When we brought our baby son home from the hospital nearly 27 years ago, we imagined many things for his future.
The Army wasn’t one of them.
The Jewish Chaplains Council estimates that there are currently around 10,000 active duty men and women known to be Jewish. My son, Sergeant Harrel Carlton Kimball, is one of those active duty Jewish soldiers.
I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise – from a very young age, he insisted on running outside every time he heard a “hoptercopter” in the sky! We got really lucky after basic training; he was assigned to his individual training at a base that had a retired Rabbi serving as a Chaplain. It gave him an opportunity to connect to something familiar and normal during this big transition in his life. Then he was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, for his home base. He attended synagogue for a couple of Shabbat services and the high holy days in Nashville, Tennessee, about 45 minutes away, and the congregation was very happy to accommodate him!
And then came his first deployment in 2010 to Afghanistan. How does a Jewish mother bless her child before an event like this? The only thing I could think to do was the priestly blessing over him. Much to my surprise, he did not stop me, or even seem embarrassed when others passed us by at the airport. It was a moment I will never forget.
While in Afghanistan, he celebrated the High Holy Days privately, without any service attendance; Chanukah, too, came and went during this deployment, but it was a sheer delight! His buddies rallied around him as he opened his gifts, played dreidel and lit his tiny Menorah.
Since that first deployment to Afghanistan, he spent a year-long deployment in Honduras, and is now considering one more tour in Afghanistan if he reenlists for another year (he is nearing the completion of his six year enlistment). The most common question I get from others is how I cope with the worry. My faith helps. I do not believe my son or I are any more important to God than anyone else, but my faith gives me strength to deal with life.
My hometown rabbi, Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, gave a sermon once that really stuck with me. It was titled “The Jungle is Neutral.” “The jungle” could be the universe, a war zone, mother nature, a bad cell inside a body, a stray bullet, a car accident; his sermon’s thesis was that these things do not happen to bad people as a punishment, they just happen. This is my faith, this is my Judaism, and this is my strength.
Of course, I pray for my son’s safety and the safety of all of our troops. I pray because my connection in prayer with God gives me strength, and because my son knows that I pray, and that gives him guidance and strength.
As an “army mom,” three things have helped immensely:
- Avoiding constant worry.There is no advantage to constant worry. It only hurts the worrier and doesn’t help the child (in this case, a full-grown soldier) you’re worrying about.
- Remembering that anything can happen anywhere. Who is to say that on any given day someone is safer here or there? I wonder how many moms used to worry about their child’s job in a New York high rise. We just don’t know what the future holds.
My son, Sergeant Kimball, plans to finish his military career in early 2014 or early 2015, and then finish college and pursue a civilian career. I tease him that he must then give me GIRLY GIRL grandchildren that I can take to ballet and to get mani/pedis and buy lots of sweet pink things for, after all this army-boy stuff! I tease him that this is my reward for keeping a stiff upper lip, but the truth is, he has been my sweet reward all along. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Do you know any Jewish soldiers? How do their families navigate deployments and military life?
You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 3-4)
I’m wondering about “graven images.” Specifically, I’m wondering if Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille have helped or hindered us with their images.
When I taught 5th grade religious school, at the end of every class I took about 15 minutes to tell the story of the Torah portion of the week. And when Exodus came around, I used one entire class time to tell the story of Moses from his birth through the giving of the 10 Commandments. Though I am not a master storyteller, I did get quite good at this story, and each year took great pride in the wide eyes looking back at me.
Then one year, as I explained my vision of the golden calf (“imagine all the women in your family and your classmates’ families taking off their rings and bracelets and necklaces and melting them down to make this idol, it must have been about this big…”), and held my hands about two feet apart to demonstrate the size of the idol, a child interrupted me to tell me that I was “wrong” about the size. It was large enough to ride on, he said, and he knew this because he had seen it in the movie The Prince of Egypt!
Needless to say, we spent a long time that day discussing the difference between faith, and film, a religious vision, or someone else’s artistic vision, and that any one person’s vision is not necessarily “the truth.” I realized it’s not just that student’s generation that sees something onscreen, and then associates the film image with the Biblical story represented. I thought about my parents’ generation, and their ingrained vision of Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.
