(Interview with Martin Gelender on 10/6/2021)
Interviewer: Okay, this is Bill Cohen from the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and we’re in the home of Martin Gelender in Worthington, Ohio, to talk to him about his life and his recollection of the Jewish community of Central Ohio. Mr. Gelender, let’s start by maybe asking you how far back can you trace your ancestors? Do you know your grandparents, your great grandparents? What can you tell us?
Gelender: Uh, on my father’s side, his parents came from Warsaw which was part of Russia at that time, I believe, in 1904 and there would be a great-grandfather named Zurich Gelender who I never met and my grandfather had a brother Harry, which I did meet. My grandmother on my father’s side died in an accident when I was three years old so, I never really knew her. My grandfather worked as a steam fitter in the Brooklyn Navy yards for many years and actually, when we were in Ohio, we went to the USS Arizona monument and that was commissioned in 1915 and my grandfather was a steam fitter and helped put the boilers in that ship. So, I spoke to the National Parks guy and they said, “Oh, that was pretty interesting.” And on my mother’s side my grandfather came from Kiev and my grandmother came from someplace near Minsk. My uncle told me it was something like Breskagabernya, or something like that. That’s about all I know.
Interviewer: So, did, did those grandparents, they were born in Europe, in Eastern Europe…
Gelender: …in Europe but my mother actually came over as a, as an infant, a few months old. It was interesting, we went to, it was in New York, some historical place, Ellis Island, yeah, and we found my mother’s name but no parents so I assume she was advanced for her age and came across when she was three months old by herself. [chuckle].
Interviewer: So, your mother was born, not in the United States…
Gelender: No, she was born in Ukraine, I guess.
Interviewer: And your father was born….?
Gelender: My father was born here on the Lower East Side. That’s where they lived.
Interviewer: The Lower East Side of New York City.
Interviewer: So, tell us about, what do you know about how they met. Where were they when they met, your parents?
Gelender: My parents, I really… my mother’s parents were just there [laughing]. I have no idea how they met, and, my father, as I said, my grandmother died, I don’t know. My parents met. My mother lived in New Jersey. My father lived on the Lower East Side and somehow, they got introduced. I really don’t know how.
Interviewer: So, they met on the East Coast. Now give us your parents’ names.
Gelender: My father’s name was Maxwell and my mother’s name was Rose.
Interviewer: So, Maxwell Gelender…
Gelender: And Rose Gelender.
Interviewer: And Rose, what was Rose’s maiden name?
Interviewer: So, when they got married, when your parents got married, did they stay on the East Coast or did they…?
Gelender: No, they lived in Brooklyn. That’s where I was born. That’s where my sister was born.
Interviewer: And what did your mother and father do?
Gelender: My mother was a homemaker. My father was a schoolteacher.
Interviewer: He was a schoolteacher in the New York City…?
Gelender: Yes, New York City School system.
Interviewer: Do you know anything about what he taught?
Gelender: He was a science teacher, chemistry mostly, and he finally became department chairman in our high school, stuff like that.
Interviewer: So, you were born on the East Coast…
Gelender: …in Brooklyn, in Methodist…
Interviewer: …in Brooklyn.
Gelender: …in Methodist Hospital.
Interviewer: And what year?
Gelender: I was born in 1937 and say, sometimes, sometimes I think I was switched as a baby ‘cause I don’t, I don’t think I fit a very typical Jewish niche sometimes, the way I think. I’m a hunter, a fisherman, gun owner, stuff like that, you know [laughter]…
Interviewer: Well, tell us about…
Gelender: …more or less of a Republican, saying what, [laughter] I did vote for Trump.
Interviewer: We’ll talk about that a little later…
Interviewer: What do you remember your Jewish childhood in Brooklyn?
Gelender: I went to Hebrew School, after school, Hebrew school which I played hooky a lot and my best buddy was a kid named Geller. His father owned a delicatessen so, when we played hooky from school, we’d sneak in behind the store and steal sodas and stuff like that, so…[laughter]
Interviewer: So, you, you sometimes played hooky from Hebrew School…
Gelender: Yes. Never from regular school, went to PS 99 and then I went to high school at Brooklyn Tech which was one of the exam schools in New York. It’s a science and math and you have to take exams to get into it.
