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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."

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