Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War

By Christopher M. Sterba | Go to book overview

3
“Not as a Jew but as a Citizen”
The Draft and New York Jewry

At the same time that Sergeant Jimmy Ceriani's troopship steamed out of New York harbor, Meyer Siegel was preparing for boot camp. An immigrant Jew, Siegel left the village of Czarmin in Russian Poland when he was in his early teens for New York, where he helped with his father's clothing store on the Lower East Side and attended public schools. He later found work in an attorney's office and was taking evening law school classes when the United States went to war. 1

Siegel became a soldier in a very different manner than Ceriani. He had never been in the military and was drafted by the Selective Service System, a branch of the federal government that was younger than the American war effort itself. Like millions of other men, Siegel encountered a national bureaucracy capable of putting into uniform practically any young male living in the United States. Registered for Selective Service on June 5, 1917, examined by a draft board in August, and sent to a training camp in September, he was one of the first New Yorkers to be inducted into the new National Army. In his memoirs, Siegel recalls the astonishment that every draftee must have felt that fall: “Here I am: One day, a student of law; the next day, learning how to kill my adversary and be killed. Some changeover!” 2

Siegel's “change over” sounds smooth and efficient on paper. But like the draft in New York City as a whole, it was not trouble-free. While waiting for his draft board physical, the young immigrant was arrested for, as he remembers, “resisting arrest, disturbing the peace, and causing nearly a riot— enough charges to put me in jail for the duration of the war.” Standing in a long line with friends, he joked about the rough behavior of a nearby policeman. The officer came over and shouted “What did you say about me, you dirty kike?” Siegel protested the slur and was marched off to a police station. The young law student then quickly made use of his legal contacts. With their aid, not only was the case against him thrown out of

-53-

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Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents *
  • Good Americans *
  • Introduction - The Melting Pot Goes to War 3
  • 1 - The Heyday of the New Immigrant Enclave 9
  • I - Your Country Needs You 31
  • 2 - Raising Volunteers and the Italian Response in New Haven 34
  • 3 - The Draft and New York Jewry 53
  • II - Training the New Immigrant Soldier 83
  • 4 - Being Italian in the Yankee Division 86
  • 5 - Being Jewish in the National Army 105
  • III - The Home Front 131
  • 6 - More Than Ever, We Feel Proud to Be Italians 133
  • 7 - New York Jewry Must Do Its Duty 153
  • 8 - Survival and Victory on the Western Front 175
  • Epilogue - A New Voice in Politics 202
  • Notes 213
  • Selected Bibliography 251
  • Index 265
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