I can’t remember what ethnic dishes I ate on my Omelette Pans as a small child in a Jewish family. However, when I was three, my Dad died and left Mom and the kids totally broke and in debt. That’s when my Jewish menu stopped and relief (now called welfare) surplus food became our only fare. Then, beginning at age six, I spent the next 11 years in a home for fatherless boys. The scene wasn’t exactly like the hungry orphans in “Oliver Twist”, but I never got even close to gefilte fish, latkas, lox, bagels, matzoh balls, or any other Jewish family foods.
In fact, the meals were quite healthy and good, but because the school was basically Christian, the food was standard American. Nothing on my menu was Jewish until I joined the Navy at age 17. Surprisingly, the seagoing service famed for its Navy beans provided me my first Jewish meal in more than a decade.
I didn’t encounter my Jewish dining experience until I had been a sailor for nearly two years. It happened a few weeks after the war ended in September 1945, and after my ship, an attack transport veteran of the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa went back to the States with a load of battle-weary GIs. And it sailed without me.
I was left at a muddy Navy tent replacement camp on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. There was a point system set when the war ended, based on time in service and overseas time. A few other young Navy guys (boots) and I were assigned there because we lacked enough points to go home.
It would take another four months before I’d board another ship to the States. Until then, I lived in boiling heat and monsoon rains in a leaky tent, with meals of stale K-rations left behind by the GIs. Thanks, guys, for providing us an unending menu of Spam, powdered eggs, canned Australian mutton, and tasteless spaghetti.
One morning in late September, I wandered through the ankle-deep mud to the camp’s only building, a Quonset hut, to do some meaningless paperwork. Just for the hell of it, while trying to kick the mud off my shoes, I looked at the bulletin board. It had the usual bunch of official-looking Navy notices, but one paper caught my eye. It had a six-pointed Star of David symbol at the top, and below in large type was something like:
“NOTICE TO ALL JEWISH NAVY PERSONNEL
You are invited to participate in services and break-the-fast dinner following Yom Kippur observation at the XXth (I forget the number) CB Battalion. For those who sign up, CB trucks will be here at 1300 tomorrow to take you to attend the chaplain’s services and dinner to follow.”
The CB unit (Construction Battalion), also known as SeaBees, had been on Leyte for several months, repairing the harbor and airfields, while often dropping their tools to take up rifles to fight off enemy attacks. Most SeaBees were older craftsmen who had volunteered to spend WWII working on Navy facilities all over the world.
They were also excellent scroungers, and while we ate K-rations, they enjoyed supplies of fresh vegetables, poultry, fish, and meat from Filipino markets around the island. They also traded with nearby Air Corps (Air Force) units for frozen foods freshly flown in from the States. Along with the skilled craftsmen among the SeaBees, there were also several professional chefs, including one whose family-owned New York’s famed Second Avenue Deli. He and the unit’s chaplain, a Reformed rabbi, were the ones who came up with the idea of serving a Jewish dinner after Yom Kippur services.
In their generosity, they not only invited the Jewish guys in their own battalion but also from all other Leyte Navy units. They sent landing craft over to the neighboring island of Samar to gather up some sailors from the base there, making up a total invitation list of at least a hundred. I’m sure some Christian guys with names not as obvious as McGonigle, Caruso, Sanchez or Chan, signed up, too.
When we arrived, and after being unloaded from the trucks, we were escorted to the unit’s outdoor movie arena We sat through the final Yom Kippur services, conducted in English by the young rabbi. Then, at sundown, it was an enthusiastic group that double-timed to the mess hall. For guys who’d been choking through Spam and mutton for months, the break-the-fast dinner was, in more ways than one, a wonderful taste of home.
Even 63 years later, I can remember the menu. In fact, the CB guys printed up copies and handed them out. First, there were prayers with red wine. Although I was 19, and most of the other sailors were also teenagers, the rabbi said he had a dispensation from his commanding officer. Then, with a dramatic pause, he pointed skyward. That got a big laugh. The first course was gefilte fish, which had been shipped in cans from the chef’s family deli. For those not familiar with the dish, it is chopped carp mixed with matzoh flour and made into individual patties, jelled and preserved. It came with plastic containers of homemade chrain, a super sharp horseradish.
Next was chicken soup, and the rabbi solemnly announced that more than four dozen Filipino chickens had sacrificed their lives for our feast. Incidentally, there were no attempts to meet strict Jewish dietary rules for the meal, but every effort was made to create it to be as close to what would have been served at home. The matzoh balls were made of flour mixed with eggs and boiled, then served with the soup.
The main course consisted of the martyr chickens and a large serving plate full of not-too-tender boiled and reboiled water buffalo calf briskets. Side dishes from the local Leyte markets included broiled yams mixed with bamboo shoots and miniature bananas. There were also spicy Filipino pickles, which tasted like kerosene, and had the same burning effect on our mouths. Not exactly what Mama would serve, but because she was ten thousand miles away, the content of the meals was close enough for a bunch of homesick boys.
For dessert, there was a delicious mango and orange sorbet made from local fruit, courtesy of the CD refrigeration unit. Along with it were tasty slices of traditional Jewish honey cake, which should have been soft and chewable, but it had taken three weeks to get there from New York. Fortunately, we had coffee for dipping and softening the rock-hard cake.
With that fond memory, I did get my orders to return to the States four months later. I then attended college and grad school on the GI Bill of Rights, started a career, and met the love of my life and future mother of my children. I won’t admit it, but one of the main attributes that attracted me to her was because she was and still is an amateur, but fantastically talented … you guessed it … Jewish chef.