Wednesday, September 7, 2011

HOT 'N BOTHERED

My latest article on Unpious.

And my unpolished version:


Monsey isn't exactly known for being the hottest place on earth, but put on a three piece G&G suit, woolen tzitzis, a long sleeve bottom down shirt, and a beaver hat, - and boy oh boy, it gets hot in a hurry! Growing up it didn't really bother me that much, it was what we were all used to. I even went to Yeshiva in Israel, and endured a summer there in the sweltering temperatures, all the while wearing the standard-issue uniform of the Chassidish. Looking back it turned out to be a good thing.
As I stepped out of the St. Louis airport into a heat index I’d never thought possible, I was glad I wasn't wearing that get-up anymore… Until that day, a Chol Hamo’ed trip to Washington DC was the farthest south I’d ever been, and now I was on my way to start Army Boot Camp in Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, in the middle of june.
“GET ON THE BUS!” “HURRY UP!” It’s hot as hell, is all this yelling and running really necessary? This is what the Jews must have felt like when they were rushed out of Egypt, maybe that story about the matzo is true… AC on the bus? Of course not, I should have known that would be too much to ask for…
Once we got there, the first step was a buzz-cut, which I was used to, and wasn't unwelcome thanks to the oppressive heat. But just when we thought we were (slightly) comfortable, it was time to put on our nice new uniforms. Knee-high woolen socks, combat boots, cargo pants, jacket, and hat. As excited as we were to put them on, they instantly added ten degrees, even indoors! Add to that the fact that in Boot Camp everything is an emergency, and you choose not to run everywhere you go at your own peril… The sight and smell of sweated-soaked boots and uniforms became very familiar to all of us.
Lucky for me though, I grew comfortable wearing all those layers much sooner than everyone else around me. While most of my counterparts were used to wearing not much more than shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, I - on the other hand - had been wearing the full Chassidishe regalia just a short time before. Eventually though we all acclimated, and we grew accustomed to wearing not only our uniforms, but soon added body-armor, helmets, and started carrying a weapon around at all times. I got so sun-tanned that to this day I’m still mistaken for Puerto Rican.
But that was years ago, since then I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing extreme heat - in “full-battle-rattle” - all over the world. Sure we bitch and moan about having to wear all that gear, but given the choice, I wouldn’t want to go to the places we go, and do the things we do, wearing anything less…
January 2010, in the dead of a southern winter, I along with my unit was in the field “playing Army”, when a call came over the radio for me to report to HQ. I rushed over not having any clue what to expect, and the first words out of my commanders mouth were “what languages to you speak Getzel?” The Army pays me extra money for being proficient in Yiddish and Hebrew, and my superiors are aware of this, but obviously weren't clear on the details. “Uh Yiddish, Hebrew, why sir?” “What’s Yiddish?” “Uh it’s kind of like German, with a little Heb - “ “so it’s not French?” “no sir it’s not French” “forget it then”.
At all times there is one unit in the US Army that’s on the presidents speed dial. If anything pops up anywhere in the world, they have to be “boots on the ground” within eighteen hours of the presidents word. Eighteen hours may sound like a lot, but that means from the moment the president issues it, the orders have to pass down the chain of command, down to the lowest private on the list, everyone has to grab all their gear, assemble in a predetermined area, get on a plane, and get “there”, wherever “there” might be… All in under eighteen hours, and this includes holidays, weekends, leave, pass, drunk, or any other excuse you may have. You miss the plane, and you're a deserter, and you don't want to be a deserter…
To my luck, It was my units turn to be on standby, and Haiti had just been hit by the largest earthquake in it’s history, and guess who just dialed 911… We had to pack our stuff and race back to base because we were going to Haiti, and they were desperately trying to identify anyone who spoke French or Creole. (I don’t)
