MEMOIR: How "looking Jewish" landed me a dinner invitation in Capetown
Shortly after New Year's Day in 1944, I sailed out of Hampton Roads, Va. aboard a troopship heading south in the Atlantic Ocean. I was one of at least 5,000 GIs crammed aboard the vessel, the HMS Emperor of Scotland, a converted luxury liner. We departed without a warship escort, and we had no idea where we were going.
After several days at sea, I lost my wrist watch. For most of the troops on the ship, the loss of a watch would have been only a minor nuisance. For me, however, this was a big problem. My compartment on the ship had been arbitrarily selected to be the vessel's MP company.
A schedule was posted daily showing personal assignments for guard duty at specific hours. I needed a watch so that I could know when to report for duty. I was becoming weary having to constantly ask my bunk mates for the time. After about two weeks at sea, our troopship landed in Capetown, South Africa, where we were docked for nearly a week to refuel and to replenish supplies.
One of my closest friends in my compartment was Jerry Schaeffer, a Jewish man from Newark, N.J. who had been a high school industrial arts teacher in civilian life. (His identity as a Jew is relevant to this story.)
Jerry was very knowledgeable about watches and jewelry. He said that Capetown was a well-known international jewelry center, and he offered to help me buy a wrist watch if and when we were given shore leave between guard-duty assignments. When we both finally had a day off for shore leave, we rushed into the city searching for a jewelry store.
We quickly found an upscale establishment that could have passed for Tiffany's. A man behind the main counter wore a white bow tie and was elegantly attired in a morning coat. After we told him what we wanted to buy, he brought out a huge selection of wrist watches. As we examined the watches, I noticed that he was staring intently at Jerry and me. He seemed to be carefully studying our physical features, which made me slightly uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he said to us: "You're Jewish chaps, aren't you?"
He identified himself as the store's proprietor and told us that he was also Jewish. My recognition skills were obviously not as acute as his, for I hadn't given a thought as to whether or not he was a co-religionist.
He had never seen American soldiers before, let alone Jewish-American soldiers. He was obviously delighted to meet Jerry and me, for he was eager to discuss the war and to compare Jewish community life in our respective countries. After I had finally purchased a watch, he invited us to his home for dinner that evening. I don't recall the details about how we got to his home and how we got back to the ship before the end of our day's shore leave.
But I still clearly remember that he was an exceedingly gracious host. Our dinner with his family was an enjoyable interlude in a voyage that ended nearly three weeks later when our troopship finally arrived at our destination, Bombay, India.
I was to spend the next two years in India, and my memories of military service there are dimming. But I will always recall the dinner invitation I received in Capetown just because I "looked Jewish" in the eyes of a local jewelry merchant.
I once told this story to a non-Jewish friend who may have been a bit naive about such matters.
"How can you tell a man's religion by just looking at him?" he asked. "After all, you can't tell a Baptist, a Methodist or a Catholic just by his looks."
I explained to my friend that Jewishness is more than a religious faith and that it contains an ethnic element. And as it is in so many Jewish matters, the situation is complex. There are three basic sub-ethnic groups among Jews: Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrachi.
Ashkenazi Jews are of northern and eastern European origin and spoke Yiddish and German. Sephardis are descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th century and who settled largely in the Mediterranean region. Their primary language is Ladino. Mizrachi people are Jews from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Uzbekistan and other Middle Eastern countries. (The term "Mizrach" means East in Hebrew.) Their native languages are Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.
In addition to a religious faith, the three groups share historical origins and traditions and use the Hebrew alphabet for their distinctive languages. All of them now largely speak the languages of the countries in which they live.
The concept of Jewish ethnicity has been a controversial one. In the U.S., for example, the American Council for Judaism was once an influential organization that more than a half-century ago aggressively opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. It argued that Jewishness is strictly a religious faith and contended that there was thus no justification for Israel to exist as a Jewish national state.
Some Jews still hold this view. I believe that they reject the idea of Jewish ethnicity, particularly in the U.S., because of the fear of being accused of dual allegiancies and divided loyalties. In contrast, Americans of Irish, Italian, Polish and other foreign origins do not appear deterred from enjoying emotional links to their forebears' foreign cultures.
The overwhelming majority of the world's Jews, however, recognize that Jewishness involves more than a belief in a religious faith. Indeed, the creation of Israel reinforced the concept of Jewish ethnicity. The essence of Zionism, of course, was an ethnic one. Many of the movement's founders and Israel's leaders have been secular in their outlook and even religiously agnostic. One does not have to be religiously observant to identify as a Jew. Jewish atheists were not exempted from the Nazi death camps.
It is generally acknowledged that certain physical features are characteristic of some ethnic groups. For example, many people of Scandinavian, Slavic or Latino backgrounds have distinctive features that provide hints of their ethnic origins.
What the Capetown jewelry merchant saw in Jerry Schaefer and me 62 years ago was a reflection of his own Ashkenazi origins as shown on the faces of two American soldiers.