Interviewer: So, you were good in science and math.
Interviewer: Were, tell me about the Jewish angle of growing up. Were there Jews in your elementary and high school?
Gelender: Oh, yes.
Interviewer: …a small minority or were they…?
Gelender: No, there was lots…where I lived in Brooklyn at that time, that area was mostly Jewish and Italian and we all got along. I went to Avenue N [?] Jewish Center for Hebrew School and I would go to High Holy Day services with my father, and my mother would come for Yizkor and you know, stuff like that.
Interviewer: What kind of congregation was this?
Gelender: It was a traditional, uh, Orthodox, not Haredi or anything like that, civilian Orthodox or whatever you want to call them, just regular people, although that area where I grew up is now totally ultra-Orthodox and if you drive through there on Saturday, you’ll see everybody going to shul with their black coats and their beards and payos and stuff like that.
Interviewer: So, you said that people got along, the Italians who were not Jewish and the Jews, they got along as…?
Interviewer: Now this was, your childhood, if you were born in 1937…
Interviewer: …then when you were a small child, the World War II…
Gelender: Yes, I remember.
Interviewer: …was blaring.
Gelender: Yes. I remember World War II. My father was head air raid warden for the area and he was a chemist and back then in Brooklyn there were still a lot of vacant lots and there was a great big vacant lot on the corner of where we lived and every so often my father would set off different kinds of bombs to train the fire departments in case there was an air raid ‘cause he was a chemist and you know, that was always a big deal. “Come with me.” You know, all the kids would come around and he’d set off a phosphorus, not a bomb but a grenade or something, you know small explosion. If you, you know, you put this chemical on to put that fire out. You set off something else, you do this, so, he would train the fire department and civil defense people.
Interviewer: And that’s because they were really worried that the Nazis would be bombing the east coast of the United States?
Gelender: Yes. Yes. I lived on a street in Brooklyn called Ocean Parkway and it went all the way down to Coney Island. You made a right turn on Surf Avenue. Are you from New York?
Gelender: Well, right in that corner there was a little park and there was a battery of anti-aircraft guns there. On the Boardwalk at Coney Island, they had fifty [caliber?] machine guns mounted on the railings and they had coast artillery down on the beach and you go, went further west towards Fire Island and stuff like that, they had coastguardsmen on horseback with rifles patrolling the beaches. There were ships sunk by German submarines practically in the mouth of New York Harbor.
Interviewer: So, the fear was justified.
Gelender: I think, well, you know, so-so. A lot of stuff was done to boost up the public, you know, and get everybody involved, scrap drives, you know, tin pans and stuff that we used to collect. It’s, it was mostly for show. You can’t make tanks out of tin pans, you know.
Interviewer: But you remember. You remember.
Gelender: I remember this. I remember newspapers. I remember our Navy captured a German submarine and after they tested it and did all that, it was anchored in New York Harbor and the public could tour it and the price of admission was two bundles of newspapers ‘cause newspapers were useful to make shipping stuff. So, my father and I, we went by the subway with our bundles of newspapers and we toured this German submarine and that made me decide I never want to be in a submarine, crowded, stunk from diesel fuel and sweat. It was like being entombed and buried alive as far as I’m concerned.
Interviewer: So, you remember the paper drives.
Interviewer: And what, do you remember rationing? Was there…?
Gelender: Yes. There were, I remember my father had a car and he had a sticker on the windshield which allowed him a certain amount of gas a week, a month a year. I don’t know. We had ration stamps for food and things like that.
Interviewer: Did your parents talk to you about the war that was going on? How did you learn? How did you know there was a war going on? What…?
Gelender: Well, the first thing I remember was Pearl Harbor Day. That was December 7th, Sunday. There was always concerts and my, I remember my parents had this great big Stromberg-Carlson radio. Stood on four legs, about this high, big square thing with a little tiny dial and some friends – we lived in a big apartment – and some friends in another apartment were over and they were having, we were having like brunch and they had a kid, Jack, and we were friends and we were fooling around and then all of a sudden they interrupted this concert and said that, you know, Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese, and that’s how we got into the War and, of course, there was news before that when the Brits were fighting and so forth, but, I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to that, and the kids, we used to form our own armies. We would fight each other, set up traps and what-not, so, that was the War.
