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Passover Adventures in Afghanistan — Part 1

03/28/2017 11:20:36 AM

Mar28

April 4, 2017
by Cantor David Frommer

“Your flight’s been canceled. You’ll have to spend the night here at Bagram Air Field.” “But I have a time-sensitive mission to lead Passover Seders in Kabul…” “Come back tomorrow for your new departure time.” There was only one thing to do. I dramatically extracted The Memorandum from a protective Ziploc bag in my pocket. Request that travel to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan be expedited for CH (1LT) David Fromme. Everyone at Mobilization Station had assured me that a request by name (even a misspelled one) from a four-star command was a huge deal—something like a cross between the golden ticket to Willie Wonka’s factory and the transit letters from Casablanca. You could basically ride it like a magic carpet. I tried to add some perspective. “You see, I’m the first Cantor ever to serve as a Jewish military chaplain…” “Next!” I gallantly ceded the battlefield and made my way back to Sergeant P, my chaplain assistant, bodyguard and straight man. “Well, it looks like we’re spending the night.” “Did you show her The Memorandum?” he asked. “She said it was only good for Chaplain Fromme,” I cracked, “so we better get going.” “Where?” “To get a new name tape for my uniform.”

All joking aside, the logistics of our first night in Afghanistan had suddenly taken a most un-expedited and now potentially expensive turn. Before we could even begin our quest to find temporary quarters, we had to figure out what to do with our mountainous assortment of ruck sacks and duffel bags, which contained an 800 lbs mixture of Army-issued equipment (knee pads, snow suits) and Army-purchased Seder supplies (freeze-dried shank bones, tiny packets of horseradish sauce). The Designated Storage Area, across the street from the terminal, had conjured up images of security guards or at least a doorman, but it turned out to be little more than a giant collection of semi-covered and fully-unattended shelves that seemed about as safe a place to leave your valuables as a subway platform. It was getting late so we hastily gathered a few essential items (sleeping bag, change of clothes, emergency matzah), circled the rest of our belongings three times while reciting certain incantations of protection, and headed off towards the billeting office.

When we finally arrived at our transient billets, they turned out to be nothing more than a long, rectangular tent, crammed with two opposing rows of bunk beds and reeking of half-eaten food and unwashed feet. I settled for a top bunk at the end of the row, which had the advantage of proximity to the fresh air from the entrance, but the drawback of being so close to the sagging roof that it was impossible to sit up in bed without banging my head on the fluorescent light which hovered about a foot above my nose. I located the closest male showers at the top of a rickety flight of stairs that ascended the side of a two-story stack of Conex shipping containers. Inside, a row of prison cells had been transferred wholesale into the container to serve as dividers for the shower stalls. The doors had been removed but the barred windows remained intact, as did the spray-painted labels that numbered Cell 1, Cell 2 and Cell 3. I took the quickest shower of my life, raced back down the stairs (fully expecting them to collapse behind me), and jumped up onto my top bunk, where I promptly collided with the low-hanging light fixture. It released a cloud of dust in self-defense and sent me into a frenzy of sneezing that threatened to awaken the entire tent.

The next day, well-rested after my relaxing evening, Sergeant P and I decided to spend our free morning at BAF touring the installation on its shuttle bus, before our flight out to Kabul that night. I presented The Memorandum to the Pakistani bus driver, who seemed genuinely impressed and kindly waived the fare. As I soon discovered, there was no fare, but I appreciated the gesture. It seemed the bus might give out at any second from a dust-induced asthma attack, and it took us over an hour to complete the route around BAF, as we rumbled along at about 5 mph, picking up uniformed personnel from every conceivable branch of US Forces as well as American civilian contractors, Third Country Nationals, and more Polish soldiers than you could make a joke about. I was completely unprepared to find more than thirty countries represented among the forces serving the NATO mission in Afghanistan. In addition to Poles, we noticed soldiers from the Czech Republic, Spain, South Korea, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Romania, the UK and France. I felt like Harry Potter at his first Quidditch World Cup.

As for BAF itself, it was the ultimate Room of Requirement—a riot of sprawling construction where new projects competed for space with those abandoned years ago, and the urgency of the moment seemed to have outweighed any kind of intelligent design. There were Conexes of every color piled in various formations, tents of every size, pre-fabricated buildings, barbed wire meandering into nowhere with colored warning plastic fluttering in the wind, sandbags piled in random assortments, and yawning pits with unfinished foundations or protruding plumbing. After countless rotations of units for more than a decade, BAF resembled the playroom of a spoiled and intemperate child, who has more models than he knows what to do with and prefers to start new projects without cleaning up the old ones. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t sorry to leave BAF behind as we boarded the C-130 later that evening for our fifteen-minute trip to Kabul—surely the longest layover for the shortest flight in the history of air travel…

What adventures awaited Cantor David in Kabul on his mission to lead Passover Seders there? Join us next week for the second installment of Passover Adventures in Afghanistan.

Click here to read more about Cantor Frommer's Passover in Afghanistan, as published in The Washington Post, April 10, 2017.

Sat, December 16 2017 28 Kislev 5778