September 7, 2006
Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire
Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.
Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell's "shul" was a patch of no-man's-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein's former palace.
The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays -- and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer -- took on new meaning.
For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime -- such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish -- where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can't always avert a decree of death.
Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
"Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?"
Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army's Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.
But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.
He had already approached the 1st Army's chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.
On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.
Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, "Please, God, bring my buddies and me home."
Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn't recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.
"How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob," he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.
He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.
Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.
But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.
"God bless that man," he said.
An All-Jewish Convoy
Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn't eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn't want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.
But Zundell was the unit's only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.
"There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go," said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest's jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.
The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi's.
"I just sat there and listened," Zundell recalled. "I didn't think about where I was."
After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.
Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.
"Where are the other boys?" Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him. "Heavy casualties during the week," one of them replied.
Zundell doesn't remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.
Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.
"It never leaves my mind," he said. "I think about those boys who didn't make it back for Yom Kippur."
While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn't know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.
A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.
The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.
Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn't thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn't want to think about what was really going on.
Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.
"We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways," he said. "But we knew we were all Jews."
Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can't talk about all of it. But he's able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn't know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.
"I don't want to say it like it's jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God," he said.
September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn't leave Baghdad.
Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein's former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.
There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam's servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.
Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn't remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah's message of mortality.
"When you're in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more," he said.
Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some "normal food," including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as "Be safe" and "Hope you come back soon." Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.
Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam's reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam's palace.
"I felt honored," Mish said.
Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.
To learn more about today's Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the"ultimate resource for Jewish service members."
Saddam Hussein's palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.