By Jay Kirell
When my grandfather enlisted in the army in the early 1940s he became one of an estimated 500,000 Jews who served in the military in World War II.
He arrived at basic training, and as my father tells the story, the fellow recruits he was with were shocked when they found out he was Jewish.
They weren’t shocked by his name, or his clothes (he wasn’t Orthodox) , or his attitude. My grandfather was a rather calm fellow.
Rather they were shocked by his head. More to the point, they were shocked by what wasn’t on his head.
Whenever my grandfather would tell someone he was Jewish – and back in the 1940s this was often the first encounter folks from across the country ever had with a Jew - and most of these people full-on believed that Jews had horns on their heads. They touched his head. They examined it. They met my grandfather and he dispelled at least one of what was probably hundreds of myths about both Jews and other groups of people folks from rural America rarely meet, yet hold ideas about.
Fast forward 70 years to July, 2010 and I’m standing watch in my first tower guard shift in Afghanistan. I’m up in the tower with a soldier who outranked me and had just been back from Iraq when I joined basic training. He waived his dwell time [time you have remaining classified as non-deployable following coming home from war] to do one last tour before getting out.
Since this was my first night actually doing something relating to soldiering in Afghanistan, I was nervous. I tried to make small talk, but my tower-mate wasn’t having it.
It was a four-hour shift in pitch black darkness, staring at an empty road surrounded by grape fields. Once the adrenaline wore off, the urge to do something other than stare took over and I kept trying to engage the guy in conversation.
He relented for almost three hours until we finally got to discussing ourselves. I casually let slip that I was Jewish and, at the time, thought nothing of it.
The next day, and for every day after my Army career, I was known by a name.
Just like my grandfather had been the first interaction his Army buddies had with a Jewish person, I was now suddenly an ambassador for the chosen people.
On good days I got asked questions about Judaism, which was fine if it was basic questions and challenges to translate curse words [thru our Pashtu interpreters] from English to Hebrew so they could yell them at Afghan children.
On bad days it was being reminded of being the person who “killed Jesus.” Being reminded of the being the reason “for all the problems in the world.” Being the guy you went to for $5 because “you’ve got money, you’re Jewish.”
Normal days it most closely resembled my encounter getting a second set of dog tags made for the deployment to Afghanistan shortly after arriving at Fort Campbell, KY. I went up to the counter, the woman behind the printing machine asked for my name, Social Security number, blood type and religion. I told her the first three and then when I said “Jewish” she looked up at me like I had said Martian.
“There’s no button for Jewish.”
Apparently the 10-12 religion-list of names most common came with their own single-press button for the dog-tag engraver. Fair enough, I knew going in the Army wasn’t Hillel.
“How do you spell it?”
And most days, that’s how it was. People finding out about it and either being oblivious to even the most basic facts about Jews [no, we don't cut off the tips of our penises when we turn 13] – or outright hostility [do 30 pushups for killing Jesus].
Part of that is the decline in the number of Jews in the military since my grandfather’s time. The half million Jews who signed up for World War II more than dwarfs the number currently serving in Afghanistan, it virtually renders the American Jewish soldier an endangered species.
Some estimates put the number of American Jews fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan at somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000.
To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 soldiers is less than half of one percent of the military, an organization that employs 2.2 million people [active duty and reserves] or .6% of the public.
So when the numbers are looked it, it’s not surprising that I and whatever other Jews happen to enlist in the military are spotlighted. We’re an endangered species.
That’s not to say that Native American soldiers don’t take their share of abuse the same way Jewish soldiers like myself did, I’m sure that was the case. And I have no idea why the number of Jewish vets has dipped so low.
Whatever the reason, my experience shows that even 70 years later, you can educate the ignorant about your worth as a soldier and a Jew, but eventually you’ll just be made to do pushups by their grandkid.