Tribute

Taking a break from Liz’s adventures in Amsterdam to report on a moving tribute that I witnessed Sunday evening.

The Jewish War Veterans, Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose Post 51, staged a Musical Tribute to the veterans of the Vietnam era at Temple Adath Israel in Middletown. The organizers sounded exactly the right notes to honor these neglected heroes.

When we arrived, the front table, designated “Tent #1,” was set with a single chair. Master of Ceremonies Harvey Redak explained the various symbols that portrayed the military men who had sacrificed their lives for our country. The other tables were each set with a centerpiece that had a piece of paper darkened and curled to represent a piece of earth. On it were stones and a tent with insignia from the various branches of the service. Each tent bore a number, 2 through 11. Surrounding the tents were small strips of paper describing units from the Army and Marines that had served in Vietnam. The attention to detail and the amount of research involved served to recreate the scene, but in the safe environment of the community room at the temple.

Everyone praised Shirley Schloss for her ability to envision and create this mis-en-scène. This is the third event for which she has produced such marvelous work.

The event opened with a welcome from Mr. Redak, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of The Star Spangled Banner by Brenda Brennan, a glorious young soprano.

Rabbi Seth Haaz delivered the invocation and then the eighty guests ate and ate. There were five, maybe six kinds of meat. (Sorry, I didn’t take notes except I’m pretty sure corned beef was involved.) I went for two helpings of whitefish salad on the best rye bread that I’ve tasted since I hung around outside the Jewish bakery in Poughkeepsie after an all-nighter.

Just as everyone was about to burst from too much food, the tribute began. It consisted of a PowerPoint presentation of images as the members of Post 51 and others read accounts of what happened during the years of the Vietnam War. Mr. Redak introduced the presentation, noting that the war actually began in 1959 with the death of the first adviser. It ended in 1973. In between more than 58,000 American service members lost their lives.

The presentation began with 1965. Many of the events remain emblazoned on the memories of anyone who was alive at the time: the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, followed by the assassinations of MLK and RFK in 1968; the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969; the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Some of it was old stuff that came back as new because I’d forgotten. For example, gasoline cost a mere $0.31 per gallon in 1965. And even though I was living on a college campus when the students were killed at Kent State University, I did not know that three of them were Jewish. I did remember the painful truth that they were bystanders rather than protesters because every college student in the country realized that any of us could be killed simply by walking across the campus.

There were lighthearted moments, as well: Twiggy; the arrival of the mini-skirt, which put joy into the hearts of men throughout the land; likewise the arrival of the Corvette; bell-bottom Levi’s, which brought joy to boys and girls everywhere. Movies covered the landscape from the G-rated Sound of Music to the R-rated Godfather for which Marlon Brando won the Oscar for best actor but declined it as a way to protest the war. Deaths ran the gamut from Winston Churchill to Jim Morrison.

Following this walk down memory lane, Mr. Redak asked all the Vietnam veterans to stand. He read an open letter in which he thanked all of the men and women for their service and offered a humble apology for the way they were treated when they returned to this country. We understand, now we did not then, that these valiant people were not responsible for the government’s misguided policies, he said. I cried, and I noticed others wiping their eyes as Mr. Redak concluded. Everyone rose and applauded. The veterans agreed that this was the first occasion that they could recall when an organization had singled out them for thanks and recognition. It truly was a signal moment. The leaders and members of Post 51 deserve praise for their thoughtfulness and hard work.

The evening concluded with the lighting of the candle and recitation of the Kaddish by Rabbi Haaz. “Taps,” performed by Mr. Redak, concluded the Vietnam War Years presentation.

A Klezact, from the temple in Chester, struck up their instruments and set everyone’s feet tapping.

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