Interviewer: When you played soldiering…
Interviewer: …was it the Nazis against the Americans or…?
Gelender: Something like that. Yeah, there was, you know, on Monday you were the good guys. On Tuesday you were the bad guys, the Japanese. I remember. I remember the propaganda, posters and things. The Japanese were always, oh, buck teeth and big black glasses. I mean, you know, it was really racist and the Germans were, I guess they had, you know, the pickle helmets with the big spikes, and, you know, were doing terrible things.
Gelender: See, you’re not old enough! You missed the whole damn thing! [laughter].
Interviewer: Were you…
Gelender: You [to someone else in the room] I’m not sure.
Interviewer: As a child, were you scared? Did news about the war make you scared? Did news about the War make you fearful? How did you…feel?
Gelender: No. It was there, but, you know, um,…that was later on during the Cold War, you know, we used to hold drills in school, you know, get down under your desk and…
Gelender: Of course, the unprintable part was going to an inside room, bend down, stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye, so I assume that’s not going to be printed. [laughter]
Interviewer: Now, you said your community was Italian and Jewish.
Interviewer: The Italians were allies of the Nazis, so did, did…
Gelender: Not these Italians.
Interviewer: Not the Italians in your neighborhood.
Gelender: No. They were just regular people.
Interviewer: So, you don’t remember any tension that way.
Gelender: I think, maybe early on, but, you know, eventually. You know, the Germans on the upper east side, there’s a big German colony, upper, I think, it was east side or west side on Manhattan and they had the German Bund for a while and stuff, but, once the War started, pretty much, everybody became an American, and the FBI, or whoever, you know, rounded up the people who were the bad guys.
Interviewer: What do you remember in terms of Judaism during that time in your life? Was your family…your family you say belonged to an Orthodox synagogue…
Interviewer: …so your family was pretty observant.
Gelender: Eh. Fair. I mean, you know. You went to shul because you went to shul but, I mean, neither of my parents were religious students. I mean, I would say we were ethnically Jewish, theologically very wishy-washy. We were there.
Interviewer: So, you felt Jewish…
Interviewer: …but not so much in a religious way.
Interviewer: So, you went to high school. You were a math and science guy and then what happened in your life?
Gelender: Then I went, out on Staten Island, I went to Wagner College which was a Lutheran School and probably [if fair? ]to the kids there were Jewish and not Lutheran. You know, it was a New York City mish-mash. After college, I went on to a, I actually got a scholarship to NYU Dental School. I became a dentist and then I did a year of internship where I met my wife at the hospital and…
Interviewer: And where was that?
Gelender: This was in Brooklyn. She was at Brooklyn Jewish and I was at Greenpoint Hospital but at that time the health departments had merged a public hospital with a private hospital. Brooklyn Jewish was private and Greenpoint was a city hospital so, we covered both hospitals. So, I met my wife. She was a nursing instructor at Brooklyn Jewish, which, at Nursing School. Very interesting way I met her. I was in the emergency room and they brought in this guy, who was stupid dead drunk. He had been in a fight and somebody had slashed – I was an oral surgery resident – and somebody had slashed him across the face with a beer can opener, so I had to sew him up, and he was, you know, laying on the table and blah, blah, drunk, rolling around. I’m trying to sew him up and a student nurse, Miss Peppermint was assisting me and I asked her to get me a certain suture or something and she brought me the wrong thing and I said “Not that one,” and I called her “Heparin.” You know what a “Heparin” is? It’s a drug and my wife happened to be coming around checking on her girls, on her students, and she says, “Don’t talk to my students like that!” and this jerk is rolling around. I’m trying to sew him up and I said, “Who the hell are you? Get out of here.” So, that’s when the argument started. Fifty-four years later we still haven’t decided who won. [laughter]
Interviewer: …who won that first argument.
Gelender: [laughter} So, that’s, and then after my internship, they cleaned out the hospital and we all went into the service and I was in the Army.
Interviewer: Now, what year would this have been?
Gelender: This would be, uh, well, I went in July 6th, 1965, sixty, no. Wait a minute, ’66. And I went to Fort Devens, which all the medical people go through. I’m sorry. I’m getting mixed up. I went to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. That’s where all the medics go for your basic training and indoctrination. Then I was sent to Viet Nam.
Interviewer: Now you were drafted.
Gelender: Not, well, that’s another story. I was drafted in, supposedly drafted in March of my internship year and if I had to go then, I would have lost credit for that year. So, our chief of service said, “Here’s what you do. You go down. They have a board of docs and they will review your case.” So, I went down there and I remember I met with a Dr. Dunn who was an oral surgeon himself and he says, “This is what you have to do. Right now, you’re an OBI, Obligated Inductee. If you volunteer, you become an OBV, an Obligated Volunteer, and then they let you finish your internship year and then you go in end, June 30, and you go in July. I went in July 6th. So, that’s what happened. So, I was an Obligated Volunteer.
Interviewer: So, they let you finish.
Gelender: They let me finish and I ran, he said, “You have to call up this Captain So-and-So in Philadelphia who handles this thing.” So, I called him up. I explained the situation. He says, “Well, we don’t take volunteers. We only draft people.” [laughter] So, he says, “Look, I’ll send you all the paperwork. Fill it out. Send it back. We’ll see what we can do.” May 21st is my birthday and I’m sitting in the staff dining room, Greenpoint Hospital. They page “Dr. Gelender, telephone call.” “Hi, this is Captain So-and-So. All paperwork went through and everything’s fine. You’re report to Fort Sam Houston on July 6th. September 6th you’re heading out to Viet Nam. By the way, Happy Birthday.” Click. [laughter] Have you been in the service? Yes? Oh, so, you know how crazy it is.
Interviewer: This was during the big build-up of ’65 and ’66…
Interviewer: …uh, under Lyndon Johnson, and you were, you were part of that.
Gelender: Yes. So, I went and I ended up in the, with the 44th Medical Brigade at Ku Chi with the 25th Infantry Division. We were attached to the 25th.
Interviewer: And your job was to do dental surgery?
Gelender: Well, took out a lot wisdom teeth, because everybody’s, [laughter] half the army is 18, 20 years old, and did face wounds and neck wounds and stuff like that, too.
Interviewer: Tell us more about being a doctor, a dentist in, in a war zone.
Gelender: Well, we were non-combatants and we were forbidden to take any aggressive action against the enemy. We were duty-bound if we were attacked to protect ourselves and our patients. We were attacked because they used to shell the base. They dropped mortar rounds on us and
recoil rifle rounds on us. Actually, four of our enlisted men were wounded. Somebody told me he thought that the guy I replaced had been killed or, or seriously wounded, but they took him away and they think he died. Anyway, fortunately, I was not injured. I have a picture there I’ll show you. The kid that took that picture was an interesting case, as Red Gardner, red haired guy. Everybody called him “Red.” He was a certified dental technician in Rockaway, New York, and he got drafted. So, they put him in the medical, no, they put him in the infantry so, [chuckle] and he was wounded while he was out on infantry maneuvers and he was on limited duty. He was assigned to be the Jeep driver for the colonel in charge of the support command of the Division. He was driving him around in his Jeep and he came and spoke to our colonel, George Curtis which ultimately became the Assistant Surgeon General of the Army years later, but anyway, he says, “Look, you know, I’m a dental technician. Get me out of the God-damn infantry” and so, we got him and then later on I was on leave in Hong Kong, I think, at the time and they, we got a mortar attack and he was wounded again so, they finally let the poor bastard go home. But he was a good guy. I had, my assistants, George N. [Charltan ?] the Third, Black guy from South Philadelphia, a reformed hoodlum, used to carry a car [aeriel?] for in-close fighting ‘cause it’s a good whip. [chuckle] Joe Coleman. Coleman, was a very, very, educated, he was an educated guy, had been drafted. His wife was a schoolteacher and just interesting, interesting people.
Interviewer: Now, were there many Jews where you were?
Gelender: Well, in our dental unit, yeah. Probably half the guys were, were Jewish. Like they say in the old country [ve den – Yiddish]? I mean, I had guys in, let’s see, one, two, two guys who were my classmates who came in later were Jewish. Uh, there’s, [Yemal?] went to Fairleigh Dickinson. Then, the other guys were not Jewish but, you know, there was, in all of the medical parts of the service there’s always a lot of Jewish guys because that was the time when the Jews, like me, whose parents and grandparents are emigre, you know, you have to go to school, you have to become a doctor or lawyer and Indian chief, and that’s what, and you have the same thing now with the Asians. You come in, half the doctors are, are from India or someplace.
Interviewer: So, a lot of the medical personnel were Jewish. How about the men that you would work on? Were there many Jews among the just the rank and file?
Gelender: They were there, but not, were scattered all over. One thing I remember. They would let us go down to Saigon and there was a, not a church, but a big hall that was a church or synagogue or whatever, depends what flag they hung out in front of it, a cross or a Ten Commandments or whatever, so, we went down on Yom Kippur and we stayed over ‘cause we had friends who were in units down there. They lived, they had taken over big hotels there, and that was really nice ‘cause we were in tents, and anyway, we went to services and it came for Yizkor and almost everybody got up to leave ‘cause that was a tradition, ‘cause our parents were still alive, and you know, and the chaplain, Rabbi…gee, I can’t… Green, Greenfield or something like that, I can’t remember, except I remember he was from Connecticut. He says, “Where’s everybody going?” “You know, we’re young guys. Our parents are still…” He says “You will sit down. We have had Jewish guys killed in this war. You will stay and you will do Yizkor.” That was the first time I was ever at Yizkor.
Interviewer: Because he wanted you to, he wanted you to remember and at least.
Gelender: All these guys, all these Jewish guys and you know, in the Army it’s interesting, when the person in charge says, “you will,” you will! [laughter] He’s laughing. He knows all about it.
Interviewer: So, let me ask you this. The late 60s were a time when there was much division…
Interviewer: among the American population back home over the War. What were your feelings about the War when you began and did it change at all?
Gelender: At that time, being in the middle of the War so to speak, I thought, you know, in a way, we gotta’ do this, or you have to beat the bad guys and so forth and I was very upset with a lot of the protesters who were hippies, draft-dodgers, uh, I didn’t like them. I mean, I’d read stories about soldiers coming home and people throwing red paint on them with blood and doing all of this crap so, when I came home, we flew into Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. Then we came down to, in big army green, khaki Army buses, drove down to Los Angeles through that, the civilian airport there, and then everybody dispersed to wherever they lived in the United States, but I remember that. Came down, we had a group of medics, some female nurses and docs of various sorts, you know we’re just six or eight of us and somehow we all got together and everything and we were walking down the gateway, or whatever they call those, the tube, into the main part of the airport and there came out, there was a bunch of what I call ‘em dirt-bag hippies standing there, you know, long hair, everything, and this one guy looked like he was getting ready to insult us or do something and I looked at this guy and he realized if he did anything I was going to kill him on the spot, ‘cause I was just coming out of, you know, getting mortared, actually, and I didn’t need this guy giving me any crap, so, nothing happened, but, and then we had dinner together and then everybody dispersed and I came home and then I went to… actually, I got married two weeks after I came home to my wife the nurse.
Interviewer: You got married after you came back from the War.
Gelender: Yes. I always kid her. I tell her she’s a mail order war bride ‘cause I wrote the letter asking her to marry me sitting in a bunker during a mortar attack. What else do you do?
Interviewer: So, what year was it you came back?
Gelender: 1967. So, we were married and then we went to Fort Devens in Massachusetts, where I finished out my obligation. I got out of there September of ’98, of ‘68 and then went back to Brooklyn. I went back to NYU for my oral surgery didactic. The whole system was different then, and I was in New York for a couple of years. Then I went to Wheeling, West Virginia at the hospital there to finish up my residency. Then I, we moved to Vermont, was there for ten years and then we came here. So, we’ve been here for forty years.
Interviewer: And you came to Columbus because?
Gelender: Because I got an offer from a doctor who was, had a great big practice here who heard about me from my brother-in-law, and his family lived in Reynoldsburg at the time, and he knew a doc, who knew a doc, who knew a doc, and anyway and got my name and gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I came out here. Ultimately, he died and I ended up taking over the whole practice and I’ve been retired now for a number of years.
Interviewer: Now, give us your wife’s name?
Gelender: Dorothy, better known as Dossie. She’s upstairs hiding. I don’t know what she’s, sleeping or something.
