Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Different Night, Indeed

Lance Corporal Eremeev thought he was joining the Marine Corps as a generator mechanic.   He had other options: he was accepted into a few universities (seems the good lance corporal is really good at Calculus), but was waitlisted at his top choice.  So he figured he’d join the best and learn some good hands on engineering.

Having finished MOS school, LCpl Eremeev was sent out to Okinawa…to a unit that doesn’t actually have any generators.  So for a little bit, he was a 7-ton truck mechanic.  And then…the atheist Lance Corporal became a Chaplain’s Assistant.  LCpl Eremeev certainly never expected to be in a chaplain’s office, so when he found himself rolling up his sleeves to make Charoset (oranges, dates, and bananas – the Warren-way), 200-some Matzah balls, and kosher for Passover brownies (not from a mix, but from scratch), I imagine that LCpl Eremeev was thinking about the  choices he made that brought him to the back of the Kadena Officer’s Club Kitchen on Friday April 6.

To be fair, a lot of people were doing things they never thought they would do before. I was explaining “Make Charoset, chop, chop, chop, apples, nuts, and cinnamon, add some wine it taste just fine” to a group of Japanese kitchen workers whose only English words are “chop, chop, chop”.  Chefs were trying to figure out how to effectively roast chicken that seemed to be entirely made up of skin (the Empire stuff out here was a little substandard).

Having briefed up on the kashrut process by “To Be A Jew” by Hayim Donin (an outstanding book that never gets old) on Thursday, Eremeev and RP3 Quinn (the Religious Program specialist assigned to the unit but working on a lot of other things) came to the back of the kitchen to kasher pots and pans, ovens, and workspaces with me. 

Twenty four hours later, we had a kosher seder in an officer’s club in Okinawa.  Around 75 people came: Jewish military personnel, civilians who work on base, non-Jewish chaplains, random Christians who always wanted to go to a seder.  Some people couldn’t come: some are deployed, some are on military exercises in the region.

The room was too big, the acoustics a little off, and the hagaddahs were pretty bad (we will be soliciting donations soon).  But it was really nice.  Even those who protest when I do the things that they want me to do in exactly the fashion that they want me to do it, even they seemed happy and content with our seder.  According to the kids who found the matzah, the hiding was substandard – but I blame someone else for that.

The seder brought in people from a lot of different backgrounds: those with Ashkenazic and Sephardic customs, things that I remember from growing up, traditions that exist only in remote parts of the world.  And it was also a little Okinawan (instead of horseradish as Maror, we used goia melon, known to be one of the most bitter things in the world – and native to Okinawa).

After the seder, I walked back to my apartment (about 7 miles) with a sense of accomplishment.  While there were a great many fights about many aspects of this seder -  where it would be, who would cook it, would it be kosher, and what songs would we sing -   we still celebrated it in relative joy and harmony.

Keeping Passover here is not the easiest thing in the world.  Since the seder on Okinawa, I have celebrated a seder with congregants, and celebrated a “seder” with the few Jews in Iwakuni.  I am now at Yokota AFB to celebrate a “seder” with them, and I will be at Yokosuska Naval Base to celebrate another “seder” with them on Friday. 

In all of these places, I find that there are absolutely no kosher products – particularly supervised for Passover.  In Okinawa, we got gefilte fish, but no horseradish!  How does something like that happen?  Chaval.  At least (eventually) we got matzah. I had to complain after all they sent was egg matzah; other communities in Japan didn’t even get that.  I eat kitniyot, but I can’t imagine what Passover would be like out here if I didn’t dabble in peanuts, rice, and corn.

I have also met some really great people.  The layleader in Iwakuni is just a wonderful man who retired out there having found a great deal of joy as an airtraffic controller for the Marine Corps.  The layleader in Yokota is a musician – percussion in the AF Jazz Ensemble.  A fellow alumnus of the University of Maryland, College Park (and in the Gemstone program at that), he turned his back on a career in computer engineering to pursue his love of music and to support the military. 

Everybody made their choices: to join or not to join.   Nobody lives here because they were drafted: they all came to the military for one reason or another, and with that comes sacrifices.  Sometimes you find yourself in weird places doing things you would otherwise never think about doing.  At least Eremeev got to eat some matzah ball soup; it made him very happy.

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