The Case for Community

Wonders of America

Springtime in Paris: Thousands of Jewish servicemembers celebrate Passover in Paris in 1919 during World War I.
courtesy of the National Archives
Springtime in Paris: Thousands of Jewish servicemembers celebrate Passover in Paris in 1919 during World War I.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published April 08, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Images of a multi-generational family seated around a Seder table are a dime a dozen. Adorning the exterior of a haggadah or the label of one kosher-for-Passover food item after another, they’re so widespread our eyes glaze over at the sight of them.

But one image of a Seder — a grainy photograph — stops me dead in my tracks every time: that of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris in 1919. Now a part of the holdings of the National Archives, it was recently featured to great effect in an exhibition at the archives called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?,” which explored the relationship between the government and American food practices.

The photograph captures what appear to be hundreds upon hundreds of Jewish servicemen in full military regalia seated at tables so long they extend beyond the picture plane. Amid the sea of faces, some wear the rimless spectacles then à la mode, others sport mustaches. Everyone has his head covered but here, too, variety prevails — a reflection of military hierarchy. Some soldiers wear a soft cap; others a peaked cap with a shiny, hard brim, and still others a broad-brimmed felt hat that is close kin to a Stetson.

This vast army of men is leavened, and lightened, by the presence of a few women. You have to look hard to find them, but they’re here and there, sprinkled throughout.

The photographer, making use of a large format or “banquet” camera, captures the Seder at midpoint or, as the lofty language of one haggadah from that period would have it, “post-prandial.” Half-empty bottles of wine line the tables; knives rest casually across the surface of white plates, their work done; shards of matzo accumulate. Up above, chandeliers glisten, giving off a warm glow, while heavy draperies shut out the cruel and ugly outside world.

Everyone at this Seder looks directly at the camera. Some of the celebrants, perhaps having imbibed too much wine, flash big, boyish grins. Others bear rather somber expressions, either sensitive to the importance of the occasion or, one imagines, longing for home and the consolations of a real family Seder.

A moment in time, a respite from the horrors of war, this very public Seder was organized by the Jewish Welfare Board, then an organization in the first flush of infancy. Today we take for granted, as a matter of course and as official government policy, that the ritual needs of Jewish servicemen and women will be tended to. But back in 1919, that was not the case. Jewish soldiers and sailors had to fend for themselves, scrambling to find matzo in war-torn Europe, let alone mount a Seder.

The Jewish Welfare Board came to the rescue, distributing the ritual bread, holding religious services on board transport ships and arranging a Seder for the 50,000 American Jewish soldiers estimated to be in France that year. As Chester Jacob Teller, the Jewish Welfare Board’s executive director (explained in a detailed article in the American Jewish Year Book of 1918-1919), its purpose was “to help America win the war” by sustaining the morale of the troops.

Teller’s language, as he introduces American Jewry to the work of his organization, is worth quoting in full:

“With a breadth of view and a degree of foresight perhaps never before equaled by a war administration of any other country, the United States Government set itself to thinking out the war problems not only in terms of ships, guns, munitions, and supplies, but also in health, decency, personal improvement of the men, contentment, esprit. In short, all those elements that go to make up the concept of morale in its broadest implications.”

Religion happened to be among those elements, prompting a wide array of Jewish organizations from the Agudath ha-Rabbonim (the Federation of Orthodox Rabbis) to the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods to join together under the umbrella of the Jewish Welfare Board to help service the religious and cultural needs of soldiers and sailors of the Jewish faith.

The task wasn’t easy, Teller publicly acknowledged. Given the variegated nature of American Jewish life, how could it be? “We have been criticized now for being too Jewish, and again for not being Jewish enough; for advocating what has been called ‘segregation,’ and again for being exponents of what has been called the melting-pot theory…. Fault is found with us for permitting Yiddish books to be circulated in the [army] camps, and again we are blamed for not providing enough of this literature.”

Letting off steam, the Jewish Welfare Board’s chief executive gave voice to the frustrations which, then, as now, attended every attempt to unify the fragmented American Jewish community. But he didn’t end there. Instead, Teller concluded by hailing the Jewish Welfare Board as a “unique opportunity” for American Jews of all stripes to transcend their differences and to celebrate the notion of community.

I suppose that’s what makes this photograph of a wartime Seder in Paris so very meaningful to me. Everything about it, from its scale and composition to its subject and timing, makes the case for community.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.