By the time we packed up our junk and drove back to base, there was a gauntlet of shots, pills, crash-courses, and briefings already waiting for us. We were told not to eat or drink anything not provided to us by the Army, expect tropical hot and wet weather, oh and by the way, the HIV rate is 95% so go ahead and take your chances...
When we got on the plane it was snowing and cold, only a few short hours later we landed in Port Au Prince in the middle of the night, but it was near 100 degrees. As soon as the cargo doors opened it was like a blow dryer was suddenly turned on in our faces. And the humidity! We were instantly drenched in sweat. But there was no time to dwell on that, we were instantly put to work. Unloading planes full of food and water, then loading them up onto choppers, and flying around to designated areas and emptying them. We did that for days without stopping. It was by far the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most gratifying work. Meanwhile I got so sun-burnt I was pealing skin for weeks, lost a bunch of weight, and got to hang-out and work with Sean Penn. In addition I became the impromptu interpreter between the American and Israeli military and medical teams, and got to meet the Israeli ambassador to Haiti.
All the while we had to stay in our beloved uniforms, fight for access to cold showers (which turned out to be teeming with e-coli), and eat space shuttle food and water only. I “borrowed” some Israeli cookies out of the ambassadors car (stale), had some rice and beans with the Israeli medical team (bland), and tasted some French military rations (not bad), but for the most part we starved.
The one good thing about the desert compared to Haiti is that at least in the desert, as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature goes down with it. Not so in Haiti. It was hot and humid 24/7, and unlike other places we deploy to, Haiti was highly visible. The farther you get from garrison life and big-wigs, the less stringent the uniform standards become. Head-gear and jackets come off, t-shirts come untucked, pants cease to be tucked into boots, and faces go unshaven. But in Haiti we were on display for the world media at all times, plus we were surrounded by high-ranking types everywhere we went. So we had to stay all prim and proper at all times, no matter how uncomfortable we were.
One of the valuable lessons I learned in Haiti (besides that we Americans are unbelievably spoiled) was that humans are incredibly adaptable, we didn't have AC in our truck or tents, we had awful food (and not much of it), and work like slaves at all hours of the day and night. But no one complained, one look at the suffering of the Haitian people, and we felt privileged.
Sure wearing 18th century Polish clothes in 21st century America, is silly, Peltzs, shtreimelach, strukess, and shteevel, and for that matter, head-to-toe dresses, and shpitzels, have all outlived their usefulness, and serve no purpose, much like the buggy-whip. But before you shed a tear for those poor shlubs, remember that just like anything else in life, you get used to it. For the most part, chassidim aren't walking around wishing they could do away with the penguin suits, and just like habits, priestly frocks, cowboy hats, and bell-bottoms, they're all style choices that may be out-dated and goofy, but they don't hurt anyone. And as in the military, the farther away from the “home base” they get, the less careful they tend to be about wearing every article of clothing as prescribed. Go to Miami Beach, or the four corners in South Falsburg on a summer motzei-shabbos, and you’ll see what I’m talking about…
The main reason Chassidim still wear their uniform to this day, isn't very different from why we in the military wear much of what we do. Instant identification. It’s the reason the Marine Corp. patented their cammo pattern, the Army forbids rolling up jacket sleeves, and why the Air Force and Navy have uniforms that wouldn't fool a blind person.  Chassidim can spot each-other a mile away, you could be going 75 MPH on the thruway, and out of the corner of the eye you see a Honda Odessey, filled to the brim with little Chassidles. Once your eyes have grown accustomed to a certain pattern, you become very good at picking them up, so too in the military, we need to be able to instantly identify friend or foe, (the individual military-branch differences is just ego).
So grab your gartel, grab your shirtzel, grab your skinny jeans, and grab your ascot, and lets hug it out, and sweat it out together.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Gets Besser

