“Looks good, sir,” I wrote back to the lieutenant colonel. “I would only recommend changing everything. How about this? ‘From musket balls to matzah balls, American Jews have observed the Festival of Passover while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces throughout our nation’s history. Join the Jewish Community in a celebration of Freedom as we share songs, stories and, of course, great food!’”
It was catchy, but several key points of my alternate text were also completely aspirational. With just a few weeks until the Seder in 2016, the “Jewish Community” at Bagram was about as concrete as the Ten Lost Tribes — its numbers entirely unknown since the last rabbi rotated out of theater several months before I arrived.
And as for “great food,” unless the installation’s dining facility agreed to support my special meals request for Passover-friendly fare, the entire menu would consist of packaged kosher Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) — the kind of food not even airlines serve anymore. The religious support team at Bagram had apparently acquired plenty of Seder kits from the Defense Logistics Agency, which included critical ritual equipment such as packets of horseradish sauce and freeze-dried shank bones, but their condition after weeks of travel and months of storage in a war zone was anyone’s guess. The more I thought about it, the more the flier’s original wording seemed appropriate. It would take a miracle for this to work.
After years of celebrating Passover at home, I didn’t expect to learn much more from the experience. The story was certainly dramatic, even if I wasn’t sure about its supernatural moments, but watching my grandparents nod off as the Seder’s length outstripped the Academy Awards was hardly what you’d call inspiring. Besides, I was less concerned on my way to Bagram with lessons than with logistics.
As major Jewish holidays go, Passover is perhaps the least compatible with the unfamiliar surroundings and limited culinary resources of a place such as Afghanistan. Whereas apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah were as ubiquitous as coffee and hash browns easily substituted as latkes for Hanukkah, celebrating Passover for the Army felt like a cross between staging a scene from “The Ten Commandments” and surviving an elimination challenge on “Top Chef.”
As the first and only cantor serving in military chaplaincy, I wanted to set a good example. But my five years of training at Hebrew Union College in New York hadn’t prepared me for coordinating a Seder with Army sergeants who found themselves flummoxed by many of the holiday’s basic terms — starting with charoset, which proved impossible even to pronounce, let alone prepare.
* * *
I did my best to avoid as many potential pitfalls as possible ahead of time by soliciting frequent status updates from the master sergeant who ran the base’s chapel. “How are we doing on Seder kits?” I asked, a couple of weeks before my arrival.
“Don’t worry, sir,” he assured me. “All our kits are from 2014, but we called in veterinary services to test them, and they said the food is still okay to eat.”
Okay for us, I wondered, or okay for the animals? Just because some undernourished Afghan mountain goat wouldn’t keel over from eating a 2-year-old package of kosher beef stew didn’t give me high hopes for how it would affect my own digestive system, delicately pampered with organic, free-range matzoh during my childhood on the Upper East Side.
“Where are we with the SMR to the DFAC? We’ll need an answer on that ASAP,” I urged upon my arrival, trying to use as many acronyms as possible to show I meant business.
“At our last IPR, it was a NOGO,” the sergeant replied, “but you have DIRLAUTH to try to convince them otherwise.”
I had to seek help, if not admit defeat. “Er, what’s DILTHAUR?”
“DIRLAUTH. Direct Liaison Authority,” he translated.
“Where exactly is the SNAFU?” I pressed. I was running low on acronyms but refused to abandon my position.
“It’s the tchar-o-sit,” he said, mispronouncing the fruit, nut and wine mixture to sound like a phrase in Pashto. “The DFAC NCOIC told me they can’t make anything with wine, and they don’t have cinnamon anywhere in the AO.”
“Fine, I’ll send an RFI to DLA for cinnamon if I have to, and DIRLAUTH the wine myself!” I concluded, confident I’d made my point, if not sure of what I’d actually said.
