Friday, June 26, 2009

Memorial Day on Willis Avenue

I had the most interesting experience on Monday that I'd like to tell you all about. As I have been for the last few years, I was invited by the American Legion post on Willis Avenue to participate in their Memorial Day service of remembrance. I've always been unable to attend, though, for one reason or another—usually a Monday morning bar- or bat-mitzvah—but this year I was able to go, and so I accepted. It turned out to be completely different than what I expected, and far more moving than I thought it was going to be.

First of all, I hadn't understood the invitation. I'm always leery of interfaith worship services, by which expression, in my experience, the organizers generally mean a service that is neither overtly Catholic or Protestant, but which is still so wholly Christian as to make me feel uncomfortable. Still, I was assured that this was not an interfaith service, and, indeed, not a prayer service at all, but rather a secular ceremony of remembrance. I should have asked what exactly that meant, but, uncharacteristically (and propelled, I suppose, by a bit of guilt over having turned them down four years in a row), I agreed to attend. Nor did the official title, "Post Everlasting Service" mean anything to me.

Anyway, what it turned out to be was both odd and, in its own way, very moving. The Post Everlasting, it turns out, is the celestial branch of the American Legion to which deceased veterans are promoted after they are no longer among the living and cannot, therefore, belong to earthly branches like the one on Willis Avenue. The way the promotion takes place was also unexpected: they produced a large, black brazier and, after lighting some coals in it, burnt the service records of those veterans who passed away between last Memorial Day and this one, then watched on as the smoke ascended towards heaven. To say the least, I was surprised. But I was also touched by what I saw. This kind of secular religion—if that's what you'd call it—is something I believe to be uniquely American. (The Romans had something similar as part of their culture, but I'm not sure what other nation does today.) Generally speaking, I find the notion of people wanting to do something "religious", but without having to espouse faith in any specific religion (and without having actually to affiliate with a specific synagogue or church) suspect. But this was somehow different. Between the crowd and the guests of honor (among whom I was asked to sit), were thirty symbolic grave markers representing America's war dead. There were twenty-seven crosses and three Jewish stars. Given that the number of Jews in the armed forces today is about two-tenths of one percent of the whole (about 3000 out of 1,500,000), I was touched by the generosity of the image. (It wasn't always like this. During the Second World War, Jews constituted about 4.25 percent of the Armed Forces. About half a million Jewish men and women served, which figure was about 11% of the Jewish population at the time, and roughly 50% of all Jewish men between the ages of 18 to 44.) And, as I sat there and contemplated the stars and the crosses, I was visited by the realization that, in the end, there is something profound that binds all American citizens, something that actually does transcend the trappings of religion or ethnic culture. Because we're so used to seeing that sentiment used to push political agendas or (worse) to sell us things, we've become used to dismissing it as maudlin, thus dispensable. But I felt very tied to the proceedings, and in an unexpectedly profound way. If they invite me, I'll go again next year.

I was asked to speak. Father Hayden from St. Aiden's Church on Willis Avenue and the Reverend Christina van Liew from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Center Street were in attendance, so I was particularly touched to be asked to deliver some closing remarks. I talked about how simple it is to mourn for the thousand soldiers who died since last Memorial Day in Iraq and Afghanistan, but how much harder it gets to remember that those who died long ago were also individuals. And how challenging it is to remember that every soldier who died in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, in the Civil War, in the Spanish-American War, as well as in the two World Wars and in Korea and Vietnam, that each of them had parents, that many had spouses and children, that all had futures that were cut short by an untimely death, that each was a full universe of feeling and intelligence and potential...and that the death of each of them was a tragedy not only for themselves, but for countless others, including ourselves. I told them that I believe this to constitute the real challenge that comes with the obligation to remember this country's war dead and, although I spoke only briefly, my remarks appeared to have been well received. I was genuinely thanked by many, many people for coming, including many of the veterans themselves. All in all, it was an exceptional experience, and one I hope I can have again. (June 1, 2007)

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