By: CPT Lindsay Gabow, USA
“WHY DON’T YOU GET OUT OF HERE, Jew bastard?”
The eighteen-year-old sailor realized he was alone in the galley as the belligerent NCO advanced on him. He reacted quickly, instinctively. Grabbing a kitchen knife from the table, he threw the makeshift weapon at his shipmate, narrowly missing him. Amid the din of a few glass plates shattering, the NCO grudgingly backed away. Maybe he was rabidly antisemitic. Maybe he just wanted to fight. In any case, the sailor, one of the few wearing dog tags inscribed with the letter “H” for Hebrew, had an older friend on the ship. This friend, a tall Polish petty officer, confronted the sailor’s aggressor. “You touch the kid, I throw you overboard.” The sailor was not threatened again.
The year was 1945, and the destroyer escort ship sailed near Guam. The sailor’s name was Samuel Gabow. He was my grandfather. Sixty eight years and two generations later, my grandfather sat across from his second-oldest grandchild on his wood deck in Rockland, New York. Unlike the World War Two West Pacific, Rockland contains a vibrant Jewish population. While my grandfather was not especially observant, I suspect he and my grandmother wanted to raise their three sons in a place that felt familiar.
His granddaughter, a beneficiary of this decision, was devouring perhaps the best bagel with lox in the Tri-State area. Samuel, whose appetite over time shifted from food to liquor, nursed his signature beverage – Grey Goose on the rocks.
“Are you ready?” He asked. The question stood alone, but his granddaughter understood immediately. “I think so. I’ve been breaking in the combat boots.” The following week, she would start Cadet Basic Training, otherwise known as Beast Barracks, at West Point. Despite her sanguine response, she did not feel ready at all. Aside from the occasional bagel and lox, she had spent the sliver of the summer vacation she had battling self-destructive thoughts. You don’t belong at West Point. You’re not going to last through Beast. You’re just an insular suburban kid who can barely handle a kitchen knife – you really think you’ll figure out a firearm?
Samuel reached over and squeezed his granddaughter’s hand. “You are going to be just fine.” Of course, she could not fool him. He knew her better than anyone else. I wonder, now, if he understood just how much influence he wielded over the most important decisions I’ve made in my life thus far. To my knowledge, my grandfather valued only two things – his family and his military service. Sort of a misanthrope, Samuel had a lot of love to give, but to a vanishingly small group of people. By his late 80s, through a combination of death and estrangement, Samuel cared only for his bride, his sons, and a few grandchildren.
And how I desperately wanted to make him proud. I practically lived for it. I clung to every word of every tragic story he shared of his ancestors. The Holocaust captures Jewish collective conscience like nothing else. We were no exception. Samuel’s father, a young Russian immigrant named Louis Gabovitz, lost his surname and his respiratory health between the xenophobic Ellis Island officials and mustard gas on the Western Front. His wife’s family decided to stick it out in Poland; surely the Nazis were just a phase. Their fate was a barrage of bullets on Yom Kippur of 1942. At least they went quickly.
To be in the same organization that defeated Nazi Germany and liberated Dachau! The thought stirs me even nine years later, a Captain repeatedly chastened by the Army’s blunt force of reality. Indeed, my Army experience has not been effortless. Many of my seemingly hyperbolic concerns before Beast Barracks materialized. They still do. I sometimes liken my Army career to an ill-fitting pair of pants. It often doesn’t feel quite right.
But distinct moments of belonging punctuate this muted discomfort. I recall visiting the Jewish Chapel during Beast. The second time I had frequented a synagogue in my life (after a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah), Jewish Chaplain’s Time provided the only reprieve in an otherwise unpleasant experience. I remember the Military Birthright Israel trip in 2013, standing in awe before the Western Wall and floating in the Dead Sea. I remember meeting one of the U.S. Army’s very few Orthodox Jewish Chaplains, who, by sheer happenstance, was assigned to my first unit. Despite my decidedly unorthodox lifestyle, Chaplain Mendy Stern and his beautiful family embraced me as their own.
I am deeply indebted to these fearless Jewish figures in uniform. They have shaped me as an Officer and a Jew. The aforementioned discomfort aside, I attribute my now strong sense of Jewish identity to the military. Compared to most American institutions, the military remains a bastion of religion. While Protestant Christianity dominates the Chaplain Corps – and, to a lesser extent, the Armed Forces generally – the military goes uniquely great lengths for most recognized religions. Over the past nine years, I have always enjoyed the ability to explore my Jewish faith. Had I pursued a civilian path at age eighteen instead, I wonder if my Jewishness would be a focal point in my life.
A Jewish boy from Brooklyn, my grandfather did not face the same reception in the military. He bore the burden of antisemitism so I did not have to. My grandfather passed away on September 15th, 2019. I often listen to a single voicemail I saved, for fear of forgetting his touchingly labored voice. “Lindsay, it’s Grandpa. I was just calling to check up on you. But I know you’re busy. You don’t have to call back right now. God love you; we love you.”
God love you. This was the first and only time I heard my grandfather use that expression. I cling to it stubbornly, a reminder of his faith. Unassuming, unpretentious, yet unwavering – just like him.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2021 edition of the Jewish American Warrior.