Hanukkah in Saudi Arabia

Donald Trump’s election may serve to reconnect and rekindle the Hanukkah flame of Jewish pride in the hearts of many Jews who have lost touch with the more spiritual and religious paths of being Jewish. The following example from a Hadassah Magazine more than a dozen years ago, is the experience of Retired Army Major Mike Neilander.

In the fall of l990, things were heating up in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. As an army captain and a helicopter maintenance test pilot for a decade; I received notice to transfer to the First Cavalry Division, on alert for the Persian Gulf War. Then, as now, Jews were forbidden by Saudi law to enter the country.

But our Secretary of Defense told the king of Saudi Arabia, “We have Jews in our military. They’ve trained with their units and they’re going. Blink and look the other way.” With Kuwait occupied and the Iraqis at his border, King Faud did the practical thing. He blinked.

We shipped out, but there was still the issue of classification. Normally, the dog tags of Jewish servicemen are imprinted with the word “Jewish.” But Defense, fearing that this would put Jewish soldiers at greater risk should they be captured on Iraqi soil, substituted “Protestant B” on the tags.

I didn’t like the whole idea of classifying Jews as Protestant anything and so I decided to leave my dog tag alone. I figured if I was captured, it was in God’s hands. Changing my tags was tantamount to denying my religion and I couldn’t swallow that.

A few days after my arrival, the Baptist chaplain approached me. “I just got a secret message through channels,” he said. “There’s going to be a Jewish gathering. A holiday? Simkatoro or something like that. You want to go?”

Simkatoro turned out to be Simchat Torah, a holiday I hadn’t observed since I was a kid. Services were held in secrecy in a windowless room. The chaplain led a swift and simple service. We couldn’t risk singing or dancing, but Rabbi Ben Romer had managed to smuggle in a bottle of Manischewitz wine.

Normally, I don’t like wine, but that night, the wine tasted of Shabbat and family and seders of long ago. My soul was warmed by the forbidden alcohol, by the memories swirling in me, and by my fellow Jews.

We were strangers to one another in a land stranger than any of us had ever experienced, but for one brief hour, we were home. Only Americans have the chutzpah to celebrate Simchat Torah under the noses of the Saudis.

Irony and pride twisted together inside me like barbed wire. Celebrating my Judaism that evening made me even prouder to be an American, thankful once more for the freedoms we have. I had only been in Saudi Arabia a week, but I already had a keen understanding of how restrictive its society was.

The next time I was able to do anything remotely Jewish was Chanukah. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe it was God’s hand that placed a Jewish colonel in charge of our unit. Colonel Schneider relayed messages of Jewish gatherings to us immediately. When notice of the Hanukkah party was decoded, we knew about it at once.

The first thing we saw when we entered the tent was food, tons of it. Care packages from the States — latkes, sour cream and applesauce, and cans and cans of gefilte fish. The wind was blowing dry across the tent, but inside there was an incredible feeling of celebration.

As Rabbi Romer talked about the theme of Hanukkah, and the small band of Maccabee soldiers fighting Jewry’s oppressors thousands of years ago, it wasn’t hard to make the connection to what lay ahead of us. There in the middle of the desert, inside a tent, we felt like we were Maccabees. If we had to die, we would die fighting, as they did.

We blessed the candles, acknowledging the Ruler of the Universe who commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. We said the second prayer, praising God for the miracles He performed, ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zman ha-zeh, in those days, at this time. And we sang the third blessing, the Sheheyanu, thanking God for keeping us in life and for enabling us to reach this season.

I sat back in my chair. We were in the desert, about to go to war, singing songs of praise to God, who had saved our ancestors in battle once before. The feeling of unity was as pervasive as our apprehension. I felt more Jewish on that lonely Saudi plain, our guns at the ready, than I usually felt back home in shul.

That Hanukkah in the desert solidified for me the urge to reconnect with my Judaism. I felt Jewishness welling up inside me. Any soldier will tell you that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I know that part of my feelings were tied to the looming war and my desire to get with God before the unknown descended in the clouds of battle.

It sounds corny, but as we downed the latkes and wiped the last of the applesauce from our plates, everyone grew quiet. We were keenly aware our link with history, thinking of what we were about to do and what had been done by the Maccabee soldiers like us so long ago.

The trooper beside me stared ahead at nothing in particular, absent-mindedly fingering his dog tag. “How’d you classify?” I asked, nodding to my tag.

Silently, he withdrew the metal rectangle and its beaded chain from beneath his shirt and held it out for me to read. Like mine, his read, “Jewish.” We both smiled and tears appeared in his eyes.

Somewhere in a military depot someplace, I am sure that there must be boxes and boxes of dog tags, still in their wrappers, all marked “Protestant B.”

Being proud of being Jewish must be one of the basic mitzvot. Often we take it for granted, until destiny comes along and hits you between your eyes…or in your heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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