"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."
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.' "