Hanukkah service held in Iraq.

By Ben Kane, Programs Assistant

A well-known fact among the international Jewish community is that sometimes observing Jewish traditions and a Jewish lifestyle can be difficult. For Jewish American military service members overseas, this difficulty stems from a variety of sources. It can come from anti-Semitic fellow service members, from being in a country that is hostile to observers of the Jewish faith, or to simply not having the right items needed for Jewish holidays and customs. One place where being a Jew in the military would likely have its fair share of difficulties is Iraq. Yet, as this story demonstrates, Jewish U.S. military personnel often find a way to express their Jewish faith and traditions even in potentially unfriendly environments.

In October 2005, an idea amongst several Jewish American service members took shape- to plan and hold a successful Hanukkah party or two in Iraq. It had been several years since the last Hanukkah party, and they believed it was due time to celebrate the festival of lights. Calls were made to various organizations that would likely help with the efforts to carry out the party, with Colonel Nelson Mellitz contacting the Jewish War Veterans of the USA. His association with the JWV would continue for years and into the present, with Col. Mellitz eventually becoming the Department Commander for the state of New Jersey, as well as the National Quartermaster.

Calls were made through the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, through the chaplain’s services, through the JWV, and as the word spread, the trickle of Hanukkah memorabilia sent their way turned into a flood. Col. Mellitz soon found his desk and surrounding space in the Baghdad embassy had enough Hanukkah memorabilia for parties far into the future. The effort to celebrate Hanukkah in Iraq was not without a few hiccups. Hesitation amongst some of the captains and lieutenants involved in carrying out the plans for the parties provided some difficulties. The hesitation was rumored to be anti-Semitic in nature, but any issues were resolved by the generals, as well as on an ambassadorial level, allowing the plans for the festivities to proceed.

Army SPC and fallen service member Daniel Agami (far left) stands with the giant Menorah in Iraq in 2006.

As if the Hanukkah celebrations being held in Iraq were not unique enough, the specific location of the parties is noteworthy. The celebrations of the festival of lights for this year and for several after were held in the former palace of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. His opulent palaces, once the seat of power of a tyrant, was now being repurposed for good- for beautiful Hanukkah celebrations. Hanukkah parties at the palace featured music, dancing, and no small number of latkes and chocolates. Included in the agenda were more serious notes like speeches from dignitaries, including Zalmay Khalilzad, at that time the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Initial questions of whether he would be able to attend or not were eventually answered when embassy security staff began posting troops around the area and combing the area with their dogs.

A focal point of these celebrations was the colossal menorah that was designed by LT. Laurie and constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the military contractor KBR. Humorously, the Army Corps of Engineers Captain who was tasked with overseeing construction efforts had no idea what a menorah was until then. The menorah soon became synonymous with the Hanukkah parties at Saddam’s Republican palace and was on display whenever a Hanukkah party took place there.

Many, but not all, of the attendees were Jewish, Col. Mellitz said, creating a heightened sense of camaraderie between service members of different faiths that hopefully has lasted long after the celebration and deployment ended. The Hanukkah parties at the palace and at nearby Camp Liberty, represented by the towering menorah in the palace and at Camp Liberty, served as symbols not just of the overthrowing of tyranny, but of the resilience of the Jewish people and their ability to honor Jewish traditions and customs anywhere in the world.

Volume 72. Number 4. Winter 2018