Why My Father Went to War


I had already seen the cover art of this week’s New Yorker magazine in a news feed, but when the magazine arrived in my mailbox , the image – a wisp of smoke ascending from Lady Liberty’s smoldering torch – brought tears to my eyes. The only words I could articulate were, “This is not what my father went to war for.”

He and the hundreds of thousands with whom he fought against dictatorial oppression, who sustained the scars of battle and slept in the shadow of nightmares all their lives, fought willingly – not only for his nation, but for ideals without which life would not be fully living – life, liberty, equality and freedom.

Above the din of political argument, it is time to tell again at the tops of our voices the story of the Greatest Generation and their values and morals and their absolute dedication to the freedoms so hard won by the generations who created this country that welcomed all to her shores. They, so many immigrants and their sons and daughters, treasured the responsibility to defend liberty not only for people half a world away, but for US citizens as well.

My father fought in many brutal theaters of war – North Atlantic and South Pacific and Northern Africa. But when he was on leave in Charleston, SC, he faced what he characterized as one of the most challenging moments of his war-time experience. As he, by then a large and muscular sailor, walked down the sidewalk, a very frail, elderly African American man walking toward him stepped off into the gutter to allow him to pass. My father, raised in Pennsylvania, had never seen such a thing. Shaken to his core, he asked the man what he was doing. When my father learned that this was the law, he picked the frightened man up bodily and put him back on the sidewalk. They both cried as the black man stepped back into the gutter. This, too, is why my father went to war – justice and righteousness know no borders and suffer no half-measures.

Some people say, with perhaps admirable vigor, “My country right or wrong.” But that is not good enough for me. I want my country to be on the right side of humanity and respect and civility. I want my country to be a beacon of hope and a land of peace. Many say their civil and human rights are sacred, but do not offer quarter to others whose rights are ignored. As I often tell my congregation, when we pray for peace, we may not take a passive voice and hope that God answers our prayers to make peace – we have to do it – and that we must work for peace for all because none of us will have peace until all peoples do.

It is time for us to be the next Great Generation, ensuring that all changes made for the benefit of our citizens and the peoples of the world are based on the values that define justice, which we, as Jews, are commanded to pursue for all peoples.

It is awe-inspiring to witness and participate in activism that upholds these values, and to see that Gen-Xers and Millennials, far from sitting in their parents’ basements, are in the forefront – with experienced Boomers bringing up the rear – to defend against even the shadow of tyranny on these and foreign shores.

This is exactly what my father fought for, and I am grateful to him for teaching me that – while battle wounds take many forms – justice, truth, compassion and peace are perhaps the only ideals worth fighting for. As my son, Adam, who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, reminds me, the Statue of Liberty has another name: Mother of Exiles – for those from other shores, and those who have been here for generations. May we kindle her light anew and may it shine brightly in our hearts even in the darkest of days.


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