Interviewer: Dorothy, and her maiden name?
Gelender: Balber, B-a-l-b-e-r.
Interviewer: Okay. So, when you lived in Columbus, you lived in what area?
Gelender: Here, in this house.
Interviewer: This very house.
Gelender: Forty years, kitchen looks like it. [laughter] That’s what somebody said, “It’s a well-lived-in house.”
Interviewer: So, here in the Columbus area, is there any Jewish angle to your life these days?
Gelender: We belong to Congregation Beth Tikvah and we were very active in it. We’ve kind of fazed out a little bit. You know, a lot of the older members, a lot of the older members have died, and you know, let the young guys, the young families build it up. So, we go. I mean, we belong to like book clubs, and take courses and stuff, but uh….
Interviewer: So, you do some activities at Beth Tikvah.
Gelender: Excuse me?
Interviewer: You do some activities at Beth Tikvah.
Gelender: Oh yeah. We’re still active, sure, but not as much as when we were younger and when the kids were, you know…we have two sons.
Interviewer: Tell us briefly about your two sons.
Gelender: Peter, my younger son is here. He actually is living with us now. He is a, worked for a trucking company and he got a cut on his finger. This was a couple years ago, four years ago and he developed a MRSA infection which went to his brain. He had a stroke. We get a call in the middle of the night from Riverside Hospital, “Your son is here. He’s had a stroke,” and then the infection spread, because the infection had spread to his brain, and then it spread to his heart valve, his aortic valve in his heart. He almost died. He was in the hospital for a couple of months. They did open heart surgery on him, replaced the valve. He was here, of course. Dr. Dad and Nurse Mommy giving him intravenous medications three times a day and he’s gotten better. He’s a very big strong guy. Actually, we just came back, he and I were down in South Carolina on a fishing trip and he’s a tremendous help. He does a lot of the heavy lifting around the house now because I often walk with a cane. I have peripheral neuropathy in my legs. I’m 84 years old and falling apart. What can I tell you?
Interviewer: Now your other son?
Gelender: My other son is a lawyer. He’s in Denver, Colorado. He writes the laws for the state of Colorado legislature. He’s a senior managing attorney in the Office of Legislative Legal Services.
Interviewer: So, when lawmakers there want to pass a law, they have him write it up in legal language.
Gelender: Well, they want, you want a law about water rights, of course, it’s huge out west. So, a legislator would propose, here’s this law I want and he’ll give it a rough outline and then Jason has to get input from the farmers, from the pipeline people, from, you know, everybody that has any interest in water and you have to write the law, and get it, then get it through the legislature. He just passed, he just was lauded. He wrote an enormous transportation law which is for the whole state of Colorado, which, you know all their roads, and airports and everything. He was working on it for months, and it … and it passed. He’s a very, very smart guy. He went to OSU. Then he went to Cornell Law School, so, married to, his wife also works at the, for the government. She handles a lot of the, what’s the term? When people want to do something. I can’t think of the word, but anyway, and he’s 6’5 and she’s maybe five feet tall on a good day [chuckle].
Interviewer: And that son’s name is …?
Interviewer: Jason. You said earlier that your politics and some of your interests were not stereotypical Jewish.
Gelender: Well, I’m not a typical Jewish liberal. I never was. I think I was born more-or-less conservative. I’m not crazy, you know. Uh, Professor Murry said, “Life is a bell curve.” You have the raving right and the looney left. Most people are somewhat in the middle and I’m in the middle and I think I tilt a little right. I call myself a sensible Conservative, and I think what’s going on now like in academia is utterly idiotic and disgusting, uh, with grievance studies and all the rest of this crap that they have there. You’re going to ask me about President Biden. I think he’s in over his head. I mean, things are not going well. Congress is basically composed of thieves, liars and idiots and, I think a lot of people agree with me on that. You’re [directed toward someone else in the room] making faces. l You don’t agree? [laughter]
Interviewer: Let me ask you. Were your parents liberal or conservative?
Gelender: They were, they were Jewish. They were pretty much liberal. They thought Franklin Roosevelt, you know, was the next coming of the meshkiach. They wouldn’t buy a Ford because Henry Ford was anti-Semitic. Just standard Jewish people, [laughter] I think. You should interview him [other person in the room]. He smiles a lot. He knows what I’m talking about.
