If you're looking for one of the world's newest centers for Judaism, then look no further than at a perverse example of garish excess seen in the past year: one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. Comedian Al Franken lit Chanukah candles in the palace in an illuminative snub of the dictator, who proudly displayed large painting of Scud missiles hitting Israel and gold chairs bearing inscriptions that crow about "victory over the Zionist entity."
A couple of months ago, if you needed a place in Iraq to eat in a sukkah, shake a lulav and etrog or, on Simchat Torah, dance a hakafah or two with a Torah scroll, then that palace was the place to be, thanks to the religious ministrations of an Army chaplain from Brooklyn, Col. Jacob Goldstein, a rabbi.
"The Army brought 10 sukkot over -- four big ones, six portable ones. We built a sukkah on the plaza facing his [Saddam's] main door, and we had soldiers for services every day," said Goldstein, who has served in the Army for 27 years and will be in Los Angeles to speak at the Chabad Israel Center on Jan. 14.
"I thought it was great," he said. "I wish I could have had Saddam there to see it. I would like him to see a sukkah facing the main doors of his palace. It was amazing in the sense of where we were and what we did, and the fact that here we were, rejoicing with the Torah in the home of evil. We raised the environment in a spiritual way."
In September, October and part of November, Goldstein traveled around Iraq laden with Torah scrolls marked "Property of the U.S. Army," tefillin, tallitot and yarmulkes. He was a roaming rabbi for different units that had Jewish soldiers but no chaplain of their own.
Goldstein traveled on roads only short distance from fighting and at times had to dodge mortar fire. He slept on a cot in one of Saddam's palaces, where, because of his rank and security clearance, he was allowed to explore the rooms.
"I was overwhelmed by it," he said. "It's massive, luxurious, gaudy, with lots of gold, but there are people starving outside. It's not a nice place."
Goldstein, who was a chaplain in Grenada, Bosnia and Afghanistan, said that postwar Iraq was the most dangerous place he had ever served. He said the soldiers that he met generally felt positive about their mission in Iraq.
"The soldiers were stunned by the events of the war and the aftermath of Saddam's horrors -- the mass graves, the torture chambers and things like that, but their experiences with the civilian population was positive," Goldstein said.
"I saw Iraqi children -- hundreds of them on the road -- walking for an hour, going to school for the first time, which was amazing, but I also saw the dust of the south, where people toil in the fields and live in mud huts, where the children point to their stomachs and their mouths," he said. "You have to be concerned for them, but you also have to be concerned that they are not setting you up for an ambush."
As for the Jewish American soldiers, Goldstein said that many of them experienced a religious awakening in a place as unlikely Iraq.
"It's fair to say that there are no atheists in a foxhole," he said. "But some of the soldiers [that came to our services] hadn't been to a synagogue service in years. I think for the soldiers and myself, dancing with a Torah in Saddam Hussein's palace was the most incredible thing."
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein will speak about his Iraq experiences at the Chabad Israel Center on Wednesday, Jan. 14, at 7:30 p.m., 1520 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 271-6193.