Soldier On| July 19, 2022
Could he escape his inner demons by heading into a war zone?
He was going to miss his flight.
Mendy glanced again at the dashboard and beat an impatient staccato on his knee.
“Sorry, Mendy… this looks like the accident of the year.” Levi heaved a sigh at the unmoving chain of cars in front of them.
“Yeah, bro. No need to apologize, just thinking what to do now.”
“Now we sit. What to do when we get out of this gridlock, you mean. Wait — what’s with all the food?”
Mendy grinned through the worry flickering in his gut.
“Frozen solid enough to knock out King Kong. No need to worry.”
Yet that’s exactly what Mendy was doing while sitting in his brother’s car and sweating through the blast of the air conditioning.
The guy behind them honked, making both of them jump. Levi jerked forward another two inches.
“Say, Mend,” he started, and something in the silence made Mendy look across at him.
Levi scratched his neck.
“I’m not mixing in or anything. But maybe this is a sign you shouldn’t go?”
“Whoa. Where did that come from?” Suspicion bloomed in his mind. “Did Ta say anything? Be honest.”
Levi shook his head.
“So who? Ma’s already said all she has to say. We’re all good, we’ve been through this hundreds of times.”
Levi leaned forward to rub the windshield. An incipient tension headache gathered at Mendy’s temples.
Levi slanted a gaze at Mendy.
“A brother can’t worry?” he muttered.
Mendy slipped his hand into his pocket and clenched his fist over Zaidy’s coin. A gift, a tradition. Shaliach mitzvah gelt from his very first time on shlichus. His talisman.
“B’ezras Hashem, I’ll be fine. All those tefillos. Zechuyos. Shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim. I need to tell you?”
Levi jutted his chin at the endless brake lights suddenly noticeable in the descending darkness. They’d been sitting on the Belt for hours.
“Maybe He’s telling you something different, that’s all I’m saying.”
Mendy massaged his temples and closed his eyes so Levi wouldn’t pick up on his doubt. He wasn’t backing out.
“Maybe it’s the yetzer hara, that’s all I’m saying.”
The car behind them blared again. The snake of cars in front had graduated to a crawl. “See? Traffic is going to clear up.” Mendy whomped his brother on the shoulder, a sudden rush of adrenalin making him smile.
“It’s going to be fine. Don’t turn into a worrywart on me, okay? Ma does everyone’s share.”
Levi muttered something and picked up speed.
Mendy eyed the guy with the Bose headphones in 24C and sighed. He was snoring loudly, tucked against the identical pillow Mendy had punched, jammed under his chin, and finally discarded.
He’d never been able to sleep on planes. But for the last three years, even sleep in his own bed had been challenging, so trying to catch some rest tonight was asking for a miracle.
He looked out into the blackness, trying to quiet his mind, then forced his attention away from the thoughts that threatened to suck him in, and pulled up the Chitas app. In the palm of his right hand, the coin grew warm, while outside, the sky streaked pink as they crossed into day.
Bose lurched out of sleep into wakefulness and stretched. He caught Mendy’s eye and pulled himself upright.
“What kinda business you got on this end of the world, huh?”
Mendy smiled in what he hoped was a pleasant but non-inviting way.
“There are always things for rabbis to do.”
Bose removed his neck pillow, a deep laugh rumbling out of his chest.
Mendy smiled blandly as the plane began its descent. He meant to say tehillim, but Ta’s brachah came to him instead.
Ki malachav yetzaveh lach. A blessing, a prayer, a protection.
The plane’s wheels made bumpy contact with the tarmac.
He opened his eyes and smiled at Bose, a genuine one this time.
Mendy Kaganoff had arrived.
He had expected trouble — at border control, at customs. But in times of war no one had the time or inclination to nitpick their way through the luggage of someone who murmured the magic word. Humanitarian.
The trouble came once Mendy walked out of Chişinău International Airport.
Everything was still cold to the touch after hours in the subzero hold, but if the freezer truck Levi had ordered didn’t show up soon, the loss would be staggering.
Visions of red puddles made him feel nauseous as he glanced down at his phone. Baruch Hashem it was working.
Hi, any word from freezer truck?
Slightly dizzy, Mendy tried to remember when he’d eaten last, but the hours since he’d left Crown Heights seemed to have blurred. He wasn’t really hungry, but getting sick now wasn’t a good idea, so he rummaged in his backpack for those sandwiches Ma had forced him to take. At least he wouldn’t have to evade her questioning when she asked if he’d eaten them.
Mendy fought with saran wrap as he tried to muster up an appetite. The times zones he had crossed should make this his dinner.
A huge man towered over him, muscular arms dragging what appeared to be enough equipment to film a war epic.
Which, Mendy allowed, was probably what he was going to do.
Mendy struggled to his feet. “I’m Mendy. You are…?”
Mendy wondered if that was his first or last name. “Pleased to meet you. Media?”
“Yeah. Waiting for the rest of my crew to come on a different flight.”
“Kyiv.” Mendy could hear the excitement in Ericson’s voice and wondered what it was that drove journalists into fire. The lure of fame, hope for a Pulitzer? The thrill of a battle that didn’t belong to them?
He shivered slightly and felt for the coin.
Guy said he’ll be there in five
“I’m headed over the border, too.” He smiled and rewrapped the half-eaten sandwich. “And my ride will be here any minute. Good luck, I hope you’re there to catch a victory march.”
“That would be nice. Though G-d knows, there’s not much smooth ground left for marching.” There was no trace of Ericson’s previous excitement. Maybe Mendy had misjudged him.
“How about a blessing, Rabbi?”
He wanted to protest. But in the world he was about to enter, he was going to be a man different from the one he had left behind.
Mendy lifted his hand.
“Sure, Ericson. May you go in peace and come back in peace. G-d bless.”
“KAGANOFF?” someone yelled, and Mendy turned to see a jeep pulling a closed trailer he assumed housed the freezer.
He gave Ericson a half wave, half salute, and dragged the cases toward the jeep.
Always a soldier.
There had been thousands of opportunities to put his head down during the torturous journey through endless checkpoints and sluggish traffic into Ukraine. But Mendy resisted.
Always, in mindless moments such these, he was back there — the center of one of the ugliest of acrimonious divorces to rock the community. His name turned to mud, no — worse than mud — dragged and plastered everywhere, the lies assuming gargantuan proportions. Her family’s money and privilege taking center stage. His family’s voices small, disbelieved, and disbelieving.
He forced the thoughts away and his eyes open.
By the time Mendy stumbled into the makeshift Chabad House, he’d completely lost his sense of time.
“Shalom aleichem, Mendy! Vos macht a Yid?” His best friend looked as hearty as ever. Mendy leaned in for a robust backslap and one-armed bear hug, but his grin suddenly turned into a rictus of pain as the latent migraine he’d kept at bay exploded behind his eye.
“Oy vey, you need a bed before anything.” Sholom pulled Mendy into a back room where a narrow bed was neatly made up.
“I’m bringing you a drink. You brought any painkillers with you?”
Mendy didn’t want to lie down, but his body overruled his mind’s protests, Sholom’s murmured assurances disappearing behind a sheet of pain in his head.
A few hours later, the tail end of a nightmare shook him awake, and he bolted upright just as a blurred shape poked through the open door.
“You okay, Mend?”
Mendy rolled onto his side and patted around for his glasses.
Sholom came into focus.
“There’s water for washing next to the chair.” He paused. “You sure you’re okay?”
Mendy looked away — he didn’t want to see an ounce of pity from anyone. He shook his head slightly, trying to dislodge the wooly feeling in his brain. His body ached.
He dug his palms into his eye sockets and rubbed, hard. Had he screamed? Cried?
