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Local Boy Stands Up for His Country
Q:What about your family life makes you conducive to the military?
A:"In my day job, I'm an assistant professor of medicine (internal medicine with a subspecialty in nephrology) at the University of Pennsylvania. I put in my application to join the Pennsylvania National Guard two days after Sept. 11, 2001. Though it may be less common for American Jews to serve in the military (though not as uncommon as one may think, if my experience is any indication; my commanding officer is Lt. Col. Bernie Goldstein), my family has always stepped up to the plate.
"My dad was an infantry officer/military intelligence, and I was born at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. My wife, Lisa, was born in Israel to American parents, and has lived in the United States since age 5. She returned to Israel to serve in the Israeli Army at age 19, even though she didn't have to. After Sept. 11, I knew it was my turn to contribute, and I have never regretted that decision, even when I was ordered to report for mobilization here in Iraq."
Can you walk newspaper readers through a typical day in your life?
"I'm in a medical unit, and my day is fairly simple. I do the 3-to-11 p.m. shift in our mini-hospital and see whatever comes in, from simple things like rashes to explosions from homicide bombers. I live in a trailer (I have my own room) about .5 kilometers from the hospital. There are shower and latrine trailers near me. We do have air-conditioning. There is also a gym, computer cafes nearby, as well as the dining hall. Aside from the daily - and inaccurate - mortar attacks, it's not a bad place to be posted."
How do you hold on to Jewish life in the middle of a war?
"I've been putting on tefillin and reading the morning prayers every day. This is not something I normally do, but I felt I could use the extra 'protection,' and have found it a comforting way to start the day."
What's it like being one of only a few Jews?
"Our base, Camp Liberty, is fairly large, and there are a number of Jews on it (at least 15 who show up at services on Friday, and presumably more who don't). I am attached to a Louisiana National Guard unit, whose soldiers probably haven't met many Jews, so I also try to be a good ambassador of the Jewish people. Everyone knows I'm Jewish, and they frequently ask me questions. One of the other doctors, a lieutenant colonel, came with me to Passover services both nights and really enjoyed the experience."
What was it like celebrating Passover in a place that's historically hostile to its Jewish population?
"Here's an excerpt from my diary that I wrote after I attended the seders:
"The seders were definitely unique. For example, they were the first ones I've ever attended armed. They were held in a magnificent marbled room in Saddam's palace on base. This is one of about 100 palaces that Saddam built while his people were starving; it was supposedly a game preserve, where it is said that Saddam and his sons hunted people as well as game. I'm not sure if that's true, but I wouldn't put it past him. Anyway, I'm sure Saddam wouldn't be happy if he knew to what use his palace was being put.
'The first seder was conducted by Rabbi Colonel Bonnie Koppel who had just flown in from Mesa, Ariz. … She was excellent, and even managed to bring some real wine. She said that she had hidden three bottles in her luggage, but two were confiscated by local authorities in Kuwait.
"General Order 1 forbids alcohol in theater, but I think exceptions are made for religious services, assuming you can get it past the locals.
"At the service, there were lots of boxes of kosher-for-Passover MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat), and I took two boxes home (24 meals), so I should be set. They're not bad, but MREs being MREs, I do look forward to … resuming bread consumption.
"There were also boxes containing gifts from congregations in the United States, which people went through and pulled out goodies from (I found some camouflage kipahs and grabbed a bunch; they're kind of fun).
"The second seder was community-led and a bit chaotic, but still very nice. Some of the people had come a long way from little bases just for the seder, so I was again glad that I'm stationed here."
Is there one specific thing that sticks out that you'll take away from the experience?
"One thing that stands out for me is how my Jewishness is all wound up in what I do here. This has been so from the very beginning.
"For example, I had to make a decision about what to put on my dog tags. Should I list 'Jewish'? Some people recommended not to, in case I was captured. Some of my Jewish friends decided to list 'Catholic' or 'no affiliation,' which was a reasonable decision, especially in light of events in World War II - my cousin, Stanley Malumet,who lives in Philadelphia, was a navigator on a bomber and was shot down over Nazi Germany, and the first thing he had to do was ditch his dog tags.
"I, however, decided that I would go as a Jew. Of course, it helped me to be brave knowing that my chance of getting captured, especially as a doctor, was quite low, and that I'm sure it wouldn't matter to the terrorists who [go around] beheading people, whether I was Jewish or Catholic."