, Catholic Chaplain John P. Washington, and Jewish Chaplain Alexander D. Goode would come to symbolize the nation's democratic religion," writes Moore, who includes a remarkable iconic image of these men in the text to illustrate the point.

While some of the situations recounted in GI Jews may strike readers as unsurprising—a family's reluctance to send a son off to war, for example, or the sheer realization, having left Brooklyn or the Bronx for basic training, that, as Moore phrases it, "New York was not America"—, other stories demonstrate the extraordinary tensions and dilemmas the GI Jews faced. What, for example, should a young American do about his dog tags—marked "H" (for "Hebrew,'" the classification, Moore notes, then still in use from the 1899 federal immigration records system) to ensure a proper burial if necessary—when he might be captured by Germans? Would he be treated as an "American" POW, or not?

For the most part, Moore's work is grounded in stories and sources that are quite personal and human: interviews, letters, memoirs. This adds much richness to the book. But since the book does not, in fact, limit itself to the stories of the 15 men whose names the reader finds listed at the outset, it can be challenging at times to keep track of each individual voice. In a sense the book nearly sets itself up as a series of case studies, but quickly takes another approach. And since it does open itself up to others' experiences, it's disappointing that Moore alludes only briefly—in a single paragraph— to the stories of Jewish women who served in the American military and to those of Jewish refugees from Europe whom "Uncle Sam recruited" alongside those Jews born in the States.

These are, however, small discomforts with an all-around impressive and important book. As a grandchild of a GI Jew, I have long wished for a text precisely of this kind, one enabling me to better visualize and understand this part of the "world of my grandfather," whose own copy of Readings from the Holy Scriptures for Jewish Soldiers and Sailors is now mine. And as World War II recedes further into the past, Moore's book vividly reminds us of a key moment in our American history, and in our Jewish one, and more important, of an exceptional way in which the twain did meet.