A JEW IN NATIONAL SERVICE
by Squadron Leader Harold Karpin, RAAF (Retd)
Let me tell you about Mannie.
Mannie was older than the rest of our National Service intake by at least seven years, having received a deferment until he had finished his University studies. He was as thin as a rake, with a jaw like Joe Palooka and glasses like Woody Allen. Mannie was an Orthodox Jew complete with a constant heavy stubble and an army beret that became his coppola. Even without his uniform, which always looked two sizes too big for him, or his boots, which were so big that his spindly legs seemed to have trouble dragging them, he stood out from the crowd - any crowd. He was obviously out of place and enjoyed being so.
Being Orthodox, Mannie used to lay tefillin and daven when he arose. On our first morning at Puckapunyal, I remember the sight of Mannie standing on the duck boards beside his bed wearing his tallit and teffilin shockling away to his hearts delight.
One of the boys came up to me and whispered, “What’s he doing?”
I looked at the marquee beside us and saw a man, who later was to become known to me as Patrick, kneeling beside his bed, head bowed with hands posed in supplication.
I pointed at Patrick and said, “Mannie is doing the same as him. He is praying.”
From then on, Mannie’s davening was accepted by all as being “the same sort of thing” as Patrick’s praying. In fact, from then on Mannie became the unelected leader of the Jews in our intake....all seven of us. He was to go on and stubbornly fight many religious battles on our behalf, the first of which was to have kosher food delivered for us on a regular basis, and a table set aside in the Mess Hall for our use.
A little secret.....the normal salads were better than the kosher tinned beef!
“Church Parade! Attention!
Catholics! To your left! Fall out! Quick march!
Church of England! To your right! Fall out! Quick march!
Other Protestant Denominations! To the front! Fall out! Quick march!
Remainder! Stand at Ease!
Attention! Jews! Form up to the rear! About turn! Quick march!
Remainder! Dismissed! Right turn! Quick march!
Right you are! Jews will report for kitchen duties in a half hour! Dismissed!”
Mannie did what looked like a right turn with pike,broke ranks, and shuffled purposefully toward the officer, who was at least three years younger than him. Casually coming to a halt and touching his hat, Mannie asked in his soft University manner, “Why are we Jews being punished for our religion? Kitchen duties are for those who have done wrong! What have we done wrong?Why should we be punished whilst all of the others are marching to church or have been dismissed?”
“Gunner, (the lowest rank in the Artillery) there is nothing else I can do with you lot. Now fall out!”
“Sir, we are not a lot, but seven, and I repeat, what have we done wrong?”
“Gunner, Nothing! What do you suggest I do with you seven?”
“Sir, you had those who had no religion dismissed! Perhaps, that is the answer to our problem.”
“Gunner, Return to your ranks!”
Back dragged Mannie to consider another form of attack if this one failed.
The young officer waited until Mannie had settled in with the rest of us.
“Jews! Dismissed! To your barrack, right turn! Quick march!”
To our barracks we marched. How could we fill in the time until church service was over? Seven was just the right number for a (friendly) game of poker! From then on poker became our church of choice!
“O.K let's go and see him.”
The young officer kept us waiting for what he thought was the required time to have us think he was busy with top security information. When he had finished shuffling his papers into a neat heap, his eyes met Mannie’s witha look of disdainful acceptance. “Do you know that the three of you could be classedas a mutiny? However, what’s on your mind this time?”
“Excuse me Sir, but we have our Passover coming up soon and there are a few things we will need.”
“Oh, yes, it’s your Easter isn’t it?” he said with a look of all knowing satisfaction. “What is it you want?”
“Well Sir, we will need special food and wine for the duration.”
“Oh right, like Lent. No problem.”
“We will need a special space in the kitchen to store the food.”
“We will need pots and pans in which to cook the food.”
“No problem, see the cooks and just take what you want from the kitchen.”
“No Sir, they will need to be brand new pots and pans that haven’t been used before.”
“OK anything else?”
“A new stove on which to cook the food.”
“Hey. Hey, are you joking?”
“No, Sir, ask our Rabbi.”
“Now wait a minute. How long does your Easter last?”
“Eight days, Sir.”
“I can't give you an immediate answer. Let me think it over and I’ll give you my decision tomorrow.”
Think it over! We knew that the young officer was way out of his depth and that he would have to seek guidance from a higher authority.
The next day, we marched into the young officer’s tent, standing to attention while Mannie did his impression of saluting ... up two three, away.
“Gunner, having giving the matter a lot of thought”, (which in truth meant I have asked someone who has given me the answer to the problem), I suggest that you give me the names of the Jewish soldiers who want to do their Passover and I will arrange to have the orderly room issue you all with an eight day pass. You see, we in the Army don’t want to interfere with your right during National Service to celebrate your religious beliefs. Enjoy your Passover!”
National Service ended not long after we completed our service.
Sometimes I wonder if Mannie and his “lot” had anything to do with it!
Harold Karpin has recently joined VAJEX, and honoured us by reciting Psalm 23 at the 2009 ANZAC Commemoration Service.