Wednesday, September 7, 2011


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.


Anonymous said...

yashar koach!...Noe

Anonymous said...