Asking “Who is a Jew?” has never been an idle inquiry. The purpose of the question may have changed from continent to continent and from generation to generation, but it has never been a casual query prompted by idle curiosity.
New York City, March 1942: The nation was now at war, the infamy of Pearl Harbor was just four months old and the United States was mobilizing its resources, both industrial and human.
At City College of New York (CCNY), a municipal university that had a largely Jewish student body, the immensity of war precluded any trivial discourse. Intense discussions were now held, particularly among students in their junior and senior years. Many seniors had registered for extra classes in prior semesters and found themselves, in March 1942, possessing sufficient credits to get their baccalaureate degree. And this new knowledge led many seniors to ask: “Since we have already earned our degree, why are we leisurely continuing our collegiate status? Why are we still in civilian clothes?”
Accordingly, by late March of that year, a few dozen CCNY seniors volunteered through a U.S. Army recruitment office on West 145th St., choosing the Army over the U.S. Navy because most of us already were ROTC (Army Reserve Officer Training Corps) members, which facilitated our transfer to military status.
All the members of this eager group of volunteers were – to my memory – Jewish. But as we were inevitably mixed in with growing numbers of new recruits – both draftees and volunteers – the percentage of Jews progressively diminished. And so, by the time that we new recruits from New York were merged into the vast numbers of young American males from 48 states, the seemingly casual question, “Who is a Jew?” now assumed a new and compelling urgency.
In a succession of infantry training camps in western Illinois, southern Texas and western Georgia, the likelihood of finding a fellow-religionist was, at times, small. Of course, in the larger camps, there always was an overworked rabbi-chaplain; then, too, every soldier wore his metallic identification tags (dog tags) suspended around his neck, each one bearing a C (Catholic), a P (Protestant) or an H (Hebrew) to signify his declared religion. But these dog tags were hidden beneath layers of khaki garments and one did not reach for another’s dog tag without provoking instant combat.
To seek out someone with a “congenial ethnicity” in a world of strangers, what non-psychic choices remained? One could be quite content with the friendship of one’s barrack neighbors – all young, all American of whatever religion and all innocent of what lay ahead for us, or one may ask allegedly innocent questions such as, “Where ya from?,” hoping that the answer might be “Brooklyn.” Alternatively, one might concoct an openly expressed, but coded, question, the meaning of which would be appreciated solely by someone versed in vernacular Yiddish.
The question must be so brief as to be thought of more as a sneeze or an “ugh” in response to a stubbed toe. Some anonymous soul, however, invented the question, “Bist a Yid?”(Are you Jewish?), but asked in a slurred and rapid fashion, sounding much like a nonverbal exclamation. And so, walking alone in some railroad terminal building, perhaps seeking a USO sanctuary, one might encounter a cluster of GIs talking quietly.
One then strolls past, waving a hand while muttering to the ceiling, “Bist a Yid?”
If no one responds, just walk on, but sometimes, not often, one or more of the GIs might respond affirmatively and, within minutes, one has found a reliable friend in some alien corner of the world.
In the 1990s, as an elderly civilian, I was visiting a city on the Australian east coast, one with a fine medical school. It was a beautiful day, the site visit was proceeding well and I entered a dining room crowded with faculty. Someone greeted me from across the room; and spurred by a distant memory – and in an insane departure from propriety – I muttered, “Bist a Yid?” One member of the local medical faculty turned to face me and, in a cultured British accent, replied, “Landsman” (fellow villager)!
Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a biweekly column for The Voice & Herald.