A Military Salute

By Masha Leon

Published October 25, 2007, issue of October 26, 2007.
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“I was born on ‘toidy toid’ Street in Flatbush,” Robert Magnus, assistant commandant of the United State Marine Corps, joshed during our pre-dinner chat at the October 3 Soldiers’, Sailors’, Coast Guard & Airmen’s Club Salute to the Marine Corps Military Ball, held at the Pierre. He told me he’d been bar mitzvahed at Israel Community Center in Hicksville, N.Y., and that the name Magnus had evolved from Magnes during the family’s generations’ long stay in England. His aquamarine eyes sparkling, Magnus recalled: “I was inspired by a close family friend and childhood hero, Virgil Pizer, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and at 3 [or] 4 [I] knew I wanted to be a sailor. At 17 I enlisted in the Navy.” A 1969 graduate of the University of Virginia, his military education includes Naval Aviator Training, U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and the National War College. “At the end of the Vietnam War, I flew a search-and-rescue helicopter in Thailand,” he said. Magnus, whose staff assignments include chief of the Logistics Readiness Center and joint staff and deputy commander of the Marine Forces, Pacific, accepted the Award for Distinguished Military Leadership on behalf of James T. Conway, 34th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. The ball also honored Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, New York Daily News sports cartoonist Bill Gallo and New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

During our later chat, Magnus joshed that his “middle class” family may have been in England as far back as “Ivanhoe,” though there was lineage reaching back to Russia-Poland-Belarus. “My parents married in London. They were middle class. In 1907 my father moved to Montreal, Canada.” An avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the general said he was reading a biography of Sandy Koufax (“who never played on Yom Kippur”). “He was the last major acquisition before the team moved out to Los Angeles,” Magnus said.

Among the military ball’s chairmen were Nicholas Astor Drexel, Jacqueline Astor Drexel, Ivan Obolensky, Howard Rubenstein, Cordelia Roosevelt and Chuck Scarborough. The evening’s emcee was WNBC anchor/reporter Rob Morrison, himself a former Marine.

The Soldiers,’ Sailors,’ Marines,’ Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club, located in Manhattan at 283 Lexington Avenue (at 36th Street), offers an affordable oasis where active, retired, military cadets, veterans, reservists and their families — as well as foreign military travelers and veterans of our allies — can stay at a per person, per night cost ranging from $25 to $47 (children under 14 — $10 per night) and be within walking distance of the sights of the Big Apple. Leaving the Forward just as the August 14, 2003, blackout paralyzed the city, my daughter, Karen (this column’s photographer), found a safe haven at the club, where she spent the night by candlelight, eating canned tuna and listening to war stories by multigenerational men and women, some in service and some civilian, from across the United States.


At the September 27 kickoff cocktail reception and unveiling of the sale of late fashionista Nan Kempner’s clothing collection at Christie’s, I asked Cindy Adams if she was aware that her use of the expression “Go know” in her column that day was a direct translation from the Yiddish gey veys. “I’ve always used it,” she replied. She then headed off to check out the Chanels, Yves Saint Laurent’s gowns and coats, Manolo Blahnik shoes and assorted gloves, hats and bags whose sale would benefit The Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Israel has also belatedly discovered the public relations power of Yiddish, albeit in English garb. The recent change-of-pace travel campaign that hypes pleasure, sun and fun rather than kibbutz, Masada and the Western Wall, ends with “Who Knew?” Did the ad agency realize that this is a direct translation from goles (diaspora) Yiddish “Ver veys?” Then there’s the September 17 episode of Scotsman Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show,” which featured Yiddish-savvy Italian Alan Alda. After Alda articulated kishke and chutzpah, Ferguson flaunted his linguistic knowledge, identifying these as “Yiddish.” Alda was adamant. “No! No! It’s not Yiddish. It’s American English!” he insisted. So what to make of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s October 7 admonition to viewers, “Don’t be a nebbish when writing to us!” Though not a linguistic marker, imagine the impact of Robert Leighton’s cartoon a generation or two ago. In the September 24 issue of The New Yorker, he shows a couple, circa 1870-1880, in front of a Western town bank with the marshal informing them: “Bank’s closed today folks. It’s Yom Kippur.” How not to sing the refrain from that classic Yiddish song, “Lebn Zol Kolumbus*”! (“Long Live Columbus!”)

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