Refusing To Change - שמירת הזהות

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Resource Type: Story in: English
Age: 10-18
Group Size: 10-60
Estimated Time: 45 minutes

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Resource Contents

In Mitzrayim, Bnei Israel refused to change their names, their language and their clothing.

Here is a similar tale from recent times:


"Dog tags. When you get right down to it, the military's dog tag

classification forced me to reclaim my Judaism.  In the fall of l990, things

were heating up in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.  I had been an Army Captain and a

helicopter maintenance test pilot for a decade and received notice that I

would be transferred to the First Cavalry Division which was on alert for the

Persian Gulf War.  Consequently, I also got wind of the Department of Defense

"dog tag dilemma" vis-à-vis Jewish personnel. Then, as now, Jews were

forbidden by Saudi law to enter the country.  But our Secretary of Defense

flat out told the King of Saudi Arabia, "We have Jews in our military. 

They've trained with their units and they're going. Blink and look the other

way."  With Kuwait occupied and the Iraqis at his border, King Faud did the

practical thing.  We shipped out, but there was still the issue of

classification.  Normally the dog tags of Jewish service men are imprinted

with the word "Jewish."  But Defense, fearing that this would put Jewish

soldiers at further risk should they be captured on Iraqi soil, substituted

the classification "Protestant B" on the tags.  I didn't like the whole idea

of classifying Jews as Protestant anything and so I decided to leave my dog

tag alone.  I figured if I were captured, it was in God's hands.  Changing my

tags was tantamount to denying my religion and I couldn't swallow that.  In

September, l990 I went off to defend a country that I was prohibited from

entering.  The "Jewish" on my dog tag remained as clear and unmistakable as

the American star on the hood of every Army truck.  A few days after my

arrival, the Baptist chaplain approached me.  "I just got a secret message

through channels," he said.  "There's going to be a Jewish gathering.  A

holiday.  Simkatoro or something like that. You want to go?  It's at l800

hours at Dhahran Airbase." 


Simkatoro turned out to be Simchas Torah, a holiday that hadn't registered on

my religious radar in eons.  Services were held in absolute secrecy in a

windowless room in a cinder block building.  The chaplain led a swift and

simple service.  We couldn't risk singing or dancing, but Rabbi Ben Romer had

managed to smuggle in a bottle of Manischewitz.  Normally, I can't stand the

stuff, but that night, the wine tasted of Shabbat and family and Seders of

long ago.  My soul was warmed by the forbidden alcohol and by the memories

swirling around me and my fellow soldiers.  We were strangers to one another

in a land stranger than any of us had ever experienced, but for that brief

hour, we were home.  Only Americans would have had the chutzpah to celebrate

Simchas Torah under the noses of the Saudis.  Irony and pride twisted

together inside me like barbed wire.  Celebrating my Judaism that evening

made me even prouder to be an American, thankful once more for the freedoms

we have.  I had only been in Saudi Arabia a week, but I already had a keen

understanding of how restrictive its society was.  Soon after, things began

coming to a head.  The next time I was able to do anything remotely Jewish

was Chanukah. 


Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe it was God's hand that placed a Jewish

Colonel in charge of our unit.  Colonel Lawrence Schneider relayed messages

of Jewish gatherings to us immediately.  Had a non-Jew been in that position,

the information would likely have taken a back seat to a more pressing issue.

Like war. But it didn’t.


When notice of the Chanukah party was decoded, we knew about it at once.  The

first thing we saw when n we entered the tent was food, tons of it.  Care

packages from the states -- cookies, latkes, sour cream and applesauce and

cans and cans of gefilte fish.  The wind was blowing dry across the tent, but

inside there was an incredible feeling of celebration.  As Rabbi Romer talked

about the theme of  Chanukah and the ragtag bunch of Maccabee soldiers

fighting Jewry's oppressors thousands of years ago, it wasn't hard to make

the connection to what lay ahead of us.  There in the middle of the desert,

inside an olive green tent, we felt like we were the Maccabees.  If we had to

go down, we were going to go down fighting, as they did.  We blessed the

candles, acknowledging the King of the Universe who commanded us to kindle

the Chanukah lights.  We said the second prayer, praising God for the

miracles he performed, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in those days and now. 

And we sang the third blessing, the Sheheyanu, thanking God for keeping us in

life and for enabling us to reach this season.  We knew war was imminent. 

All week, we had received reports of mass destruction, projections of the

chemical weapons that were likely to be unleashed.  Intelligence estimates

put the first rounds of casualties at 12,500 soldiers.  I heard those numbers

and thought, "That's my whole division!"  I sat back in my chair, my gefilte

fish cans at my feet.  They were in the desert, about to go to war, singing

songs of praise to God who had saved our ancestors in battle once before. 

The feeling of unity was as pervasive as our apprehension, as real as the

sand that found its way into everything from our socks to our toothbrushes. 

I felt more Jewish there on that lonely Saudi plain, our tanks and guns at

the ready, than I had ever felt back home in shul.  That Chanukah in the

desert solidified for me the urge to reconnect with my Judaism.  I felt

religion welling up inside me.  Any soldier will tell you that there are no

atheists in foxholes and I know that part of my feelings were tied to the

looming war and my desire to get with God before the unknown descended in the

clouds of battle.  It sounds corny, but as we downed the latkes and cookies

and wiped the last of the applesauce from our plates, everyone grew quiet,

keenly aware of the link with history, thinking of what we were about to do

and what had been done by soldiers like us so long ago.  The trooper beside

me stared ahead at nothing in particular, absent-mindedly fingering his dog

tag.  "How'd you classify?" I asked, nodding to my tag.  Silently, he

withdrew the metal rectangle and its beaded chain from beneath his shirt and

held it out for me to read.  Like mine, his read, "Jewish."


Somewhere in a military depot someplace, I am sure that there must be boxes

and boxes of dog tags, still in their wrappers, all marked "Protestant B."

Related Resources can be found under:

» All > History > The State of Israel since 1948

» All > Eretz Yisrael > The State of Israel

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