Interviewer: But you didn’t take that path. You don’t look at that and think, you think ‘I don’t think FDR was such a…’
Gelender: I don’t think, I’m not a, as much a conservative or a cynic. I think I’m a realist. Uh, you look at things and say, this is the way it is or this is the way it’s supposed to be and what are those other idiots talking about?
Interviewer: Do you think that your Jewish upbringing is part of your generally conservative political view? Is there…
Gelender: Not really. My grandmother’s brother, Uncle Hymie, and the Cohens, they were like members of the Workmen’s Circle, which was a Socialistic labor organization. Like I said, I was born in Methodist Hospital and maybe, I was switched as a baby. Sometimes I really feel like that and you know, there’s some nice Protestant family someplace and they had this kid sitting in a corner tiddling his tzitzits and feeling guilty about everything. It’s not me!
Interviewer: So, you recognize that you’re, you’re not necessarily the Jewish…
Gelender: Yes. I’m ethnically Jewish because I like matza brei and so forth, but I’m certainly not a typical Jewish liberal and I think more and more people, Jewish people, are turning in my direction because they see what’s going on and it’s not good.
Interviewer: Now, when we were talking about Viet Nam, you said that when you were there, you were supportive of the war effort, uh…
Gelender: Well, you know, we were trying to stay alive! I mean, we weren’t in the infantry. We didn’t have to go poking around the weeds with a bayonet looking for trouble but trouble came into our camp with these mortar and recoil rifle attacks and picking guys on the perimeter off. Um, and a thing, an interesting thing that reminds me of that now and it’s not PTSD or anything like that. When you have a hard rain storm or a sleet storm, you hear the rattling against the windows [chtk- chtk sound] you know like that? Well, after a while our tents were kind of getting rotten, and, you know, the jungle climate, so, they put tin roofs over our tents and when the rounds would come in or they go off, the shrapnel would fly up in the air and spread out, you know, fifty, seventy-five, hundred yards, I don’t know, and they would come down on those tin roofs and go rattle-rattle-rattle and sound just like rain, so, sometimes we get that kind of rain and it brings it back.
Interviewer: So, uh, just to wrap up your thing on Viet Nam, looking back, uh…
Gelender: Looking back, well, Ken Burns did a documentary on Viet Nam and he brought up the point that early on, Ho Chi Minh thought he could get support from the United States because we gained our freedom through revolution also, but, the powers that be in Washington said, “No,” you know, “the French were our allies” and so forth, “so, we have to stick with the French” and so, that’s where it was. If they had gone with Ho Chi Minh, maybe things would have been a lot easier. I don’t know. So, I think it’s probably, in retrospect, it’s probably the wrong war for us and you’ve seen what just happened in Afghanistan after twenty years. I think a fault of the American psyche and the American government think they can convert people to our way of thinking, our way of democracy. These Asian people and the Mid-Eastern people, they have different morality, they have different ways of thinking, they have different histories, and we can’t turn them into little Americans, and I don’t think we should go into these goofy wars. I’m not a pacifist. I think that, you know, there is just war – Pearl harbor, Hitler, but Viet Nam was probably just the wrong war for us.
Interviewer: So, you and your wife, you’ve been here in Worthington for forty years.
Interviewer: You’re members of Beth Tikvah. Are there any other Jewish institutions or businesses that you have a lot of interaction with?
Gelender: Well, my wife is in Hadassah. Most of our Jewish lives have to do with Beth Tikvah, I think. We have a lot of Christian friends also. We lived in, like I say, we lived in Vermont for ten years, a very small Jewish community, used to hold High Holidays in the Unitarian Church, and then all the casual Jews would come out from under the rocks and then they would disappear again.
Interviewer: Do you have many dealings at all with the Jewish Center, or…
Gelender: Excuse me?
Interviewer: Do you have any dealings at all with the Jewish Center on the east side of town or…?
Gelender: Mmm, we have some friends over there but, like sometimes we go over there for an event or something but we’re not, certainly not members over there.
Interviewer: Now, before you came to Worthington, which would have been in the 80s…
Gelender: 81, yeah, we came here in 81.
