Such a Generation…
By ERIKA DREIFUS
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
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.