Refusing To Change - שמירת הזהות
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This is the place!
In Mitzrayim, Bnei
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
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
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."