While discovering the story about Rabbi Bazer in Kabul, I came across another recent article from Tablet Magazine called Davening for Doughnuts. It’s a personal account from a Jewish Army recruit who was initially lured into services for the snacks, but wound up staying for the meaningful experience.
After the service we filed into the parking lot, where some kind, older veterans had set up picnic tables with lemonade and doughnuts. Now I understood why the service was so popular, even with non-Jews who could have opted to go to one of the other services offered at the same time: Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Buddhist. Meals at Basic Training consist of a couple panicked moments of shoveling as much food as possible, in any combination, into your mouth before a drill sergeant tells you that you’re done. Maybe it was because I actually had time to chew before swallowing, but the doughnut I had that day was the best I’d ever had.
Reading this article, I can’t help but reminisce on my own experiences in boot camp. When I was at Parris Island, over 17 years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a Jewish rack-mate who led me to Jewish services for the first time. When everyone else marched off to Protestant and Catholic services, all of us “others” were marched off to an unused schoolhouse where we were dropped off like elementary students to find our various “faith” classrooms. Dropped off is the key phrase here. Marine recruits are never, ever, ever, free from the intense supervision of our drill instructors (DIs). When my buddy and I walked into the classroom with the rabbi (from the nearby congregation in Beaufort) and a handful of other recruits, we literally did not know how to act. We just stood inside the door, locked at the position of attention, until a few saltier recruits came by and told us to come in and relax. “Relax?! Are we really allowed to do that?”
The rabbi introduced himself and explained that he fully understood the stress we were undergoing and that we were now in a safe place and did not have to worry about the watchful eyes of any DIs. He further explained that since this was Sunday, he would go through a brief weekday service, we could say kiddush and hamotzi, and then we could take some time to relax and enjoy the unsupervised time.
“Wait, did he say kiddush and hamotzi? As in, wine and challah? As in something other than watery kool-aid and stale chow hall bread?” After hearing this news, I was ready to apply to yeshiva! OK, so we didn’t get wine and challah every time. Sometimes we said the prayers over chocolate moon pies and Pepsi, both of which were equally as coveted as the items they replaced.
When services were over, which was always too quickly, my buddy and I left feeling that we held this great and powerful secret. We wouldn’t dare let anyone else in on what went on at services. Not because we thought we would get in trouble, but because I was convinced that the following week our entire platoon would “convert” to Judaism! (Something that nearly happened to Lt Kohlman’s platoon.)
As time went on we became the salty Marine Recruit Yids that would help the pale-faced newcomers that were standing at attention at the front door. However, just as Lt Kohlman talks about in his article, it quickly became less and less about the oneg, and more about the content. My military issue siddur became my go-to reading material. I found myself diving into it quite often, searching for all kinds of prayers to help me get through the trials and tribulations of boot camp. “Was there a prayer for the rifle range? Should I say the prayer before starting a journey prior to our 25-mile hump?” My bunkmate even led evening prayer for the entire platoon a few nights with a selection from his siddur.
That tiny black book (seen in the photo above) has followed me around the world several times, through mud and dirt, salt and sea, and even a few flights high in the sky. It’s not my absolute favorite liturgy, but it is one of my most treasured possessions. Not so much for it’s content, but for what it represents: the tiny, yet intense, flame of Jewishness that kept me going through rough times those many years ago as well as what has defined who I am throughout the years. No matter where the Marine Corps sends me, I’ll always be safe as long as I can daven from my little black military-issue siddur.
I grew up in a rather non-observant home and there is little doubt in my mind that my exposure to Judaism in boot camp was what reawakened the Jewish identity that was deep inside of me. The fact that Lt Kohlman’s experience mimicked mine so closely makes me believe that this is far more the norm than the exception. Part of why I created this website is to help stoke those flames in other Jews out there in uniform.
So,while the doughnuts (or chocolate moon-pies) may get you in the door, it’s the “meat and potatoes” (of Judaism, that is) that has kept me coming back.