“What the hell does this say, Mandel?”
“It says ‘Moshe,’ Drill Sergeant.”
“What in the world is that?”
“It’s Hebrew for Moses, Drill Sergeant”
“Are you Jewish, Moses?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“Do you like being Jewish, Moses?”
It was mid-September in the Ozarks, not the most pleasant place to be under any conditions (it's hot, it's humid, it's Missouri), but this was day one of AIT, Advanced Individual Training, where you train for your profession in the US Army, and I had just jumped off the back of a canvas-covered five ton truck, which had delivered me from across Fort Leonard Wood, MO, where I’d graduated Basic Training just that morning. I was trying desperately to hold onto the tough and resolute feeling I had as I walked across the stage only hours earlier, but I wasn't doing too well. A duffle bag with all my worldly possessions on my back, a steady trickle of sweat sneaking from under my stiff new black beret, and once again in my ears the question every soldier asks him or herself countless times ringing in my ears: “What did I get myself into?”
The last thing that happens before transferring to a new army training unit is having your issued items inspected. "Inspect” in Basic Training means summarily dumped on the ground, and rifled through violently. It’s also the first thing they do when you arrive at a new training unit. In addition to making sure you have everything you need, they're checking for contraband: food of any sort, tobacco products, drugs, anything sharp, pornography—basically anything fun.
AIT, was supposed to be a little more relaxed than Basic, but there we were, standing at attention, watching all of our stuff be manhandled by scowling drill sergeants.
“Who likes Starbursts?” asked a tall skinny drill sergeant with a heavy Senegalese accent and a mean grin. He paced back and forth through the formation, calmly eating grapes from a cluster in his hand. No one moved a muscle.
“Nobody? Come on, everybody loves Starbursts”.
He turned to one unlucky soul, “You, you like Starbursts?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“Great! Me too! They're my favorite exercise. Allow me to demonstrate, and feel free to follow suit. Crouch down and touch your toes…” We all watched in horror as the poor private dutifully copied Drill Sergeant Icy Veins’ actions, knowing full well that his “invitation” wasn't optional, and it was only a matter of seconds before we joined him.
“Now jump up as high as you can, spreading your arms and legs out as far as they can go and yell ‘I’m a star!’ and then return to the starting position, with your hands touching your toes, ready to go again.”
Three minutes later, we were all gasping for air, drenched in sweat, and relieved to be called away, one by one, by the senior drill sergeant.
Senior Drill Sergeant Nelson was standing off to a corner as he called us over, far enough from the formation that he could've spoken in a conversational tone, but that wouldn't do for Drill Sergeant Nelson, he had to bark. He was looking through my paperwork, when he noticed my full name, Moshe Aaron Mandel.
"Are you wearing a yarmulke, Moses?"
"No, Drill Sergeant."
"Why not? You know you're allowed to, as long as your headgear covers it."
"I didn't know that, Drill Sergeant, but it’s fine, I don't feel the need to wear one."
“Do you like being Jewish, Moses?”
“I don- I guess? I didn't have much say in the matter, Drill Sergeant.”
“It’s a simple question, Moses. Do you, or do you not like being Jewish?!”
“I, I don't know, Drill Sergeant, it’s a complicated questi—“
“My fiancée is Jewish, and she wants me to convert for her, I need to know if it’s a good idea.”
“Well, you see, Drill Sergeant, part of what brings me here is the fact that I was raised in the most right-wing version of Judaism there is, and I escaped it only a few months ago, so I might not be the right person to be asking about Judaism right now.”
When I said "right-wing,” a term I thought he'd understand, what I really meant was that I was raised Chassidic, a world far from his notion of Judaism.
He stared at me for a few moments, and then I saw him almost smile.
“I like you, Moses, we’re gonna get along swimmingly. Get your shit and go inside. And don’t worry about Drill Sergeant Starburst, he’ll be gone in a few days, he’s being reassigned.”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
Drill Sergeant Nelson turned out to be a sweetheart, but insisted on calling me Moses from then on, as AIT dragged on. Drill Sergeant Starburst did indeed disappear several days later, Drill Sergeant Green was an angry schoolmarm, Drill Sergeant MacManus was an overachieving former Marine whose unimpressed “whatever” I still enjoy mimicking today, and Drill Sergeant Floyd from the Bronx will forever be imprinted on my mind as the guy who introduced me to the words “quit flappin’ yo damn beak, talkin’ ‘bout not shit.” That, and his love for the biggest gaudiest Cadillac emblems, which he’d added to every door of his Escalade.
It’s common for people to “find Jesus” during Basic Training, since church on Sunday mornings can be the only break you get all week. Lucky for me, “finding Moses” meant two two-hour breaks a week: services on Friday night, and Torah study on Sunday morning. Although I was no longer religious, I exercised my right to attend every “Jew church” event I could. Weekly services were held in a chapel, led by a decidedly un-rabbi-like fella, and I’d sit in the back and chuckle at what seemed, to me, like Judaism Lite. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I fully embraced my Jewishness while in training.
I’ve heard it said, “The shul (synagogue) I don’t go to is Orthodox,” and I agree; I don't go to shul, but if I did, I'd want it to be an Orthodox (or Chassidic) one. Not because I think God prefers oy yoy yoy to la la la, but because oy yoy yoy is what I know and feel comfortable with. In fact, it was the music and singing (not the fasting or praying) that I had enjoyed about Yom Kippurs in the past. This, however, was my most memorable Yom Kippur by far. Early in the morning, dressed in our army fatigues, we were driven in a van to a real shul, where the layers of strangeness, to me, were staggering. There was mixed seating, a female rabbi and a microphone on the pulpit. And there, a few rows ahead of me, sitting next to his fiancée, was Drill Sergeant Nelson, presumably getting a feel for his new tribe. Everyone prayed and I zoned out.
At about noon, the president of the shul grew bored, and invited the soldiers over to his house, where we were wined and dined all afternoon. After months of intense training, highly regimented days and the same industrial slop for meal after meal, I couldn't get enough of the pool, the junk food, the movies. It was nice to forget that we were soldiers for a little while. I was probably the only one to appreciate how anti-Yom Kippur this all was, but we all had a great time. We returned to shul just in time for Ne’ila (the closing prayers of Yom Kippur), and were then treated to a hearty dinner to "break our fast."
As memorable as that day was, what stands out in my mind most are the calm and quiet, which I hadn't had in months. I had sat in shul, only partially paying attention to the vaguely familiar service, while simply enjoying the lack of people yelling or rushing me for a change. It was the closest I ever came to meditation, and I loved it. I did more deep contemplation on that day than I ever did on Yom Kippurs past.
After getting out of the army and enrolling in NYU, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had classes on the High Holy Days. If there were a God, she’d favor higher education over bitching, moaning and false contrition. This year, because Yom Kippur starts on Friday night, I won’t have class, so I might go to the library for some quiet contemplation instead. The only things my God would love more than higher education are peace, quiet and introspection.
If Drill Sergeant Nelson asked me today if I like being Jewish, I’d say yes without hesitation. Not the Judaism that came to mind when he asked the question, not the Reconstructionist Judaism of his fiancée or any of the dozens of other denominations, but my own version of Judaism that I quietly found, oddly enough, in the back row of a random shul in rural Missouri.