Here is a guest post from Jordanna Mallach, who is a member of the Vermont Army National Guard. In the photo: LT Jordanna Mallach is on the right holding the radio and she is with LT Annaliese Baumer. They are platoon leaders on the Arizona Mexico border, February 2007. (The photo is courtesy of the Vermont Army National Guard.)
I enlisted in the New York Army National Guard in the fall of 2002. I can’t say that it was any one reason that led me to enlist. I was looking for a job and a way to pay for graduate school, and it was something that had always interested me.
In college I had explored doing ROTC. But when the officer I spoke with told me that I would have trouble completing my course load, ROTC, and competing on the track team, it took me about one minute to choose the track team.
So in the fall of 2002 I found myself as an unemployed social studies teacher not really wanting a teaching job in a state where standardized tests seemed to rule the classroom. I saw an ad for the National Guard on a job search website and called.
Filling Out My Religion on Forms for the Army
I had to write that I was Jewish on a bunch of forms that I filled out for the army but I never gave it much thought.
Then about day three of basic training I was standing in a large formation of about 50 soldiers and we were asked to call out our name, social security number and religion. The information was being checked against a roster for our dog tags.
I was standing in the second to last row of soldiers. As religions were being called out, I thought to myself someone else in this formation must be Jewish. Someone? Anyone?
No one was, and when I called out my name, social security number and religion it got very very quiet. I sometimes think it may have been my imagination but I don’t think so.
When we got back to the barracks later that day I was approached by another soldier who said to me: “You’re Jewish? I never met a Jewish before.” I thought to myself this is going to be very interesting, and as I suspected, my life as a Jewish soldier has been very interesting.
My Jewish Background
I grew up in a conservative and fiercely Zionistic house. My father and mother have both worked extensively for the Jewish community, and the concepts and ideals of Judaism and Tikun Olam were taught through action and example.
Friday night dinner was sacred family time; Rosh Hashanah meant new clothes for synagogue; and Passover preparations began weeks before the seder. We kept a kosher-style home, no bacon or shrimp, but when we kashered the house for Pesach we had two sets of dishes. I went to Solomon Schecter first in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, and when we moved, in West Orange, New Jersey. I then transferred to the public school in 6th grade.
When I looked at colleges, I was not allowed to apply to any college that was not at least 10% Jewish. After a year spent doing volunteer work in Israel and Guatemala, I ended up attending Union College in Schenectady, New York. I was active in the Jewish student union as well as a youth group leader at the local Conservative synagogue.
My Jewish Home Now
I live in Lake Placid, New York, with my husband and 19-month-old daughter. Beyond the military I am a school teacher by training, but choose not to return to work after my daughter was born.
My husband has never served in the military but has always been supportive of my career. He grew up in the small vibrant community of Fleishman, New York. His mother would drive him 45 minutes to Hebrew school twice a week, and it left an impression. When I first met him, I was surprised by his strong Jewish identity. I was even more surprised by his hunting hobby, but have grown to appreciate both equally.
Creating a Jewish home in a rural environment is much like being a Jew in the military. In both situations I have had to figure what I am totally unwilling to compromise on and when I am willing to give in a little.
In our house Shabbat starts when my husband gets home from work Friday evening. He comes off of a 24-hour shift as a paramedic so this time varies greatly from week to week depending on his last call. It used to bother me that I could not have people over for Shabbat dinner because I never knew what time Shabbat dinner would be. I got over this and always have plenty of snacks on hand if dinner gets delayed.
I have come to learn that as a Jewish soldier getting to synagogue for Shabbat or a holiday is not always going to happen. Sometimes I will make it but many days I won’t. I have celebrated Rosh Hashanah in the barracks with my non-Jewish roommates and they learned that they really like challah dipped in honey. I have observed Passover at a post seder where I only knew 10 of the 70 people sitting around the table and most people just showed up for the food. I have lost count of the number of times I have explained words like kosher or why I don’t believe in Jesus.
Most importantly I have come to understand that, even if I don’t have guests every Friday night for dinner, make it to synagogue for the holidays or have other Jewish people to celebrate with I am no less Jewish than someone who does.
As a Jewish solider I feel like I have an opportunity to teach a lot of people about Judaism, to change a lot of stereotypes, and to decrease the overall level of ignorance in the military. I am sometimes bothered that my actions are attributed to all Jews when really they are only my actions. But this forces me to think an extra second before I answer a question or ask for any sort of accommodation.
Deployment to Afghanistan
This fall I will be deploying with the 86th IBCT to Afghanistan, and I don’t know exactly what my job will be. I am still waiting for the army to figure out how I can best meet its needs. But I have been working with our brigade chaplain to be certified as a Jewish lay leader, and I am looking forward to being able to provide support and services to other Jewish soldiers.
I realize that there will be very few Jewish soldiers in Afghanistan and that the mission and my military duties will always come first. But I find comfort in knowing that I will be able to make some recognition of Shabbat and the other holidays, however small it might be.