Interviewer: Before that time, almost all the Jews in Columbus…
Gelender: lived in Bexley…
Interviewer: …but since then they have moved into places like Worthington, Arlington, even New Albany and so forth. Does that seem, does that seem like a good trend to you?
Gelender: The moving? Oh yeah. It was funny. Yeah, when I came to interview the doc who became my boss, he said, “Well, have you found a place to live?” and stuff. “Well, you’re going to live in Bexley, right?” I said, “I don’t want to live in Bexley. I don’t like it there.” And we came up north and you know, Worthington, at that time, was really like a little New England town. Uh, weren’t many Jews up here I don’t think, but there were a few. Beth Tikvah had just moved from their old place, someplace, so we joined. Um, started to think of something…
Interviewer: It sounds like you enjoy having Jewish friends but you don’t want to be totally surrounded by only Jews.
Gelender: Right. I think most people are nice people and you know, and that’s the way it is.
Interviewer: So, you like the idea that Jews can be spread out.
Gelender: Yes. Absolutely. Well, you know, when we looked in Bexley and were talking to people in Bexley, it was, the attitude seemed to be, “Well, this is Bexley. We’re Jewish and God knows what those lunatics up north are doing.” Really. It reminded me of Prince Charles, Bonne Prince Charlie’s War in Scotland. I was reading about it and the English were having a big meeting of all their generals and what-not and they’re saying, you know, ‘the Earl of this up here, he has five thousand men and the Duke of This over here has this and God knows what those lunatics in Ireland are doing.’ That’s the impression I got. I like to read history books.
Interviewer: So, you didn’t like that attitude.
Gelender: No. I thought it was extremely kind of provincial. I like being in a mixture better.
Interviewer: Looking back on your life just in general, what are your, you’ve already said you’re more culturally Jewish than theologically…
Interviewer: …Jewish, but just tell me in general, what are your feelings about Judaism?
Gelender: It’s here. It’s the basis of Christianity. It’s the basis of Islam. A very interesting thing happened. When we had a burglar alarm put in the house years ago, there was a very nice young guy. He was kind-of brown, you know, and we have a mezuzah on our front door and as he was leaving, he said, “What’s that?” I said, you know, “It’s a little prayer that keep the tigers away and whatever,” and he looked at it and he says, “After all, we are all children of Abraham,” and I think that was a very wise little comment.
Interviewer: You’re saying that he wasn’t Jewish…
Gelender: No, he was….
Interviewer: …but he recognized the link.
Gelender: … being dark complexion, I assumed he was some sort of a Muslim. We didn’t discuss anything. He just said that and then he left, but you could draw a diagram, Abraham and Sarah, the Jews, the Christians, Hagar, the Muslims, the different varieties of each of the religions, God over everybody.
Interviewer: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the Jewish community?
Gelender: I think I’m moderately optimistic. I think that more Jews are becoming more like me, rather than the knee-jerk liberal Jews. I think that’s dangerous. It never worked – you know, ‘the troubles will go away, you know, we can negotiate our way out of this.’ It hasn’t worked. I think one of the reasons everybody hates the Israelis is they’re not typical Jews, like the great philosopher Archie Bunker said in his show years ago, “You mess with the Jews and the entire Israeli Air Force swoopeth down and bombeth the crapola outta ya.” [laughter] I can, I remember funny things like that.
Interviewer: So, you, you admire the, you admire the patriotic feeling of Israelis…
Interviewer: …and their identity, their feeling of identity.
Gelender: Yea, well, that they’re not gonna’ take this nonsense anymore, and they’re not perfect, by any means, but at least they’re protecting themselves. You don’t expect, I think that it’s wrong for people to refuse to protect themselves and expect somebody else to take care of them. I think the Jews have to take care of themselves after centuries of being shtummies – ‘oh, maybe it will go away, maybe we can talk our way out of this’ – it just doesn’t work. So, you want to call me a war-monger or something, go ahead.
Interviewer: But this kind-of symbolizes, you do have a strong Jewish identity…
Interviewer: …when it comes to the people.
Gelender: Yes. I’m not overly theological but I’m definitely ethnically, Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jewish.
Interviewer: Well, with that let’s end our interview with Martin Gelender here at his home in Worthington. I’m Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Transcribed by Linda Kalette Schottenstein December 2021