I’m a card-carrying member of Post 162 of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV), which along with Posts 331 and 354 make up Minnesota’s three chapters of the organization. Actually, I’m an affiliate member, since I personally meet only one of the criteria (i.e., Jewish).
I was able to join the JWV by virtue of my father’s membership in another Post, given his Army service toward the tail end of WWII. At the outset, I joined simply to honor his service, and that of other friends, relatives, and members of the community.
It seemed like the Jewish thing to do. It reminds me, in a way, of how the Talmud tells us that we Jews are supposedly still within the generations that benefit from the righteousness of Abraham. So, too, did I ride the coattails of my father’s (and my grandfather’s) service.
But I’ve come to learn that my membership helps me to acknowledge a missing part in my own life – a gap that might only have been filled by serving in the armed forces. Since I reached draft age in the waning years of the Vietnam War, army service was not high on my list, to say the least. I can clearly recall the relief that I felt when birthdates were drawn by lottery the year I became 18, to determine the order by which the newest crop would be eligible for the draft. My lottery number was well over 300. Paraphrasing an old Woody Allen line, this made it quite certain that I would have been drafted just after women and children.
The JWV remains active in many ways throughout the community, but my only real involvement is attending the annual meeting of perhaps 60 members and guests (with noticeably dwindling numbers each year).
The meeting itself might seem a bit hokey to those raised in the digital age. It begins by pledging allegiance to the flag, and ends by retiring the colors, while those who are still able stand to salute. All with military formalities and patriotic speeches in-between—sprinkled with the obligatory attempts at telling Jewish jokes.
Yet their annual meeting is one of the highlights of my year, helping me to reconnect with old feelings, as I soak in the ambiance that only a roomful of veteran altekachers can provide. They exchange good-natured jabs as readily as they do old stories. They tended to all go to the same handful of high schools, and many had dated each other’s sisters or cousins, some 60 or more years ago.
And amazingly, it seems, they each remember the day they enlisted or received their draft notice, as well as the day they reported for service, and the day they were discharged—just as I vividly as I recall the day my lottery number was drawn.
As I listen, and ask, they share stories that can range from the hysterical to the heart wrenching. On one side of the table there may be a former clerk typist, who spent his entire year in the Air Force typing discharge papers at the end of the war. “I flew a typewriter,” he is proud to admit. And on the other, someone who survived years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, yet now expresses few if any complaints. Both are equally humbling.
They lived in and through a unique time in the history of Jews in America.
We honor them on Veterans’ Day this Tuesday. We honor their service and sacrifice, and their loss. But as we stop to think of it, we might also recognize our own loss as well. Our children and our children’s children will likely never see their breed again, or hear the one about two rabbis who walked into a bar.
Members of Minnesota Posts 162, 331 and 354 we stand, and salute you.