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It’s not just the cultural and religious sensitivities that make celebrating Hanukkah “downrange” in a predominantly Muslim land a bit of a challenge.

It’s the little things, too — like finding out that the base dining facility does not have kosher sour cream, seemingly a must for any potato latkes worth the name.

While the ceremonies do not come close to reaching the fever pitch associated with Christmas on bases downrange, servicemembers at several bases in Iraq paused Tuesday night to mark the first of Hanukkah’s eight nights.

At Camp Taji, for example, Chaplain (Capt.) David Goldstrom, a rabbi with the 4th Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, led about 50 servicemembers in an evening service. Goldstrom is one of three Jewish chaplains tending to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Another of the Jewish chaplains, Capt. Andrew Shulman of the 4th Battalion, Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, performed similar services at Camp Striker, also in Baghdad.

Until about two months ago, Shulman was the only Jewish chaplain serving the estimated 160,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq.

Shulman will be hitting the road to take Hanukkah services to soldiers in Mahmudiyah and in the Green Zone. Additionally, soldiers from Forward Operating Base Hammer, Camp Slayer, Camp Liberty and other bases will travel to take part in services at Striker.

Shulman said the circumstances will make Hanukkah a little different than at home.

“The custom is to eat oily foods on Hanukkah, as the miracle had to do with oil,” Shulman wrote in an e-mail. “In the U.S., people eat potato latkes — kind of like a poor man’s hash brown. In Iraq, we don’t have eggs to mix with the potatoes ... so a woman from Cedarhurst, N.Y., mailed me 10 pounds of frozen potato triangles (not so frozen anymore) and applesauce to dip them in.”

But, Shulman said, “I checked at the [dining facility], and their sour cream isn’t kosher, so that’s a no-go. Oh, and there really aren’t any ‘windows’ at Camp Striker to display the menorah in, so we’ll light it inside the chapel on a table.”

Shulman also said that on Thursday, he and other officials will perform a menorah-lighting ceremony taped by public affairs videographers for later broadcast. The ceremony will be held in Saddam Hussein’s old al Faw Palace, with soldiers from Afghanistan and California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger participating via video.

At Camp Taji, Goldstrom said the menorah was designed and built by Fred Dillard of Morse Welding in Copperas Cove, Texas, near Fort Hood. Goldstrom brought the large menorah from Fort Hood.

“Hanukkah is really about respect for each other’s religious beliefs,” Goldstrom said. “While the historical events the menorah commemorates is related to a military victory and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, when you look at the history and the political and cultural context, it was about people fighting against oppression, persecution and for the opportunity to practice their religion.

“And that’s a great message for what we are doing here in Iraq. Helping a culturally diverse country while remaining true to the high value we place on religious tolerance and pluralism.”

Asked about the sensitivity of celebrating a Jewish holiday in a Muslim country, Goldstrom said, “American soldiers are both culturally sensitive and committed to religious pluralism, so we both respect the host nation’s cultural and religious sensitivities while providing an opportunity for our servicemembers to observe their faith traditions.”

Shulman saw historical parallels to the first Hanukkah.

Then, he said, “a small band of citizens defeated the mighty and fierce Greek army. This week, 2,200 years later, we light a menorah to commemorate the events and acknowledge God’s continuous interaction in our lives, all while on a U.S. Army base in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

“Moral of the story: Where there’s a will to make something happen, there’s a way. Nothing is too difficult.”


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