From Banter to Blessings
Jewish comedians and chaplains lift the spirits of American troops overseas.
Shawn Pelofsky wasn’t drafted, but she heard the call of duty. Afraid of flying and without any weapon skills, she became the first female comic to perform in Afghanistan. When Pelofsky broke the news of her endeavor to her father—a “nice Jewish neurosurgeon”—he was not pleased.
“He himself served as a medic in Vietnam and he begged me not to go,” Pelofsky, who lives in Los Angeles, recalled in an interview with JointMedia News Service. “He said, ‘I will pay you what they are paying you.’ I said, ‘Dad this is not about the money, this is about what is right. But while we are on the topic, can I borrow ten grand?’”
Pelofsky is not alone on this mission. While American troops are in harm’s way, Jewish comedians and chaplains are contributing to the effort of uplifting the spirits and souls of soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and military bases around the world.
“When you go overseas to entertain the troops, there is no experience like it,” Pelofsky said. “There is a risk factor that creates a certain high, because you are boosting morale for the men and women who are serving this country and protect our freedom, and there is no more euphoric feeling than that. Once you do it you want to do it again.”
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein: Blessings for Everyone
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein took time at midnight his time to call this reporter from Afghanistan, where he is currently one of a small number of Orthodox Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army.
This year, the army mobilized him during the High Holidays in Afghanistan, where he has been conducting services for soldiers under all circumstances—literally experiencing the meaning of life and death situations. He said that during Yom Kippur services, “We had incoming attacks and had to go into a bunker.”
Goldstein has been a roving chaplain for the military for more than 33 years. He has been deployed to Bosnia, South Korea, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This year, he spent Sukkot in Afghanistan, armed with portable sukkahs.
“As a chaplain in the army, I am here for everyone,” Goldstein said. “Troops [of all religions] do come over to me to talk and to ask for a blessing. In combat, you don’t care who is going to give you a blessing.”
When he spoke with JointMedia News Service, Goldstein described that day’s “Ramp” ceremony for a young special operations commander who died. During this procession led by chaplains, senior leadership and other soldiers line up and honor the body of the fallen as it is moved onto a plane, with the backdrop of the American flag and the playing of “Taps.”
“It’s a powerful and moving ceremony,” Goldstein said. “I told the general it is unfortunate the rest of the country cannot see this and understand the way the military honors their dead.”
Sometimes, Goldstein’s spiritual boost is needed on American soil. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, he served for five months as the senior chaplain for all military branches at Ground Zero.
Comedian Larry Miller: ‘A Deeper Kind of Wisdom’
While he is all over Hollywood, one of Jewish comedian Larry Miller’s favorite roles is bringing smiles to the faces of American soldiers recovering from their injuries.
Miller has appeared in more than 50 films and hundreds of television shows, including roles in The Princess Diaries and The Nutty Professor, and the cast of ABC’s 10 Things I Hate About You. He is a frequent guest on late-night television.
Never at a loss for words, Miller was unusually quiet while trying to explain his experience with troops. He has visited them in Washington, DC about a dozen times, stopping by hundreds of soldiers’ rooms.
“Humor may not be much, but it’s all I have,” Miller told JointMedia News Service. “I don’t know if it makes anything better, but I can’t change their worlds, but maybe I can change their mood for a few seconds.”
Miller recounted powerful stories of meeting young soldiers who had lost limbs, yet maintained amazing perspectives and wonderful senses of humor.
“Humor is a deeper kind of wisdom, it does not obscure an issue—does not take seriousness away—it enhances it,” Miller said. “To me, humor is every bit as important as hugging a loved one or saying thank you or working hard. Laughing is the entire core of life—[at the] end of every one of my podcasts, I say… ‘Remember if you walk out of bed and go to a job and you have someone who loves you to come home to, the game is over, and you have won.’”
Making Fun of Your Surroundings
Pelofsky flew in Black Hawks wearing bulletproof vests, performing anywhere from a stage to a rock in the middle of a field of gravel. She sees her mission as not only to entertain, but also to lend an ear.
“I have a lot of soldiers who came up to me and told me about their families,” Pelofsky said. “They just want someone to listen to them—they love when you make fun of your surroundings and the moment you’re in.”
Pelofsky chuckles when asked about the Jewish servicemen and women.
“Inevitably there is always one Jewish soldier on the base who comes up to me and whispers ‘I am Jewish too,’” she said. “And I say ‘Your secret is safe with me, Sergeant Lipshitz!’”
There are also some fringe benefits to the job.
“I go overseas to entertain the troops—but let’s face it, it’s hard to meet the right man in Los Angeles. The odds on a military base are much better,” Pelofsky quipped.
Masada Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org