Seder in Saigon, 1966: The amazing story of Rabbi Alan Greenspan

With the Vietcong attacking, a young chaplain did all he could do to help his troops commemorate the Pessah holiday during the Vietnam War.

Rabbi Alan Greenspan 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Alan Greenspan 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What does it take for an American Orthodox rabbi to become a chaplain in the United States Army and to conduct Sedarim in Saigon during the Vietnam War? That's exactly what Rabbi Alan Greenspan, now a Jerusalem resident, accomplished, outmaneuvering potential army bureaucratic minefields and the dangers of real combat to bring the Pessah spirit to US servicemen in Vietnam. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was inspired by a religious school teacher to love Judaism and to want to be a rabbi. When he began high school, he was given the opportunity to study at a Manhattan yeshiva. Greenspan entered Yeshiva University where he earned a BA and his rabbinical ordination. While studying to become a rabbi, he chose to enter the US Army as a chaplain staff specialist in the summer of 1960. This program was created to provide enough Jewish chaplains in a difficult period in the world. Greenspan went to the Army Chaplain school at Fort Slocum, on an island near New Rochelle, New York. Along with Catholic and Protestant seminarians and other rabbinical students, Greenspan attended a nine-week course. The curriculum included learning about military regulations and procedures. The students were presented with the basic code of military law, and also learned the rules about saluting and other ceremonial actions. Physical fitness was a part of the training followed by the marching drills taught by a former ordnance officer, now a chaplain. The last week of the course everyone moved across the Hudson River to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for field training. They all slept in tents and all the food was prepared in military field kits. Highlights of the week included the shooting exercises, in which each chaplain fired a variety of weapons. Not everyone hit the target, but chaplains-to-be learned how to recognize various types of arms. All of this was done even though the Geneva Convention does not permit chaplains to carry arms. Their next test were the gas chambers, not of the Holocaust variety, but fearful never the less. Greenspan and his colleagues learned how to put on a gas mask properly. Then they were subjected to the opportunity to experience tear gas and poisonous chlorine. