Some years ago — when my son-in-law, then in Rabbinical School, was graduating in Newport, Rhode Island from Officer Development School in the United States Navy as a newly minted Ensign — I wrote a piece for this paper titled “The Sin of My Generation.” While watching him parade proudly with his fellow graduates in his dress whites, sharply saluting his commanding officer, I was overwhelmed by a sense that I had failed the sailors and soldiers who had served during the Vietnam years by denying them the right to take pride in their service. Who was I to arrogate unto myself that privilege?
I was not, of course, alone. When I entered college in 1969, it seemed like every college campus in the country was in turmoil, thrown into crisis by relentless protests against the war in Vietnam. Even Yeshiva University, where I was studying, canceled its spring semester in 1970 as part of what was then called the Moratorium. For me and for so many of my fellow students, protesting the war was a high form of patriotism. We felt that the war was unjust, our government was corrupt (all too true, it turned out), and thousands of young men were being sent to risk their lives for a war that was not worth fighting.
I don’t regret protesting the war. I felt then, and still feel, that it was a disastrous mistake, and our country is fifty thousand-plus lives poorer for it. But since his ordination and promotion to Lieutenant (junior grade) my son-in-law — Yonatan Warren is his name, we call him Yoni — has decided to sign on to active duty. As a result, he and my daughter Leora will be leaving shortly for a two-year posting in Okinawa, Japan. It turns out that, among the 30,000 or so American military personnel based in Okinawa at Navy, Marine and Air Force bases, there are quite a few Jews. Who knew? And those Jews have been clamoring for some time for a Jewish chaplain. Join the Navy, see the world …
And now I join the ranks of other members of my congregation who have had children serving in the American military. I, who marched in more anti-war marches and attended more rallies that I can count. I, who thought that one of the best days of my college years was standing in Bryant Park in New York with thousands of protesting college students, Peter, Paul and Mary and Gene McCarthy. I felt more passionately about that experience than I felt about any of my college courses, which so often seemed irrelevant in the context of what was going on all around me.
And now my chest swells with pride when I contemplate what Yoni is doing out of a sense of service, and honor for his country. He comes by it honestly. His father, my mechutan, was career Navy, and served two tours in Vietnam. We don’t talk too much about what I did when I was in college. But what he succeeded in doing — to his enormous credit — was passing on to his son a sense of obligation to America that resonates with him. It resonates enough that it is taking him — and his wife, who is slowly growing used to the idea — around the world in order to serve his country, his fellow Jews, and any soldier who needs his assistance, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, as all American military chaplains are obligated to do.
All of which leaves me more than a little amazed at what has become of the kid who gladly skipped classes in college to march against the war. Amazed, but truth to tell, gratified and proud. I realize now exactly how true what I wrote a few years ago was. Those soldiers and sailors who served our country in Vietnam deserved so much better from my fellow students and me; we did, indeed, confuse them with the war itself. How unbelievably awful it must have been for them to risk their lives and endure the horror of war, and then come home to an ungrateful country. Saying “our bad” seems hollow and empty.
A final note:
For Father’s Day last spring, my son-in-law and daughter bought me a complete, totally official Navy sweat suit worn during physical training exercises. Whether there was a subliminal message there about the shape I’m in can remain a matter of conjecture. But the truth is that they bought it because I asked for it. I wanted to wear it, to publicly identify- proudly- with what they are doing.
One cold evening earlier this fall, I wore it to our Minyan. A contemporary of mine saw it and smiled, and asked me if- forty years ago or so- I could have imagined wearing it. No, I answered with a smile. But what came to mind was a line by a poet from that generation whose music informed the sixties and seventies. “Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, and Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly.