In l964, I was a Navy medical officer assigned to a ship off the coast of South Vietnam. My best friend on board was a Navy officer from south Georgia. Originally home-ported in Newport, Rhode Island, the ship was filled with New Englanders. Tom and I were the only two officers from small southern towns. Different as we were, Tom, a non-practicing Methodist, and I, a Jewish lay leader of a congregation of six enlisted men, shared a love of college football and music (Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Mozart).
Tom liked to stand his bridge watches from midnight to 4:00 a.m., the mid-watch. Often I joined him, sharing bad coffee and good conversation. The Navy prohibits three topics at meals: politics, sex, and religion. On the bridge we discussed them all.
Tom had not been to church since he graduated from the Naval Academy. Partly out of curiosity, and partly to be supportive, he came to a much abbreviated Yom Kippur service I led aboard the ship. Afterwards he asked probing questions about Judaism. I’d had little formal Jewish education, so my answers were rather superficial and incomplete. He wanted more. He wanted books to read. I gave him Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s Anatomy of Faith and Basic Judaism, Rabbi Morris Kertzer’s What Is a Jew?, Martin Buber’s Two Types of Faith, and Rabbi Leo Baeck’s Judaism and Christianity. Above all he treasured the Baeck.
We went to services when we could: to Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, to Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu—and to a lay-led seder on the Navy Base in Yokosuka, Japan for about 100 people, 75 of them U.S. Navy men and women and the remainder their Japanese families or friends. At a signal from the Navy doctor leading the seder, a 5-year-old boy, the son of a Navy officer and a Japanese Naval architect, walked to the head table, bowed, adjusted his falling kipah, and announced: “I am David Hiroshi Cohen. I will now chant the Four Questions.” Closing his eyes, he intoned: Manishtana halaila hazeh, mikol haleilot…with all his heart and soul. When he finished, he bowed, retrieved his now fallen kipah, and translated the Hebrew, first into Japanese for his grandparents attending their first seder, then into English for the rest of us. With a huge grin, he accepted his applause, and waited patiently at the front, hoping to be asked for an encore. Finally his proud mother took him by the hand and led him back to his seat.
“Is Passover always this much fun?” Tom whispered to me.
“Oh yes!” I replied.
Back on the ship, we took our coffee to the fantail to talk. It was dark; the lights in the harbor shone in the distance.
“I thought I wanted to become a Jew,” he began, “but I wasn’t sure. Now I am. Watching that kid and his parents—the look on their faces—I knew. There’s no more doubt. I want to be a part of that. I want to study with a rabbi.”
Perhaps it was beshert (destiny): the rabbi of Temple Israel in Long Beach, our ship’s new home port, turned out to be Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, who had been Rabbi Baeck’s student in Germany. He agreed to teach Tom by exchange of letters and books until we could return to California.
Ever the overachiever, Tom wanted not only to convert, but to become a bar mitzvah. He did both at Temple Israel. “I stood with the Jewish people at Sinai,” he wrote, and “I stand with them for all time. I, too, knew the searing pain of Auschwitz and the soaring exhilaration of the founding of the State of Israel, an eternal refuge for our people fleeing oppression and spiritual annihilation.”
My Navy buddy had accepted a life of Torah.
In time Tom and I both left the Navy. He went to law school; married Ann, a fellow student; and began a practice in his hometown. At Ann’s parents’ congregation in Atlanta, they found a Jewish community, and in time their sons and daughter became b’nai mitzvah too.
When I retired and had time to travel, Tom asked me to spend Passover with his family, and to lead the seder. Challenged by health problems, Ann’s parents wanted to move the celebration to Tom and Ann’s, and neither Tom nor Ann was quite comfortable conducting the seder.
“How many people are coming?” I asked.
“Twenty,” Tom replied, “including two Roman Catholics and a dozen Southern Baptists. Few have ever been to a seder. Most think it’s a Hebrew version of their communion service, plus dinner. One asked if I was barbecuing, and if he could contribute the beer.”
“Sure,” I said, smiling. “My pleasure.”
The seder was wonderful. It wasn’t hard to make real the Passover message of justice and freedom. Ann’s parents’ Atlanta synagogue had been bombed in l958, at the beginning of the struggle for African American civil rights. Her grandmother had told her how frightened Georgia’s Jews were in l914 when Leo Frank was lynched in a nearby town. The fathers of some of the seder guests had been members of the White Citizens Councils, and some had grandfathers in the Klan.
We spoke of these things, but the seder wasn’t all seriousness and gloom. Picture a dozen Southern Baptists singing “Dayenu” with all their hearts and souls—you had to be there!
At my seders, I invite the longest married or partnered couple, or the newest in love, to read to each other from Shir Shirim, Song of Songs. This time I chose Billy Bob and Betty Sue, who’d been married 33 years. Imagine the burly planter Billy Bob—Orson Welles as Big Daddy—and his demure southern belle Betty Sue reading, “Let us go down to the vineyards to see if the vines have new buds. There will I give you my love. There you stand like a palm tree, your breasts clusters of dates.”
When Billy and Betty finished, they insisted on reading it again. They were having too much fun. It took all my diplomatic savvy to steer us on to karpas.
After the seder concluded, everyone kept talking over coffee and macaroons. Billy Bob, who rarely drank, but who by this time had consumed several more glasses of Mogen David than is halachically required, said in what he thought was a whisper, “Mike, I really enjoyed this! We don’t agree on everything, but that’s OK. It was fun! And those Bible verses you made me read to Betty Sue—that was better than Viagra!”
Weeks later, I received a thank you note from Tom. Unbeknownst to him or to Ann, when we gathered at Passover, three of their guests were in fact members of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the reincarnation of the White Citizens Councils, with its own motto: “White Pride World Wide.” Others were feeling pressure to join, and thought they would.
The three had now resigned from the CCC, they told Tom proudly. The others decided not to become members.
They had understood the Passover message of freedom and justice. They would no longer accept without challenge the homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism of politicians and televangelists.
“We’ve come a long way since that seder in Yokosuka,” Tom concluded in his note, “but it’s been a journey I would not have missed for the world.”
Neither would I, Tom. Neither would I.
Michael Rankin, M.D., is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees, Anshe Chessed Congregation in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.