By: Yosef Lobl, Staff Sergeant, US Army
My name is Yosef Lobl. I am an Active Duty Staff Sergeant in the United States Army stationed at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. I grew up in an Orthodox home in Chicago alongside my two older brothers. As a child I attended a Yiddish-speaking cheder, a school that focuses primarily on Jewish subjects. By 2016, I had done one tour in Afghanistan, competed in the Best Warrior Competition at the division level, and received the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. By June of 2021, I will have devoted ten years to the Army.
Because I was a reservist for the first four years of my service, I was able to go home for the Passover seder. In Afghanistan, in 2014, I didn’t think it would be too different from any other year, especially after calling Kosher Troops in Monsey, New York and asking them to send me their Seder in a Box. Sixty-two miles north, at Bagram Air Field, I knew there was a Jewish chaplain and heard that he was going to make a seder. My sergeant got approval for my attendance and a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter was arranged to transport me to Bagram at night. I thought it would be amazing to share the seder with fellow Jewish troops.
Although my deployment was a twenty-man team at Kandahar Airfield, Sergeant E and I were on a separate mission away from our platoon. We were at FOB Lightning, an American base originally built in 2006 for 500 soldiers. It was located at the corner of the Afghan National Army’s Camp Thunder, home to 4,000 Afghan soldiers. Post-drawdown, FOB Lightning was almost completely deserted. My base was near Gardez, a town of 70,000 mostly Pashtun people, and very close to the Pakistan border. Outside the town one could see observation posts that Alexander the Great had built thousands of years earlier. Stunted juniper trees dotted the landscape. I was at the western edge of the Himalayas, completely surrounded by the Hindu Kush, a 500-mile snow-covered mountain range stretching through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
Sergeant E and I shared our CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) with a pair of Afghan interpreters. The CHU had been protected with a series of Hesco barriers and bursting sandbags. All day and night, the generators powering the heaters roared and the smell of fuel seeped into every item of clothing. Helicopters came and went in pairs. Dust filled the air.
A small group of shipping containers served as an improvised shopping mall: a miniature Kmart with knock-off products, a Blockbuster with pirated films. Hesco barriers and razor wire full of shredded plastic divided FOB Lightning from this bazaar, an Afghan village, and Camp Thunder, the much larger ANA camp. FOB Lightning was a tiny, almost empty base surrounded by an Afghan population that was very antagonistic toward the American military presence. The only way to protect ourselves from rocket attacks was to call in air support from Bagram Air Field, and wait for the F18s as the rockets got closer and closer. Once Sergeant E and I left, there would be very few Americans on FOB Lightning. Knowing the precariousness of the situation, I was stunned when, a day before Passover, I found out that we were tagged for a mission the day after the seder and I would not make it back from Bagram in time. I quickly realized I couldn’t go to the seder. Kosher Troops had sent me what I needed and my mother had sent the haggadah I have used every year since I was a child. Sergeant E asked if I wanted company during the seder, to which I replied, “I think this time it will just be me and G-d.”
I began thinking about my family seder: the huge meal, the guests, the zemirot (traditional songs), and a much younger me standing on a chair singing the Mah Nishtana (Four Questions) at the top of my lungs. I pictured my mother smiling, my father blessing me, and my two brothers joking and laughing, trying to rush through the seder. I looked around at the field of gray stones, the featureless CHUs, and the ring of mountains. In the distance, I could hear a pair of helicopters coming up the valley. This forthcoming seder night would certainly be different than all other seder nights.
So there I was, on the first night of Passover, up on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere, in absolute darkness due to the blackout rules. I read the haggadah out loud under the light of the moon, alone. There were no zemirot. There were no candles. No crisp white tablecloths. No guests or fancy foods. No mother. No father. No family. No friends. Not even another Jew. I sat on a low lawn chair without a back, my seder plate perched on a rock in front of me. I felt full of memories of home, but so far away, physically and emotionally. It was especially painful thinking of the small group of Jews just sixty miles north in Bagram, getting together for their seder.
I looked up at the moon. I looked at the deep blue night sky, the stars, the incredible mountains just barely visible, and I felt unbelievably alone. I began to say the Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions, starting with “Why is this night different than all other nights?” and was overcome by emotion. What is actually happening here? Why does a Jew make a seder? Why was I remembering the Jewish escape from slavery in Egypt on an Afghan mountain so far from everything and everyone I know?
I began to sing the prayer that comes right after the Four Questions, Avodim Hayinu, “We were slaves.” As I did, I had a wordless conversation with G-d about the meaning of isolation and connection, war and peace, my home in Chicago and this desolate mountain in Afghanistan. To be so far from home, G-d, my people, and tradition, yet feel so close. To be so close to a Jewish observance, to hold my own childhood haggadah in my hands, yet feel so far. Why, on this night, did the seder and my part in it feel both so uplifting and also so terribly, unbearably heartbreaking?
This night, this moment, I knew, was holy. This year I will be celebrating the seder in my beautiful home in Chicago, high above the city, in a sea of twinkling lights. Due to Covid restrictions, I may once again be celebrating a lonely Passover seder away from family and friends. But I will always remember that night in the Hindu Kush and the sense I had then, that even utterly alone, I was connected to everything the Jewish people have endured. I will be able to fully relive those moments of real spirituality I experienced in Afghanistan, this year and every year to come.
Next year in Jerusalem.
Originally published in the Pesach 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.