“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
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Publication information: Book title: Good Americans:Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War. Contributors: Christopher M. Sterba - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 53.
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