Friday, April 14, 2006

Passover in Iraq

Why was last night different from all others?

Because I attended the Second Seder held here in the International Zone, and consequently was able to disregard General Order #1 and have a styrofoam cup's worth of red wine.

The first night's seder was held at Camp Victory on the other side of Baghdad, for which no transportation was available. (Not surprisingly, they do not have a regular shuttle bus running from one Coaliiton base to another in Iraq). The service was held in a conference room in Saddam's Palace, led by a Navy Rabbi, Commander Schranz.

There were only seven servicemembers present (including the rabbi), but the light turnout may have been because the Embassy did not publicize the event for non-military staff. I only found out about it because I bumped into a chaplain coming out of the mess hall on Wednesday. So unfortunately, it was not as interesting as the seder I attended while stationed in Korea in 1995, which included U.S. military personnel, a busload of El Al empolyees and their families, and a group of Korean Lubavitchers.

But they had enough Passover materials for roughly twenty, which included boxes with Haggadahs, matzah, yarmulkes, macaroons, cans of matzo ball soup and gefilte fish (extra gelatinous), and an AT&T calling card. The rabbi had a package with all the material necessary to complete a plastic seder plate, while the KBR dining facility provided the hard boiled eggs and lettuce. For our main course, we had self-heating boxes of Chicken and Potatoes or Beef Stew and Vegetables, which were actually not that bad so long as you don't think too much about the preservatives that keep the meals shelf stable.

The service itself was slightly uneven, which is understandable given the somewhat slapdash manner in which it has to be put together. Also, it was frightening to realize that next to the Rabbi, my Hebrew comprehension was the best of the groups. And like all Seders, it ran too long, although mercifully not until midnight.

But for whatever its shortcomings, the familiarity of the ceremony and feast was comforting, and made me feel a little less isolated. When we came to the part of the Four Sons, I couldn't help but think of David, and how my wife and I would answer his questions about the Exodus and Pesach.

Finally, the Haggadah contained a message about freedom that is important for me to keep in mind when the sacrifices of being separated from my family seem unbearable. The opening prayer read "We relive in words and symbols the ancient quest for liberty, that we shall become infused with renewed spirit and inspiration and understanding. May the problem of all who are down-trodden be our problem; may the concern of all who are afflicted be our concern; and may the struggle of all who strive for liberty and equality be our struggle."

I would like to believe that this is precisely what we are doing in Iraq today.

Ch'ag Sameach!