I had bigger worries beyond the food. All my preparations would be for naught if troops decided they would rather observe Passover by watching a movie at the USO. Before leaving California, I joked that if I didn’t find any Jewish personnel, it would be more dangerous to return home and try to justify to my wife, Carla, why I’d missed my family’s Seder than it would be to stay in Afghanistan. Since the sole purpose of my short mobilization was to support Passover for Jewish personnel, I needed evidence of a mission accomplished, no matter what. I had brought several Army yarmulkes with me, in case I needed to “convert” some non-Jewish soldiers for a quick photo op, but I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
As I circulated Bagram in my first few days there, I tried to advertise my own camouflage yarmulke as much as possible, pushing it higher and higher on my head until I started to look like one of Santa’s elves. I peppered my conversation with Yiddish phrases whenever I noticed someone with a last name I recognized from Hebrew school.
Fortunately, turnout for the first night of Passover far exceeded my expectations. Of the 28 people who joined me, half were Jews, while the rest were assorted non-Jewish guests, including three Protestant chaplains and one Catholic chaplain — many of whom were attending their first Seder. Perhaps none of the Jews had a more surprising story than a private first class who had been born and raised in the Haredi community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. I didn’t believe him until he showed me a picture of himself as a teenager with payot and a shtreimel.
He had eventually separated from the Orthodox community; now, in his mid-20s, he was starting a new chapter as a combat medic in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Like a lot of Jews in the military from traditional backgrounds, he tried to observe a stricter form of kashrut for Passover, so I was glad to be able to provide him with glatt kosher charoset, hard-boiled eggs and other delicacies from Jewish support organizations like koshertroops.com.
The rest of us enjoyed a delicious gluten-free meal provided by a joint civilian-military team of five heroic dining personnel, who not only delivered the food to the chapel before we started, but also stayed until the very end to help clean up — enduring all 13 verses of “Who Knows One.” We left the kosher MREs off to the side for only the most dedicated enthusiasts, one of whom turned out to be a Protestant chaplain with a baffling addiction to gefilte fish. I tried to match his eagerness but quickly set my own piece aside when I smothered it with 2014-vintage horseradish sauce and it started fizzing like a science experiment. The Seder lasted almost three hours, but morale remained high and no one left early — less because of my cantorial arias, it turned out, and more because of the rare opportunity to drink alcohol on their deployment.
* * *
As my time in Afghanistan ended last year, my reflections centered on the inspiration I took from the Jewish personnel I met there. Not only were they separated from their families, but often, due to simple numbers and geography, they were also the only Jewish person serving in their particular region of Afghanistan, a country bigger in size than France. They were genuinely excited to share and enjoy the music, the stories and the traditions of a favorite holiday they’d grown up with at home, even if only for a few hours with a makeshift community of largely non-Jews.
“Definitely cool to get back in touch with Judaism for a little bit while here,” a Jewish signal officer from Cleveland emailed me a few days later. Throughout the generations, Jews have created community and joined in religious ritual, defying all inconvenience and improbability — a greater miracle, I think, than the parting of any sea or the preservation of any Seder kit.
A year later, however, I find I appreciate a broader lesson from the experience, as well. Our country is fractured along different divides — racial, political, socioeconomic, religious, etc. Where can we look for a model of collaboration that persists, even in the face of stressful and difficult circumstances?
The military may seem an unlikely place to seek help for our national discourse, but perhaps a model can be found in its Chaplain Corps. Just as the Israelites’ redemption was critically assisted by Pharaoh’s daughter and the Egyptian midwives, my Passover Seders in Afghanistan could not have succeeded without the support of my fellow chaplains and noncommissioned officers — none of whom were Jewish.
The Constitution guarantees soldiers the right of religious freedom, but it doesn’t require the military to make that easy for them. The institution of the Chaplain Corps goes beyond the letter of the law to ensure that its spirit — our American value of honoring differences — is what guides the Army’s approach to accommodating soldiers of every faith. Like our country at this moment, the military is always inclined to favor uniformity over diversity, but its chaplains exist to balance that inclination with generosity and prevent it from descending into callousness or bigotry.
Passover challenges us to remember the stranger, for we were all strangers once in a strange land. As strange as Afghanistan was, the U.S. Army was a lot stranger. I had to spend time in both to realize that pluralism in America is not just a value, but a miracle well worth celebrating.