By Lance Wang, National Editor
A group of tired Infantry Second Lieutenants climbed onto the yellow school buses that were being used for transport them back and forth from their quarters to the field for training. The year was 1994, and I was at my basic course at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was a few years older than the rest, having attained the rank of Staff Sergeant prior to going to Officer Candidate School – most of them were straight out of ROTC. A young blond Lieutenant, a corn-fed middle-America type, sat down next to me on the bus and made some small talk, concluding with an inquiry as to the status of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I politely mentioned that I was Jewish, and was not interested in abandoning my faith. He paused for a second, clearly not expecting this turn in the conversation. Then he said something along the lines of Scripture calling for the Christians to “take care of their Jews,” and then remarked that “Jews were great fighters.”
That conversation stuck with me for a while, for that was the first time that I’d heard Jews referred to as “great fighters” from a non-Jew. More often it was like the line from the eponymous medical drama “House,” where Dr. House makes a wisecrack about the Jewish lack of athletic prowess to Dr. Taub, to which Taub retorts “Sandy Koufax is Jewish. Greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.” House then says, “Sandy Koufax is all you Jews go on about…”
Great athletic prowess and “great fighters” are treated as notable exceptions in American-Jewish culture. I’ve always found this curious. Where did this become part of the hand-me-down nature of Jewish culture? How come the stereotypical Jewish mother’s kvelling is “My son, the Doctor,” not “My son, the soldier”?
This dichotomy is represented in the way the Torah treats Jacob and Esau. Esau was an outdoorsman, and “a cunning hunter.” He is described as a hairy infant, covered with red hair, almost animal like. Jacob is considered simple, quiet, and quite literally, a “Mama’s boy.” He was different enough from Esau that he needed to cover his arms with animal skins in order to deceive his blind father as to which son he was. Jacob (Israel) would become the father of the 12 Tribes. Esau would become the father of the Edomites, but the glory of Israel was not with Esau, the hairy hunter.
Perhaps it was because the Jews found that their culture’s embrace of education, learning, and knowledge was the way to succeed in the many nations that the diaspora found itself in. Not that there was a lack of skilled tradesmen and soldiers, but a Jewish stereotype rooted in fact was the focus on learning. This of course led to its own challenges – Koufax was initially deemed “too intellectual” to be a successful baseball pitcher. When I was a Battalion Operations Officer, I received that same label from one senior officer. It’s part of being Jewish. But that same analytical bend turned Koufax into an astute student (one might say pioneer) of the science of pitching. Ted Williams was the same about hitting – however, Williams didn’t carry the baggage of being a Jew, and was simply treated as, well, a student of the science of hitting. He was never considered too bookish nor intellectual.
Perhaps a better way to look at our martial inheritance is not the either/or of Jacob and Esau – a better parallel for the Jewish martial strain is King David. A warrior from younger days when he confronted the mammoth Goliath, he rose to become a warrior, musician, poet, and King. Although he conquered Jerusalem and helped establish the Kingdom of Israel, he also is considered the author of many Psalms still included in Jewish liturgy. History is replete with examples of Jews who did both – achieved prominence in the defense of their nation, and then succeeded in numerous other pursuits.
Of course, these representatives of our inheritance as fighters, defenders of our freedom, and servants of our adopted homelands are not well publicized as role models to our own people or outside, hence the need for organizations such as Jewish War Veterans of the United States to remind not only the citizens of our adopted home countries but our fellow Jews that we are, as the young Second Lieutenant told me years ago “great fighters.” And it is not a choice between intellectual pursuits and martial skill – it is, as in the case of King David, “all of the above.” JWV exists to remind all that we are the Sons and Daughters of David.
Volume 72. Number 3. Fall 2018