For those of you wondering, I'm the last guy in the video.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

FREEDOM

Being a minority, of a minority, of a minority (former Chassid, in the Army), I think I have a special appreciation of freedom. Not that long ago, I was full-blown Chassidish without a care in the world, shtreimel-bekishe, beard-payes, and proud of it. When I finally left that world I chose to join the US Army, were I learned to appreciate freedom all over again. I was made to memorize the words “I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life”, while having my own freedoms severely curtailed.
When I was a kid ‘freedom’ meant something else entirely, I was ‘free’ to listen to Moderchai Ben David, I was ‘free’ to go to day camp instead of staying in school through the summer, I was ‘free’ to spend Shabbos with my (slightly-less-than-Chassidish) cousins… But no matter the decision I made, my parents would be there to steer me in the right direction. “You’ll grow out of the whole music-listening thing, studying Gemarah all day is far more important”, “day camp is for little kids, once you start Yeshivah - you won’t even want to go to camp…”, “the Mechitzah isn’t as tall as ours’ at our cousins’ because we’re better Jews”.
For years I felt I’d been given extraordinary amounts of lee-way, relatively speaking I was hardly micro-managed, I went off to Israel to Yeshivah and was pretty-much on my own, I was consulted whether I wanted to learn full or part time after marriage, I was my own man. But as soon as I dared to flex my freedom to ask questions, I was told to “shut-up, and sit down”, “have some more faith”, “just study some more”…
Fast forward to today, and my idea of freedom is very different. Being free to screw up, and actually learn from my mistakes is a good thing, not having an entire community tell me exactly who, what, where, when, I was going to do everything in life involves some decision-making on my part, but it’s freeing!
When I lost faith in all things supernatural, it was at once quite liberating - no more worrying about Gehenom - but at the same time it signaled the beginning of personal responsibility. No more “Im yirtzeh Hashem, I’ll be fine”, now it’s up to me to make it happen… As one of my (false) idols Penn Jillette says: “freedom means the right to be stupid”. When I mess up now, instead of blaming it on divine will, I’m forced to re-examine what I did, and determine what went wrong. God is a crutch used by many people as a cover for laziness, “it’s not my fault that I can’t pay my bills, it’s bashert”.
Americans love to fetishize freedom, not to mention the military. I’ve become sensitive to the ‘F’ word as much as to religious terminology, coming from the world that I do, I feel uncomfortable with any sort of ritualistic worship. Whether it’s blind patriotism, or unconditional love for the military, we should always be skeptical, it’s our God given freedom!
I’ll be out of the Army in a few months, and for that, and so much more I celebrate freedom.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Directors Cut

Here's a link to an essay I wrote for Unpious.com, and in case anyone's interested, below is the unedited version. Let me know which one you like more.



Far be it from me to blame the victim, but…


Vehi She’amdah La’avosenu Ve’lanu, blah blah blah… I’m waiting for Shulchan Orech, I’m here for the Shmurah Matzah, and Gefiltah fish, I really couldn’t care less about rest of this. I got up at five in the morning, ran eight miles, worked all day, and I have to do it all over again tomorrow. Afikoman better not be past Chatzos...
Pesach never was one of my favorites, too many rules, never enough food, constipation, not to mention all the cleaning, taping, covering, etc… In fact, one of my first kosher transgressions was to eat Gebrokts.
Across me sits a four-star General, to my left sits a Colonel, and at the head of the table sits the Frum Chaplain, a Major. I’ve been in the Army long enough to learn to keep my mouth shut about my background - ironically around my fellow Jews! When I was in Korea, I made the mistake of telling the Jewish Chaplain my life’s story, and from then on whenever we’d see each-other it would turn into a Kiruv session, so when I got back to the states, I was careful not to advertise my history. Until I got drunk. I had come back from Haiti just days before, was in the mood of celebrating, and decided to go to the on-base Purim party. Before Megillah had even begun, I polished off an entire bottle of Patron Silver, and by the time the festivities began, I was hammered. I don’t remember much of that day, but I must have spilled the beans, because suddenly I was called “the Satmar guy” (I never was Satmar per se, but to outsiders we’re all “Satmar”) . I stayed away for a while after that, I didn’t want a repeat of Korea, but people are constantly coming and going in the Army, so I felt safe showing my face again this year for the Seder.
“So any ideas on why we have been persecuted in every generation?” The Chaplain/Rabbi asks the crowd, “because y’all are God’s chosen people” says the General, a fifty-something African-American Christian. Of course he’s gonna say that, what else would he say… And so the conversation goes on for a couple of minutes, when out of nowhere someone asks, “maybe we’re doing something to deserve it”.
I’ve been to some strange (by Chassidishe standards) Sedarim, but I’ve never heard anyone drop this sort of doozey, I carry a healthy amount of Jewish guilt, but even I found the implication a bit harsh. I have wondered if maybe we overstate the amount of hatred there is out there for us Heebs, one of the most common questions I get when I go home for a visit is whether I encounter a lot of anti-Semitism in the outside world, and specifically in the army, (the answer is no). Of course the question gained everyones attention, a universal condemnation, and a hasty change of subject, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
First a disclaimer: I am in no way diminishing, or apologizing for the terrible suffering Jews have suffered for thousands of years, but...
On the one hand, isn’t it a good thing that we talk about persecution, in order to preventing it from happening again? “Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it” - right?
On the other hand, we Jews are a bit obsessed with our own victimhood. As the old Jewish holiday cliché goes: “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” Every time we turn around, there’s another reminder of some misery from the past, whether it’s Purim, Pesach, Channukah, Tisha B’av, or countless other times throughout the year. To be sure, every culture in the world has an explanation as to why they are the most persecuted in history, whether it’s the Christians by the Romans, or the Tibetans by the Chinese. But we Jews have definitely perfected the art of victimhood. At what point though, does it go from “lest we forget”, to being a fetish?
One of the (few) things I’ve learned from serving in the army, is the effect “collective suffering” has on team building. It could be actual suffrage like you and your buddies getting shot at together, or even going through the joys of boot camp together. Or it could be emotional suffrage, just knowing that the guy to your right or left is willing to take a bullet for you, makes you closer. Similarly, when you’re taught from day one, that everyone’s out to get us, and everyone hates us, it fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, and pulls the “us” closer together.
It may just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more we talk about it, the more it’ll happen, I’m convinced that is what makes the JDL, the ADL, and other groups like them tick, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail…” Plus - maybe what goes around, comes around, let us not forget all the wonderful things we’re taught to believe about non-Jews, remember im hachamor/am hadomeh lechamor..? (Ask your Frum buddy…) Not to mention all the mindless slaughter that happens throughout Tanach, and is excused to this day.
I’m usually the last person to defend Ultra-Orthodoxy, but when it comes to playing the victim card, no one does it quite like the non-Frum. If your whole Jewish identity consists of the Holocausts and the state of Israel, it doesn’t leave much else to get excited about, and when somebody dares not to join in on your particular orgy of self pity - people get offended. Not that everything the Frummies claim about the Holocaust or Israel is true, but in their defense, at least they’re consistent. Their entire lives revolve around Judaism, so they’re understandably not impressed by people -whom they hardly consider Jewish - demanding they join them on their arbitrarily chosen date to mourn. I don’t agree with them, but if you look at it through their point of view, it’s understandable.
I’m not suggesting “forgive and forget”, but instead of accepting anti-semitism as an inevitability, we should take steps to stop it from happening. There will always be ignoramuses, but there are steps we can take to minimize, and marginalize them. Whenever I meet new people I wait till they get to know me a bit, before letting slip that I’m Jewish. More often than not, I get “you’re Jewish?!” Yeah, what did you expect - horns?
It’s easy to hate someone you don’t know, it’s a whole different story once you get to know them. It’s a lot like when people who’re anti gay suddenly have a close family or friend come out of the closet, they’re forced to rethink their assumptions, “I know that guy, he’s not crazy… Maybe they’re not all nuts…” I’ve found that most of what many people would take as anti-Semitic, is actually just ignorance. I’ve gotten some shockingly stupid questions, but I’m always careful to answer them seriously and never take them personally, and I hope I’m slowly chipping away at ignorance.
Or maybe I’m full of crap, maybe it’s not even worthy of discussion, maybe we just need to shut up and take it, what the hell do I know...
…Back to the Seder though, where the Rebetzin is explaining that the tsunami in Japan was caused by god because they’re imprisoning two Israeli kids on drug charges, plus Moshiach’s definitely coming this year, and she knows this because when everyones electricity went out during a recent storm, the moon shone on her house…
I’m cringing, this getting downright embarrassing, this just sounds like those 2012 fairy tales… Oh screw it, why do I even bother? These people are lost, maybe we can save their kids…