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Passover Adventures in Afghanistan — Part 2

04/10/2017 11:21:58 AM

Apr10

April 10, 2017
by Cantor David Frommer

My spirits could not have been higher when I finally arrived in Kabul, buoyed by the prospect of actually providing religious support for soldiers instead of meandering around the giant construction site that was Bagram Air Field. Celebrating Passover with the men and women directly responsible for our nation’s military response to the 9/11 attacks, in the capital of the country where the attackers were based and where they preached, among other things, their anti-Semitic message, was enough to turn my brain into something of an Escher drawing. It would be hard to think of three cultures more steeped in their own obscure traditions, conflicting values, and tangled halachot, than Judaism, the US Army, and the country of Afghanistan. To live in any one of these cultures is to choose a difficult life and the confluence of all three infused the holiday’s story of our ancestors as strangers in a strange land with more resonance than I had ever appreciated from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That said, warzones are also fertile environments for crossbreeding retribution stories with pseudo-historical justifications and, while it was perfectly acceptable in my mind for the Rabbinic sages of my faith to have dabbled with that in their own time and place, I was hoping to steer the Army sages of our Kabul Seder table away from too many comparisons of ancient Egyptians with modern Islamists, or the Divine justice of the ten plagues with a complete abandonment of the Geneva Conventions.

No moment illustrated this better than the singing of Chad Gadya at the Seder’s conclusion. Chad Gadya tells a cumulative tale of woe that begins with an innocent goat being eaten by a cat and climaxes with God slaughtering the Angel of Death— just your average Jewish bedtime story. It’s most popular interpretation came from the Vilna Gaon, an eighteenth-century Talmudist, who interpreted each character in the story as representing a different mortal enemy of the Jewish people throughout history. And yet, with classic Jewish paradox, its recitation is supposed to end the Seder on a high note. One way to create some comedic audience participation is to solicit volunteers to make the sounds of each of the story’s characters every time they’re mentioned in the litany. I assigned different guests to impersonate goats and cats, but when I got to the Angel of Death, one of the colonels in attendance jumped up so fast to volunteer that he almost knocked over his chair. I had some misgivings but, as he out-ranked me by about five pay-grades, I quickly convinced myself his intentions were purely harmless. “Then came the Angel of Death…” I read, and motioned to our volunteer for his sonic contribution. “DIE, YOU LOVELY INFIDEL!!” he shouted. Even by Army standards, it was a pretty bizarre. Nobody knew how to react. I, for one, was frozen in a moment of contemplation over whether this particular Angel was supposed to be a deranged Muslim terrorist or an ironic Army soldier, and what that meant about him in either case. “Did you get that in the video?” he breathlessly asked, breaking the silence. “We did, but I’m sure we can edit it out,” I helpfully assured him, trying to regain my composure. “What? Don’t do that—I want to show it to my kids!” he exclaimed. Passover Escher Experience—1, Chaplain Fromme—0 (see Part 1 for explanation of Fromme).

As unsettling as that experience was, it was more than counter-balanced by a moment I shared afterwards with another one of the attendees, that ended up having an unforgettable impact on the rest of my stay in Kabul. The location of our first Seder was at a base inside the Green Zone that abuts the US Embassy. Several Jewish civilians working at the Embassy had brought their non-Jewish co-workers to celebrate Passover as guests. When I introduced myself as a cantor, one of those guests approached me with a surprising request: would I sing Kol Nidre for him after the Seder was over? I hesitated, concerned about demoting one of the holiest prayers in Judaism to a concert piece, but melted like a Shabbat candle when he explained that it was the most beautiful music he’d ever heard and he was in need of some spiritual relief at the moment. Seeking a quiet place away from the other guests, I hastily opened the door to what I thought was an empty closet and blundered straight into a small altar, nearly knocking over the golden cross that sat atop it. So standing there in the nave, or the apse, or whatever part of the chapel it was, underneath a confused picture of the Virgin Mary, I sang Kol Nidre for this non-Jewish guest on the first night of Passover. And when I finished the prayer, he had started to weep. Reading his biography online that night, I learned that he had served for almost twenty years in some of the harshest war zones in the world, from Angola and Rwanda to Iraq and Afghanistan. Later, he sent me the following email:

“David, thank you for singing the Kol Nidre for me. You have no idea how much the voice of a cantor penetrates my soul with beauty, especially right now as I seem to have lost my way. Too many wars I've seen, too much sorrow for even a seasoned adventurer and traveler and aid worker that I am [but] I felt very alive for a moment when I heard you sing it. Thank you!!”

It was a true testament to the unique power of music as “a language of sacred emotion,” in the words of Rabbi Ed Feinstein. From a surprising request to an unexpected reaction, the story was already impossible for me to have imagined. But it took a truly unforeseen turn when I visited him at the Embassy a few days later…

The Seders were over but the journey was just beginning! Check back on Sherith Israel’s website for the conclusion of Cantor David’s 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.

Fri, October 20 2017 30 Tishrei 5778