The baby, crying. I’m coming, I’m coming! Running. Cries tapering into silence. His chest, burning. Please, baby! Don’t go away…
“Long trip,” Mendy said, “But let me just change, and then I’m ready to go. What’s on the program… today? Tonight? What time is it, anyway?”
“We’re going to an army base today. Tefillin and food.”
Mendy swung his legs off the bed.
“Give me 15 minutes, and I’m there.”
The big surprise was that war suited him.
The realization came to Mendy slowly when he looked back at the sheer insanity of the week he’d endured — hours and hours of distributing clothes and food to people with no corner of the world to call their own; the yawning, gaping holes of loss wherever he looked — and then the numb crashing into sleep wherever he could find a bed, so beyond exhausted that the dreams couldn’t find him.
And he wasn’t even anywhere close to the actual fighting.
The guilt crept up in the rare quiet moments he had.
Shame on you, Menachem Mendel. You’re a Yid. It’s WAR.
But he was doing good. A soldier made for this kind of battle, driving himself to the brink of collapse again and again and again.
Mendy pulled his face into a smile as he got into the dusty van.
“Hey, Andrew. I’m not a chaplain.”
Andrew grinned and stepped on the gas. Mendy always seemed to be paired with him — a short, stocky man in worn battle fatigues and an unexpected British accent. His knowledge of the land and the language were invaluable.
“Ah, you’re a chaplain, all right. You with all your rabbi things. Tefillin and circumcision and kosher food — wait, what’s that ritual slaughtering called, not halal, right?”
“You got it — kosher.”
His driver’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. Kharkiv-born Andrei, Cambridge educated Andrew, he was a curious amalgamation of truck driver and Shakespeare, tour guide and Socrates. Who’s your driver today? read the text.
Can he take you to Kramatorsk?
Shluchim baby bris
Family wanted to leave before birth but dr said mother can’t travel
Mohel they arranged can’t make it
“Hey, Andrew. Rabbi Sholom wants to know if we can get to Donetsk today.”
Andrew pulled over into a mass of weeds.
“Okay, Chaplain Kag. It’s going to be really hot around there, and I don’t mean the weather. I’m trusting Rabbi Sholom knows what’s going on, but ask him to make sure.”
Driver says dangerous zone — no one local?
Baby eight days today?
Mendy checked his duffel bag. Did he even have the equipment he needed?
Eight days today, no one else can do it, father doesn’t know milah
Mendy stared at nothing. A bris under fire. He bit his lip and willed away a small voice of reason.
“If you’re willing to go for it, so am I.”
Andrew pecked at his phone.
“It’s going to take us at least three hours, best-case scenario, but we can try. We might be turned back at any point. You’re sure about this?”
Mendy ran his thumb along the coin.
“I’m sure. You up for it?”
Andrew gunned the motor in response.
“You pray,” he grunted.
Hey bro, heading into dangerous area for bris
Please go to the Ohel
Do NOT tell Ta or Ma
Less than a minute later, his phone buzzed.
On my way in 30 min
Tracht gut vet zein gut
Mendy closed his eyes and prayed.
The ruin Mendy had seen up until now was nothing. Entire blocks ground to rubble, the buildings one-dimensional facades standing sentinel over empty spaces. Possessions strewn at random, hanging off felled electricity poles. Uprooted tree trunks, charred and twisted branches like black tentacles.
And the noise. Distant, but not distant enough. Explosions strong enough for Mendy to feel the juddering in his feet.
Andrew had fallen into uncharacteristic silence since entering the city, which Mendy didn’t mind. This was war.
A mangled bed hanging out of a house with both sides shorn off. The frame of a stroller lying on its side in the middle of what had once been the road, wheels missing, red fabric in tatters. The smoke, a haze covering everything.
“So, Chaplain Kag. What are you running away from?”
Mendy jumped. Andrew was focused on the road ahead, lips grim.
