By Jay Kirell
To be Jewish in today’s Army, as I have stated before, is to be lonely. Spread out amongst the millions of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen of our nation’s military are maybe, at most, 10,000 people of the Jewish faith.
In Afghanistan, that number drops significantly. On the front lines (as much as anything in Afghanistan can pass for a front line) you’re as likely to run into another Jew as you are to run into your next-door neighbor from back home.
Which made celebrating my first Chanukah in a war zone rather interesting.
It came about in December, the year I deployed. There was no official ceremony. No decorations were hung around the outpost (like we did for Christmas). No special foods were brought in (like we did for Thanksgiving). In fact, as far as I know, I could have possibly been the only soldier in the entire AO who even knew what Chanukah was.
“Is that the day you celebrate getting your penis cut off?” another soldier asked me, because his only frame of reference for Jews was the fact that we’re circumcised. “No, that’s when they turn 13,” another replied, because he was a kid from Wisconsin who only knew Jews through Adam Sandler movies and was confusing a bar mitzvah with a briss.
I got used to the ignorance after a while. I was the only Jew most of these guys had ever met. A few months earlier in the deployment a chaplain came around to the outpost and met with the guys, talking to them individually just to see how they were. I enjoyed talking with the chaplain because he wasn’t a grunt – and there’s only so much grunt talk an educated man can take before he longs for discussion about anything other than sex, how much the army sucks, or general gossip about others in the platoon.
I told him I was Jewish and he seemed amazed. I asked him how many other Jews he met while he’s been out here, touring the outposts along Highway One in the Zhari district of Kandahar.
“You’re the first one,” he told me.
“Well, how many Jews have you met since you’ve been in the Army?” I followed-up.
“Including you?” he said.
This chaplain had been in the Army for three years prior to this deployment.
So getting back to Chanukah, it was early December and we just had what you could call a “Combat Thanksgiving” a few days before. Instead of being shipped a few frozen turkeys to thaw out and cook for the guys, leadership, in its infinite wisdom, decided to spring for six live, local turkeys – which meant we had to build a pen to keep them in, eventually slaughter them, pluck them, gut them, and cook them.
In between patrols and guard shifts, by the way. So we were actually doing extra work on Thanksgiving, a day we were supposed to be taking it easy. Thanks leadership. And people wonder why enlisted men hate officers.
So it was a week after the great Thanksgiving bloodbath and we had just taken a trip back to the FOB to service the vehicles. I made my way over to the MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation) tent and logged onto facebook to find friends and family back home wishing each other a happy Chanukah.
Since Chanukah is my second favorite holiday (behind Christmas or any other holiday you get presents on) I was kinda bummed out. For some reason lighting the candles on the menorah and saying the only words I actually know in Hebrew connected me to my Jewish side much more than any of the Christian holidays ever connected me to my Catholic side.
And since I couldn’t go an hour during my deployment without someone referring to me as “The Jew” – I felt the need to make this particular Chanukah one to remember. The first thing I would need is a menorah, obviously. But where would I possibly find a menorah in the middle of Afghanistan? It was too late to write home and ask my parents to send me one. By the time it would have arrived we’d be celebrating New Year’s.
No, if I was going to celebrate Chanukah, I’d have to build my own menorah. But how? And out of what? And where the hell would I put it?
Our outpost wasn’t exactly Home Depot. I’d have to use the stuff we had laying around that was in abundance. And what does an infantry platoon have in abundance in a war zone?
So, yes, I made a menorah out of bullets. Specifically, eight .556 rounds (used on the standard-issue M4 assault rifle) and one .50 caliber round (for the main candle in the middle).
Now, to understand the logistics of how you make a menorah out of bullets, you have to understand that the actual “bullet” part – the hard projectile that actually shoots out from the gun - was not what I needed. Taking a pair of pliers, I would carefully shimmy the pointy projectile off its cartridge, making sure not the spill the gunpowder trapped inside. I did this eight times for the smaller M4 rounds and once for the giant .50 cal round.
Lining the gunpowder-filled cartridges in a row, I made a space for the .50 cal round and put it in the middle.
I stepped back and admired my work. Standing there, alone in the ECP tower (basically the COP’s front door observation post) I stared down a the small dirt road that lead from our outpost out to Highway One. Farmers were leading overworked donkeys carrying weight that was well above their load-limit. Children would play along a nearly-collapsed bridge that spanned the small irrigation ditches we called wadi’s. Every now and then, if you looked at the right time, you’d observe a local kneel down, face Mecca, and begin his prayers.
Then I began to pull back my field of vision. From the dirt road and the people on it, to the green camo netting draping down from the roof of the tower, splitting in half like curtains to allow a full field of view and to not interfere with the 240 Bravo machine gun that sat on the plywood board, anchored by sandbags.
I placed the row of bullets slightly askew on the plywood. I grabbed two lighters from my pocket (I carried a spare). With my left hand I held the lighter over the open-top .50 cal round. With my right hand I put it over the last .556 round in the row.
I then began to say the only words I know in Hebrew: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam… asher kidishanu …um… okay, so I only know the first eight words of the Chanukah prayer. And really, I’m not even sure if it’s called the Chanukah prayer or something else entirely.
Either way, it’s what I heard my father saying every time he lit the menorah growing up. I had the jist down and that’s really all the matters, right?
So after fumbling around with the words and coming to the conclusion I could just make guttural, throat-clearing sounds and basically finish it off like an Ashley Simpson SNL performance, I flicked both lighters simultaneously and lowered them onto the exposed gunpowder.
The small .556 round and the much larger .50 cal round burst into shooting flames that lasted for about three seconds before burning out. But it was beautiful, even if it didn’t last long enough to take a photo.
And if you’re curious, no, I wasn’t going to ask anyone else to take a photo of my illegal bullet menorah. As much as I would love to have a photo of it now, back then I was too concerned with not getting smoked (punished) to let anyone find out what I was doing.
Once the round cooled down I tossed them out of the tower, left the other bullets for the next guy on guard to play with. My Chanukah celebration lasted all of five minutes from the time it took me to set up to the time it took me to remove the evidence.
Nobody knew it happened. Nobody asked what that flash of light was that came from the ECP tower that evening.
But for one lonely Jew trapped in a pocket of Christianity inside a larger bubble of Islam, it was all he needed to be reminded of home. To be reminded of the world he knows exists but cannot see. To not forget where he came from.
And that’s something to light a candle about, isn’t it?