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A Jewish Soldier

By Jack Engelhard

My father loved Israel, the ancient and the modern. He also loved America and there was no question of divided loyalty because America and Israel were one and the same.

"If you love Israel," he said, "you love America. If you love America, you love Israel." America was the embodiment of the Jewish dream.

"And what is the Jewish dream?" said my father. "Listen to the words of Micah our prophet. 'And each man shall sit under the shade of his vine and fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.'"

Said my father: "What is that, if not the Jewish dream? And what is that if not the American dream!"

* * * * *

My father wept the day Israel was declared a state. I was eight years old then and we had already been three years in Montreal. I was too young to understand everything about Israel, but on the eve of its rebirth, I knew something extraordinary was happening.

Daily that spring the Yiddish newspaper from New York documented the events of the Arab-Jewish conflict. Each morning my father walked along Fairmount Street to Abe¹s News Store to bring back Der Tag. For a man who knew pogroms in Poland, where Jews lived from fright to fright, the tales of daring Jews astonished him -- Jews who hearkened back to the days of Joshua and David.

One Sunday I went out to meet my father as he returned with the paper.

"Look," he said, pointing to a photo on the front page. "A Jewish soldier."

Then I saw him crying and understood how incredible this was.

* * * * *

Now during this time we were menaced regularly by the French gangs that marched up from below St. Lawrence Street -- the dividing line between French and English-speaking Montreal.

We were tough ourselves -- meaning Doodie and Benjie and Yehudie and all the rest -- but we were no match for these French -- Pepsis we called them -- who had the advantage of genetic indignation. They were passionately resentful against anything "English" and anything that wasn't French was English.

Also, they surpassed us in numbers -- there seemed no end to them. Down below St. Lawrence they were bred for hatred, raised for thuggery. Up from St. Lawrence, they came in waves and attacked. Their crazed ferocious violence needed no provocation -- only bodies, and here we were. Especially Sundays.

Then they'd be waiting for us at the Talmud Torah Hebrew School. In the province of Quebec, children under 13 were not allowed in regular movies houses. There had once been a theater fire, kids trampled to death, causing such a law to be passed. Schools, however, were exempt, so on Sunday afternoons we flocked to the Talmud Torah for Laurel and Hardy, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.

I do not use the word "flocked" in vain -- because sheep that we were, we fell to the blows of the Pepsis who were gathered by the entrance of the Talmud Torah and punished us coming and going.

Fight back? Who ever heard of the words?

But that week, Israel had been declared a state, and that Sunday there had been that photo of a Jewish soldier -- and everything changed. We let them have their way when we entered the Talmud Torah, but once inside the darkened auditorium there was no longer that sense of terror. Something unspoken passed between us. We were of a single mind.

After the movies, which nobody really watched, the lights came on and we rushed for the doors. I was somewhere in the middle of this army and by the time I got out the fighting had already begun.

Doodie was pummeling the leader of the Pepsis, a boy twice his size. Doodie had him propped against a car, striking him repeatedly in the midsection. The Pepsi grew weak in the knees and wobbled to the pavement.

This gave us the courage and we went after them one by one. As for the Pepsis -- first they were stupefied. What was this? Jews fighting back? Next, they turned and tried to run, but we caught them and gave measure for measure. We repaid all debts and even made some deposits for the future.

When I got home, I was covered in blood. My mother made me take a bath. She kept muttering about this and that and, as for my father, he gave me a wink and a big secret smile.

Jack Engelhard is the author of the international bestseller "Indecent Proposal" and a former radio and newspaper editor covering the Mideast. His columns can be read online at and he can be reached at


from the June 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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