Tuesday, October 03, 2006

MEMOIR: A guy who never met a Jew before

During the summer of 1943 I was an 18-year old Army recruit at Camp Crowder, Mo., a U.S. Army base located in the Ozarks near the tiny town of Neosho. I lived in a barracks with about 40 men, at least half of whom were roughly my age. But we also had an unusually large number of men in their late twenties and thirties as barracks mates.

Camp Crowder was a Signal Corps training center, and most of the older men had worked for the telephone companies and Western Union. They had been assigned to the Signal Corps because of their work experience. They were far more worldly and more rowdy than the younger guys who were fresh out of high school.

The man in the bunk next to mine was a farm-bred kid from Georgia who had been drafted during his first college year. I've forgotten his name. He was a clean-cut, boyish guy who, I noticed, spent much of his idle time reading the Bible. Unlike virtually all the other men in the barracks, he did not smoke, drink, use dirty language, or rush to the whorehouses in town during weekend passes.

Except for the regular Bible-reading, many of my personal habits mirrored his. I didn't smoke cigarettes; I had a pipe, a farewell gift from my former emplyer, that I rarely used. I didn't patronize whorehouses, and I had yet to develop a taste for alcohol and a tendency to use dirty language. (As time passed, I easily acquired the last two vices.) I believe that my proper behavior was based more on boyish innocence than on any religious restraints.

My clean-cut bunk mate was a loner and did not socialize with the other men in the barracks. But he apparently became aware of my "upright" lifestyle and adopted me as a sort of buddy. We began to compare notes about our school experiences, share our grievances about Army life, and play ping-pong in our free time while many of our barracks mates were out drinking or whoring around.

Shortly after we became friends, he invited me to go to services at the base chapel with him on Sunday. I told him that I didn't go to church on Sundays, and that if I were to attend religious services, I would go to a synagogue on Friday evenings and Saturdays. He was confused by my remark. He obviously failed to recognize that I was informing him that I was a Jew. I had to spell out my religious affiliation in more specific terms.

Suddenly our buddy-buddy relationship ended. He stopped chatting with me, and he seemed to carefully avoid any personal contact. It was as if he wanted to steer clear of an infectious disease. A couple of weeks went by, and we no longer took any special notice of each other despite the proximity of our beds.

Eventually, however, he apparently recognized that our shared "wholesome" habits were more important than our religious differences. He casually became friendly towards me again. As our relationship improved, he confessed to me that he had never met a Jewish person before. He was raised, he said, in an Evangelical Christian family in a farming community where Jews were unknown. Although he did not specifically admit it, I felt that he had actually believed that Jews had horns--a belief, I've been told, that is or was held by some people with his restricted background.

So I take credit for demonstrating more than 63 years ago to at least one innocent young man that Jewish people are as normal as the next guys, with both the same good traits and the same faults.


Blogger Ginnie said...

A great memoir Mort. It reminded me of my Grandmother in Brattleboro, Vt. the first time that she heard there was a Catholic in town. (the story went that she was afraid to be in the same room for fear of a "Papal spell"...whatever that was.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 8:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Alan G said...

Greetings Mortart,

Dropped over from Ginnie’s blog and your current post struck a real chord with me. Felt the urge to share a special story from my childhood.

I, unfortunately, have only had one Jewish friend in my life and that was when I was around ten or eleven in the early 1950’s. I became really good friends with one of my classmates and eventually noticed that I was the only one that ever wanted to play with him. I eventually asked my mom about this strange phenomenon. She had met my Jewish friend’s mom somewhere; we only lived about a block or so from each other, and knew that I played with him. She informed me that the family was Jewish and a lot of people did not like Jews. I am sure I asked why but do not remember her explanation. Even so, I remained puzzled over this fact. I vaguely remember that when I would go to his house to play and we would go inside for a drink of water or something (back then you played outside as you know) there was just something different about the atmosphere in their home.

Anyway….after another year or so they moved away so that was pretty much the end of our relationship. Although our family was Christian (name only), I remained completely clueless about anti-Semitism for years. When I was around sixteen or so and became a little more educated and sensitive to religion in a personal sense, I began to read the Old Testament text and at that time became aware that G-d had chosen the Jews as his people. This began to really bother me and I thought often of my friend. I guess I even became somewhat envious because I was not Jewish. I got caught up in the emotions of my own young personal religious beliefs and understanding and can remember literally crying sometimes at night because I believed that I was going to Hell because I wasn’t Jewish. I can remember begging G-d to please love me although I wasn’t Jewish. I kept reminding G-d that I use to have a Jewish friend.

Sometimes in these days and times I have to admit I really miss that innocence. Now at the ripe old age of sixty-five and knowing all that I now know about Jewish history and religion, I still remain in awe of the Jewish people and their history in an overall sense and thank G-d for my little friend and my innocence from those years gone by. And being in the autumn of my life….I still continue to remind G-d of my little Jewish friend just in case that will carry any weight when my time comes.

Thanks for allowing me to share this very special memory.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 7:12:00 AM  
Blogger Treifalicious said...

Your story is charming except that I have heard of people enduring similar incidents way more recently.

When I was in college (about 15 years ago) a guy who lived in my house (Jewish) who was from Florida said that he had been asked in more rural parts of Florida where were his horns. In the early '90s. For real.

Sometimes, I think that we Jews should take out massive ads in all the major newspapers and magazines across the country so as to set the reciord straight about the Jewish religion and history (and how this impacts the State of Israel).

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 4:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Joared said...

I never cease to be amazed at how some people react to anyone different from themselves such as you relate here. I had never ever heard there were actually people who believed Jews had horns. It's just so ridiculous as to be laughable, if it wasn't such a serious issue, but I know people can believe some pretty wierd things

I don't know how you could have avoided experiencing that rejection as a very hurtful event, but, perhaps, you had long since developed some coping skills. Then to have been able to allow him back into your life speaks volumes about you. To the young soldier's credit he exercised some thoughtful common sense, perhaps grew in reason, by your acceptance.

FYI I will be seeing a film tomorrow entitled "Weapons of the Spirit" about a town in France whose residents saved 5000 Jews during WWII, a number equal to their own. The spirit that existed there, and your spirit in the experience you describe, give me hope and reason to believe in humanity.

Thursday, October 05, 2006 2:33:00 AM  
Anonymous claude said...

Thanks for posting this memoir. How interesting that antisemitism was not only restricted to old Europe. Your post reminded me of a story my mother told and I posted it on my blog.

Friday, October 06, 2006 6:25:00 AM  
Blogger Potato Print said...

Hi Mortart

I come to you via Goldendaze's blog. This is a wonderful story -- and well told. My father served in the army too. He'd always lived in the Bronx with fellow Sephardis. Even his Boy Scout troop was entirely Jewish. So it was a shock to him in 1946 to find himself in "mixed company." Saying that he was Jewish was one thing, but explaining that he was an atheist was even harder.

Friday, October 06, 2006 8:25:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

To Potato Print:
Jewishness is both a religious faith and an ethnic identity. So one can be a Jewish atheist, and there are plenty of them--although free-thinkers are a better term than atheist.. And as with most things Jewish, Jewish ethnicity gets complicated because there are 3 different sub-ethnic groups: Sephardic, Ashkenazi and what the Israelis now call Mizrahi (Iraqi, Yeminite, Bukharan, Persian, and Jews from other Eastern regions). What binds them, in addition to religious faith, is history, culture, and origins. Each has its own language, all of which are written in the Hebrew alphabet.
Tell your father I was also raised in the Bronx, and in a neighborhood that was heavily Sephardic. Maybe he can remember the Sephardic temple on 169th Street, between the Grand Concourse and Walton Ave., where the rabbi was named Asher Marciano (just like Rocky, the boxer). The rabbi came from Sarajevo, Bosnia. I lived a block away from the temple, which was next door to my family's Ashkenazi Orthodox shul.

Friday, October 06, 2006 9:31:00 PM  
Blogger saz said...

Well Mort you always make us think and reach back and examine our memories. My first introduction to the Jewish faith was a friend in grammar school who told me at Christmas that her family didn't celebrate the holiday. I was intrigued by the thought that Santa would not be coming to her house so asked my mom about it. Her explanation was pretty simple - many people had different religions and beliefs. She thought the Jewish faith had a seasonal holiday celebration at the same time of year and encouraged me to ask my friend about it. I did and was welcomed into her home and told about Hanukkah. My mom was one of those "free thinkers" and I'm happy she raised me with an interest and respect for all religions and differences. It was only when I was a teen and studying history that I learned about anti-Semitism. Sadly as an adult I've been shocked to see it's still with us.

Saturday, October 07, 2006 4:30:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Schnier said...

I had a friend in college, a Native Canadian (right off the reserve) who had never met a Jew before. On the other hand, I'd never met an Indian before. We got along fine.

Sunday, October 08, 2006 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Amaqzing story. And I think still not that uncommon, today, in certain parts of our country!
You did good.

Monday, October 09, 2006 2:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mort,
Thanks for that eloquent response. My Dad passed away in 2004, but he lives on in me. He and his brother instilled in us a life-long appreciation of our Sephardic heritage. I still have memories of driving out from Wisconsin to visit his dear parents in his old neighborhood in the Bronx. I want to say 173rd, but I might be wrong. It's funny about the division of Jewish people. My grandmother, who was from Izmir, used to say about a neighbor, "She's Oshkenoze, but she's a very nice woman."

I very much enjoy reading your blog. You are a gifted storyteller.

Monday, October 09, 2006 4:54:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Hi again Mort. I think you would be interested in a blog that I have started to visit. This is a young journalist and his latest entry is an article that was published in the NY Daily News, titled: "Eli Benson Helps Raise Money for Wounded Israeli Soldiers"

Name of his blog is Maxjosh's Jernt
All the best, Ginnie

Monday, October 09, 2006 8:54:00 PM  

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