Shortly after U.S. troops captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in December 2003, a Jewish-American woman serving in the U.S. military received a care package from home. It included a menorah, candles, and a “Happy Hanukkah” card.

That she received it isn’t unusual. Military personnel frequently receive packages from family members or friends in time for the holidays, and while downrange.

What makes this story intriguing is that she celebrated at least some of her eight days of Hanukkah in one of Saddam’s palaces, in a country known to refuse entry to Jews, and certainly in a building where they otherwise would not have been allowed. (Jewish-American troops also celebrated Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in Saddam’s old digs, according to the Haaretz.com and The Jewish News of Northern California (jweekly.com) online publications). 

Army Maj. Kenneth May plays the guitar for attendees of a menorah lighting ceremony. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Sgt. Khylee Woodford)

As Hanukkah’s eight-day (December 18-26) celebration nears its end, her story speaks to the importance of military personnel being able to practice and celebrate their respective faiths wherever they are stationed – at home or abroad.

That they were able to enjoy the spoils of war at their enemy’s expense was fitting: Hanukkah is a holiday borne of a victory won nearly 2,200 years ago. It celebrates, among other things, the defeat of Greek forces who occupied Israel in the second century B.C. The Greek soldiers desecrated the Jewish temple by slaughtering pigs on its altar. They banned the Hebrew scriptures, displayed their own idols, and imposed their laws upon the Jews.

The Jewish people fought back, reclaimed their freedom, and drove the Greeks out. When they relit the menorah in the temple, they had only enough sacred oil to last a single day. Miraculously, it lasted for eight days, long enough to produce and sanctify more oil. Hence, Hanukkah – which in Hebrew means “dedication” – ame to pass, with the lighting of a menorah candle each day as a reminder that hope exists on the darkest of days.

In 2021, evidence of the battle – pottery, along with slingshots, iron weapons, burnt wooden beams and dozens of coins – were found at the site, according to a story posted on oneforisrael.org

Without the assistance of a Jewish Chaplain aboard their ship, sailors of Jewish faith aboard the aircraft carrier USS Antietam are led in services by Lieutenant (junior grade) William Jasper, 1950s.

Jews serving in the U.S. military can attend regular services and celebrate Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur on bases across the United States and around the world – including bases in Islamic nations.

The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America (JWV) is among the organizations that supports not only veterans at home, but also those in active military service. The nationwide JWV was formed in 1896, countering claims by Mark Twain that Jews didn’t serve in the military. It is the oldest veterans organization in the U.S., according to the JWV’s Department of California web page. The Department of California was founded in 1938 and is comprised of nine local posts – eight of which are in Southern California – with the Bill Bauer Post 688 located in San Francisco. They are dedicated to helping veterans of all faiths. For the 76th year, members of the JVW will take gifts to hospitalized veterans in California on Christmas Day through its “Gift for a Yank” program.

Happy Hanukkah from CalVet!

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