Tonight I went to a Chanukah gathering at Camp Eggers (ten minutes walking from the Embassy) with several other members of the Embassy community as well as soldiers from ISAF. There were about twenty of us, many more than the usual six that gather every Friday for Shabbat dinner. The Jewish chaplain (the ONLY one in all of Afghanistan) who is normally stationed in Mazar presided over the event. Afterwards, the DFAC (cafeteria) at Camp Eggers prepared a special meal for us with potato pancakes, roast chicken and brisket.
I think people who aren't normally religious really find that the community and the weekly shabbat service (or for Christians, bible study or church) serve as a touchstone during their service. I found it to be too many songs I don't know and a lot of Hebrew, but I did see how much it meant to many other people in the room and I used the moment for prayer to send positive thoughts home. At the end, we each took home a box or two donated by several communities in the United States of random things that were sent to Jewish soldiers and civilians serving in Afghanistan. These boxes are very thoughtful gifts and much appreciated - but it is interesting what I found inside.
First: There are the people who send "things soldiers need." This focuses mostly on skin moisturizing, dental hygiene. and cards for entertaining (left). Second: there are the packages that have a special flavor since they were for Jewish soldiers and civilians far from home. They included potato pancake mix, sardines of various flavors, horseradish packages, and Jewish themed stockings to hold all the goodies. Finally, the packages we received (and this extends beyond this set as we get them at the Embassy from time to time) sometimes include the random accoutrements of the American lifestyle. Some people throw in freebies they got from hotels and conferences, or pens they stole from their doctor's office, or candy lying around from the Halloween before. Or as seen below, they may just walk around their house throwing in whatever they find - the randomest assortment of odds and ends - including baseball cards, gummy fruit, a video narrated by Charlton Heston, and, my favorite of this round, a stuffed manta ray.
Now please don't take this as disrespect. Any and all these gifts are GREATLY appreciated and shared widely with soldiers, colleagues, or Afghan friends and local organizations for street children, mine victims or hospital patients. And I totally understand the "Wow, I have a ton of these soaps and free pens, what will I ever do with them - LIGHTBULB!" So consider this as me recording the American people's generosity - strange as it may be sometimes, but also endearing, heartfelt and appreciated.