“Look at you, a young man, all of life ahead of you. But you’re on this suicide mission. What are you running from?”
Mendy tried to gather his thoughts.
“I’m not running away. I’m on a mission.”
Andrew shook his head.
“Chaplain Kag. You listen to me, I know a lot of Jews. I know Rabbi Sholom and I knew people at the Habad House in England. I know the attitude, you’re all brothers. And I know that saving lives is first and foremost.”
He kept his eyes on the road.
“But still. I know the look of a man who has nothing to lose. I’ve watched you all week, pushing and pushing yourself, driven by something inhuman. “
“It’s not a suicide mission. We believe that G-d sends angels to protect us when we go to do good deeds.”
He was tired, the eloquence that always came naturally to him suddenly dissolving. He leaned his head on the window, then thought better of it as they hit a pothole, slamming him against the glass.
“Ah no, Chaplain Kag. There’s got to be something more. Look at you now.”
A quick, sharp pain lanced his chest.
He found his pulse quickening. He clenched his jaw and felt for the coin. Deep breath, Menachem Mendel. Deeeep breath.
“Let me tell you about my grandfather. He performed circumcisions in Soviet Russia. You know about the KGB?”
“Depending on the year, yeah. My grandfather told me about the NKVD.”
“Religion was outlawed, Jews persecuted. People were losing their connection to Judaism, children were born ignorant of their heritage. And a tiny group of men fought that. They smuggled holy books across the country, they slaughtered chickens in the forests, and they were arrested and tortured for doing so.”
Something whistled above them, leaving a trail of fire. Andrew and Mendy ducked as the explosion rocked the van.
They breathed into the ensuing silence for a moment or two.
“And my grandfather was one of them. Every time they released him from prison, he went right back to doing what he needed to do. His mission. He even lost a finger, but came out thanking G-d that it wouldn’t compromise his holy work.”
Mendy turned to Andrew.
“I grew up with those stories. And all I ever wanted to do was be a soldier like him. Now that I have a chance to do it, why would I be scared?”
Andrew cocked his head.
“And that’s it? The thing you always wanted to be, a Jewish war hero?”
Mendy nodded. Andrew threw a keen gaze at him but he refused to flinch.
A miracle the armchair psychologist couldn’t mind-read.
We’re going to be at Kramatorsk soon. Contact details?
Forgot to ask
Mendy messaged Levi that he had arrived safely and swung the duffel bag over his shoulder. He shook Aharon Liberow’s hand and followed him into what appeared to be a community center cum shelter, Andrew close behind him.
“Can I give you something to drink before we start?” Mendy shook his head, pushing all thought and feeling away, then asked if the baby was ready as he looked around. Lighting was no good, he’d need to supplement.
“Got some emergency flashlight or something in the van, Andrew?”
Andrew nodded and vanished.
Aharon headed to a door at the corner of the room, nodding to two old ladies sitting in the corner. Good, the mother would have someone to help her afterward.
“Miriam, is it okay to come in now?” He turned to Mendy. “Uh, she’s really not feeling well. And the stress. All these weeks.”
Aharon’s face was pale, but that may have been the gloom. Either way, he seemed on the verge of tears himself.
Mendy patted his shoulder, forcibly blocking memories of a different bris, a different day, a different agony.
He pulled his coin out and closed Aharon’s hand over it.
“You hold this shaliach mitzvah gelt, it’s seen me through many hard days. Have you had anything to drink? A glezel bronfen?”
Aharon laughed mirthlessly.
“What bronfen, I’ve been saving half a bottle of wine so we could have it at the bris.”
“You sit here, then, and I’ll go and prepare the baby.”
Mendy let everything fade as his focus sharpened.
“Can I come in, Rebbetzin?”
She replied, and he walked into a cramped room with two folding cots and an old-fashioned carriage.
Mendy started unpacking things he would need — izmel, dressing, alcohol — eyes on the baby.
“When did he eat last?”
When there was no reply, he looked up.
Recognition slammed into his mind, and he took a step backward, shock waves pulsing in his chest.
Rivka? No, not Rivka. Her sister. Miriam. She’d gotten married? Was here?
And then he was running through the door, pushing past the waiting father, past Andrew with his emergency light, deaf to their exclamations.
Self-preservation eventually kicked in, forcing Mendy to take refuge in a building that hadn’t yet collapsed.
He stumbled down a flight or two until his feet gave way, and he slid into a crouch on a layer of dust, head bent over his knees.
His face was wet.
What are you running away from, Chaplain Kag?
How was it possible? How had the mere memory of it conjured up his nightmare, here, halfway across the world?
A groan escaped him, a drawn-out utterance of raw pain that built to a crescendo.
And he was back there again. A bris. His son. His son. The warnings, even threats, couldn’t keep him away that day.
Mendy groaned again, feeling the tallis pulled low over his face as he sat at the back of the shul, weeping together with his son as he entered the covenant of Avraham.
Every night he relived that bris. Every day he lived with the knowledge of having a son somewhere whom he could not see, could never know, memories stinging the open wound his heart had become. His cries, the baby’s cries.
It could have been anyone in the world. Any couple with a passion to save lives, make a difference. Any couple but a member of the family who’d ruined him.
His ex-wife’s sister. A baby. A bris.
A cruel twist of the knife, deeper, harder.
A tremendous blast shook the building, its vibrations knocking Mendy into a sprawl.
He had to go.
And he wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t. Let Sholom find someone else, let the other mohel find his way here in a day or two.
A nearby whistle, and he stopped breathing for a second, two.
I know the look of a man who has nothing to lose.
He fumbled for the coin. No. It was in the hands of a nervous father waiting in some basement for his son to have a bris.
Of course I have nothing to lose, Andrew. I’ve lost it all already. Everything.
He was gulping now, dry heaves of his chest. Flakes of plaster drifted around him, and he coughed until he retched, the knowledge of what he was going to do scraping his throat raw.
He rolled to standing, pulled himself up the steps until he stood outside under a sky billowing black clouds.
He typed slowly.
Can’t do bris
When can other mohel be here?
Eyes smarting, he walked back the way he had come.
Andrew was leaning against the van. Mendy wrenched open the passenger door and threw himself onto the seat.
Andrew opened the door on the driver’s side, his face a question.
“Let’s go.” The rasp of his hoarseness made Mendy sound aggressive. He closed his eyes and spoke again, softly. “Please.”
It seemed like a century before Andrew got in, threw Mendy’s duffel at him and turned the key.
They drove slowly. Visibility was down, the strafing a menacing backdrop to the hush in the van.
Andrew inhaled sharply and made as if to speak but Mendy held his palm up.
“Don’t,” he said, the word dropping like a brick into the silence.
Zaidy’s coin burned a hole in his pocket even though it was no longer there. He wanted to disappear, to be pounded into nothingness. He wasn’t worthy.
If the next explosion wiped them all out, if this would be the last mitzvah he ever performed — was he going to throw it away?
Mendy shook his head, trying to dislodge the voice in his head. Go away.
Or if that baby’s life ended before Man finished what Hashem had created, could Mendy ever live with himself?
But I can’t do it.
A memory of Zaidy rose, unbidden, and Mendy’s throat closed with the sudden urge to weep. Was this worse than the KGB, than persecution, than torture?
It’s a Yiddishe baby, Menachem Mendel.
He felt the resistance draining from him.
“Okay,” he ground out. Always a soldier. “Okay.” Louder now, his throat painful. “We’ll go back.”
Andrew looked at him. “Back?”
Mendy nodded, smoothing his damp palm over his empty pocket.
Andrew grinned at him.
“A Jewish war hero, was it?”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 802)
Oops! We could not locate your form.