By: CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG
Jews celebrate holidays differently based on family customs or ancestral background. For example, the Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews, cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for years, celebrate our religion differently than those with the Talmud.
These differences I have always understood. The way I would come to celebrate my Judaism in the military, I still don’t understand.
I vaguely remember causing enough of a fuss in basic training in 1999 to be allowed to go to Friday night services, and even tashlich on Rosh Hashanah. The most bizarre was spending the High Holidays in a foxhole, wearing a flak vest and helmet holding my M-16 rifle with a grenade launcher in September 2001 while stationed in Korea for the first time.
Also in Korea that next Passover, I was called into the Commandant’s office every day for a week to be allowed to leave the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC) to attend the seder for what turned out to be 30 minutes in Seoul.
Chanukah in 2004 turned out to be rather normal for me as a soldier, but quite different for a civilian. I was on a hilltop surrounded by a minefield a stone’s throw away from the Demilitarized Zone with North Korean territory to my west, north, and east.
Thanks to the Aleph Institute, I had a menorah to light there in what we called “Freedom’s Frontier.” As I kindled the Chanukah lights, I could clearly see what the Maccabees were fighting for in the times of the Temple, what the IDF is fighting for as I hear of yet another suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and what my brothers-inarms are combatting all over the globe today.
Celebrating my Judaism in the military has made me understand that we might have the same ancestral background and minhagim (customs), but we can still celebrate our festivals differently. Sometimes you can only do so much, and doing even a little bit is a huge accomplishment in itself. I am sure there are Jews in Iraq that have even more amazing stories of celebrating Judaism than I do. The most important thing is that we continue to embrace our Judaism, not always how we do it, and our amazing stories will continue.
Despite all these differences in Jews and Jewish celebration throughout thousands of years, we are still one people… Am Yisroel Chai.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Community Chronicle 5 Shevat 5764/2005. It was republished in the Chanukah 5782 Jewish-American Warrior.