The images of God as an old man in the sky, or Charlton Heston as Moses, or a golden calf of a certain size in a movie, are all very Hollywood, and also childlike. The problem comes when we outgrow those images and do not grow into our own adult visions of faith. I think the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bath water. If you can’t believe anymore like you did as a kid, then for some it is hard to have faith in anything as Jewish adults.
So I ask you: are the images from Mr. Spielberg and Mr. DeMille “graven images”? And even if they are not technically “graven images,” are they helpful or hurtful?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Last week, I was privileged to be the invited guest at First United Methodist Church in the very small town of Amite, Louisiana, to participate in a question and answer session on Judaism.
Amite is an hour away from New Orleans, where I live, so I was given the choice of just being available for a phone interview instead of driving, but chose to go to the church instead. Being keenly aware that we are all responsible for each other was my motive for the drive. There’s no substitute for being there in person. Body language, tone, eye contact and just the opportunity for Christians to meet a Jewish person, possibly for the first time, and be able to feel a human kinship is more important than answering any single question.
If a group simply wants information, all of it can be found online. The interaction is the most important part of interfaith learning. When one of us connects in a positive way with 15 Christians, we can help positively shape their perception of Jews for the rest of their lives! And the next time one of them hears a Jewish slur, they are much more likely to react with disapproval, thereby changing the opinions of others, as well.
So how did it go in Amite? Well, the questions about basic Judaism were ones I have answered hundreds of times. However, once we got comfortable with each other, the church members bravely asked the more personal and sometimes difficult cultural questions that too often don’t get asked.
Some of the more difficult questions:
- “Is a Jew ‘Jewish’ because of religion, or because of their culture or lineage?”
- “Why do some Jews keep kosher and others don’t? If one deviates from Biblical teachings, how are they still Jewish?”
- “Why are Jews associated with bargaining, unfair money lending and the slur Jewing someone down?”
The truth is that I think the biggest question modern Jews wrestle with among ourselves is what makes someone Jewish? There is no one single answer… and if we, the Jews, are conflicted – then is it any wonder that non-Jews are a bit confused as well?
So we discussed the differences between the denominations: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra Orthodox Judaism, and how no one anymore lives exactly according to Biblical law. We disagree on many things as being central to being Jewish, but we all use the Torah – whether we believe it was written by God or inspired by God or a historical document – as a base. Another thing most Jews have in common is that we believe in the central concept that God is one. We also talked about how the technical definition of “who is a Jew” also varies along with each movement – those who believe only in matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion, or at the other end of the spectrum someone with just one Jewish parent who identifies as Jewish, or anyone who converts to Judaism.There are Jews who go to synagogue every week, or from time to time, or who only celebrate Passover or the high holy days – and in modern Judaism, any set “line” is left purposely not drawn. Exclusion and judgments are unproductive; rather outreach and inclusion are central to our faith.
To address the hard question about the Jewish stereotypes related to greed and money, we had to talk about a long history. I explained that in medieval Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land, therefore, they were not farmers and ranchers and their income options were limited. Most were merchants and peddlers, buying and selling things. When a person is successful as a peddler, their main goal, like any modern retailer, is to buy low and sell high. Whether it was clothing, jewelry, food or household goods, these peddlers were as vital to the economy as the current retailers are today – but that meant they too could be blamed for high prices. Another way Jews earned money without owning land was to become money-lenders. A Christian was not allowed to earn interest on a loan to another Christian, and Jewish money wasn’t tied up in land, and so they loaned money to Christians to build their churches and homes and keep their farms going. It was a great business deal for everyone. However, trouble would come when, for instance, a church defaulted on a loan. Then the Jew was put in the impossible position of foreclosure. No one looks upon the banker fondly when they are foreclosing on a home or church, even if it is justified! And if someone was looking for a reason to act with hate towards Jews, this was a ready-made excuse.
These conversations can be hard, but are so rewarding. And as usual, we learn as we teach! The session opened with a prayer, which I expected, but what I have never heard was the content of this prayer. This opening prayer was asking God for forgiveness as Christians for the history of maltreatment of Jews during the last 2,000 years. Pope John II made great strides in reconnecting Jews and Christians, and the facilitator made reference to the prayers of this Pope as the start of the healing process between us.
I hope I continue to be invited throughout my life and I encourage all Jewish people to do the same. I hope the next time you are asked to answer questions, your answer will be YES!
Have you ever been a participant in a program like this? What did you think?
(Image in this post from jerusalemprayerteam.org)