When I was a teenager, I recoiled from the very idea of going to the Catskills with my parents, so it wasn’t until a few decades later that I finally stayed at one of their favorite resorts, the high-rise Nevele Grand Hotel. Lyndon Johnson had spent a night at the place in 1966, but by the time I got there, its best days were far behind it, and it didn’t have much longer to live. I don’t think it had any regular guests at all, just groups like the large Elderhostel encampment of which I formed a part. My job was to teach a couple of short, accessible courses on Jewish history for about two hours a day. When I learned, after I got to the hotel, that I was also supposed to eat all of my meals together with my students, it seemed to me, at first, that the fate I had avoided as a kid was catching up with me with a vengeance—though at least now I was going to be paid to suffer it.
As it turned out, eating very long breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with dozens of aging members of the Greatest Generation was the best part of the whole experience. I did get a little tired of their constant commentary on the gravlax, but I loved hearing their stories—especially those about World War II. I remember, for instance, one man telling me about how he had been teaching chemistry in 1946 at City College, where he had had an overage student in his class who had fought in Europe and was in school thanks to the G.I. Bill. One day, this young man came to his office to plead for a better grade. He needed at least a B, he said, in order to get into dental school. “So, professor, what would you do in that situation?” my dinner companion asked me. “I’d probably give him a B,” I said, “in appreciation of what he had done for his country.” “That’s exactly what I did,” he replied.
After that conversation, I decided that when I came back the following year I’d teach a course on U.S. Jews and U.S. wars, extending from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. That was mostly so that I could teach about American Jews and World War II—and thus provide the occasion for my new students to tell me more stories. But my plan necessitated my learning enough about the subject at least to get the ball rolling. And that’s how I got to Deborah Dash Moore’s GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation.
One of the many fascinating stories in this panoramic account of the history of American Jewish soldiers during World War II concerns an Orthodox soldier participating in an Army specialized training program (ASTP) on the Cornell campus in 1943. When Victor Geller learned, to his deep dismay, that the Army would let him have off only the first day of Rosh Hashanah, he turned to the campus’s Hillel rabbi for help. Moore doesn’t name the rabbi, but does describe him clearly enough for me to recognize the man I came to know a quarter of a century later, when I was a student at Cornell. I still think of him now and then, mostly when I recollect how he—like me—fretfully watched from the sidelines, as a student leader at Cornell told a crowd of 5000 students in cavernous Barton Hall in April 1969 that if his demands weren’t met, Professors Walter Berns and Allan Bloom were going to die. (Years later, when that same student, Tom Jones, was the head of TIAA-CREF, Berns is reported to have quipped that “first he wanted my life, now he has my money!”)
Anyhow, back in 1943, the rabbi had no more ability to resist the Army than either of us had to stand in the way of the crowd in Barton Hall. After listening to Geller’s complaint about the one-day holiday schedule, he meekly remarked that this “was all that the commanding officer of the Cornell ASTP had approved.” Geller didn’t give up, however. He got the company sergeant, a regular Army man, to give him another day off—on the condition that he stay in his room throughout the day.
All of this and other material from GI Jews went over pretty well with that summer’s batch of Elderhostelers, who rewarded me, for their part, with great stories of their own. I didn’t hear anything else quite like them until a couple of years ago, when I discovered a new one myself, in the archives, when I was doing some research for a piece I wrote for Mosaic on Lewis L. Strauss. This story too revolves around events that took place on an Ivy League campus: Harvard.
Strauss, the president of Temple Emanu-El in New York City, a prominent investment banker, and a future head of the Atomic Energy Commission had taken a leave of absence from Kuhn, Loeb & Co. to work in the upper reaches of the Department of the Navy. One day in October 1942, he received a letter from his friend, the scholar Louis Finkelstein, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (from 1940 to 1972). “I am profoundly disturbed,” Finkelstein wrote, by “an occurrence which has just come to my attention.” He went on to describe a female student at an outstanding college who had been thrown out of a secret extracurricular course run by the navy after it was discovered that she was Jewish. “I am hoping,” he wrote, “that this is a case of individual prejudice, rather than deliberate Navy policy. Such a policy would automatically reduce a group of Americans to second class citizens, contrary to the letter or the spirit of the Constitution itself.” Finkelstein at first thought he’d let the matter drop, but then he reconsidered things. “It is,” after all, “not merely a question of the effect on an individual Jew or on the Jews, but of the course of American democratic thought and action.” What did Strauss think he ought to do?
Strauss quickly wrote back to Finkelstein that, “I can only assure you that no Navy policy is involved,” and that he could only be assistance of he knew the identity of the student and all the rest of the details. Within a few days, he got them. The student in question was Finkelstein’s own daughter, Hadassah. And that’s part of why the whole matter was so sensitive. “Naturally,” Finkelstein wrote, “any interest in the situation on my part would be interpreted as personal, and an investigation, or even an interchange of letters might destroy any effectiveness I now have in the field of interdenominational cooperation.”
Finkelstein confided to Strauss that he had previously turned to someone else, the Harvard Law professor and prominent civil libertarian Professor Zechariah Chafee Jr. The latter had spoken to some navy people in Boston who told him “that this particular course was or is not open to children of foreign born parents or Jews.” They also told him, “that there should be no need to explain any exclusion from the course, that if the authorities wished, all wearers of red sweaters could be excluded; loyal and patriotic Americans would not question the decision.”
Troubled as he was by this attitude, Finkelstein was prepared to acknowledge that the whole matter was “comparatively petty happening” and perhaps ought best to be forgotten. But before he did so he wanted to hear Strauss’s thoughts on “this difficult problem.” What, then, were they? I don’t know. I couldn’t find anything more than what I’ve already reported in his papers at the Center for Jewish History, where I discovered these letters. I did query some of the descendants of Hadassah Finkelstein Davis (1923–2016), who could say nothing to enlighten me. I’d like to know how things turned out, and I’m also sorry that I’m not in touch with any of my Elderhostel students, the youngest of whom would now be in their nineties. There’s one of them in particular whom I would like to ask what he would have done if he had been in Louis Finkelstein’s position.
I don’t know what I would have done myself, but I can’t pretend that I would have been bolder than he was—or, for that matter, bolder than the Hillel rabbi had been the following year, at Cornell, when he had had to deal with a roughly similar issue. It was a lot harder to stand up for your rights as an American Jew during World War II than it has been in recent decades, and I’m not foolish enough to imagine that I would have had the audacity that others did not possess. But I am grateful to live at a time when such problems scarcely ever arise.
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