On Veterans Day: Being of Service

Once, I combed through photos in my grandmother’s apartment, looking at the fading black-and-white images and seeing my proud grandfather conducting a Passover seder around long tables in Brazil. The men wore official uniforms, as they were stationed there during World War II, part of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA.

My grandfather was a gentle grandfather with the softest hands I can remember. He smiled a lot and bounced us when we were little on his legs, while singing a wordless tune. He wound the clock that hung on his wall and puffed his pipes years ago and pinched our cheeks with love.

His parents came from Poland; he was a first-generation American, one of nine children born on the Lower East Side of New York and inculcated into the double conflict of being Jewish and being American.

Today, on Veterans Day, I think about how, when he was called to serve his country, to defend its very reason for being, he did so without complaint and without looking back. It was a different era, a time when you proudly served and didn’t question authority. This country guaranteed his family’s freedom and continuation; they left pogroms and the precursor to Hitler and came here for a chance at something better.

Thank God they did.

Grandpa’s generation only started to know what was happening to our people in Europe toward the end of the war and I can only imagine such news was met with stunned disbelief. How could a regime systematically round up an entire people, a people who contributed and built the economic well-being of a continent, who did nothing but exist in counter-belief to the majority for all of their existence, and systematically set about wiping that people off the face of the earth?

It couldn’t be true, I imagine they thought. There are no words. And the belief that this country would protect us, defend us, keep us alive and safe, surely rang loud and clear.

Today, we celebrate the people who have always, and continue to, defend us. Protect our rights and our freedoms, and ensure our peaceful right to exist beside others who believe and live differently.

I am proud of our armed forces, yes. But I am even prouder of the Israel Defense Forces, as they are a focused, smart military that is at the ready all the time. They need to be. Every single Israeli youth knows they will serve the military before they can go to college, get married, build a life. That their nation’s very existence is threatened every single day.

Ours is not.

We take for granted these freedoms that so many fought for. We don’t have to fight. We can walk down a public street with a lulav and etrog in the fall (can you imagine how silly it looks for a man in a suit to carry a lemon and a branch?) and no one bats an eye. We are safe to do as we please. We are safe to condemn, to criticize our leaders. We are safe to insist that we must miss work and school to observe what we believe we should observe.

We have become complacent. And arrogant.

We have no idea how hard our forebears fought for us to be this laissez-faire about what we want, what we need, what we believe is right.

Think about it: to have the freedom to say anything, do anything, oppose anything, someone long ago had to pave the way. Make it safe. Give us the guarantee that we won’t be thrown in the slammer and left to rot for thinking contrary to the regime.

Cherish that. Even as safe as we are in America, I know that we are never quite safe anywhere. People are odd ducks; they don’t always listen to the voice of reason, the voice of conscience, the voice of right. Some get too drunk on the possibility for power and run unpleasantly amok.

We must always guarantee that our rights and our freedoms live on ahead of us, for those who haven’t even been born.

Today, I salute my late beloved grandfather, my great-uncles who served in the Pacific, and all of our veterans gone and walking among us today, for your bravery, for picking up the mantle on our behalf, for standing up for right.

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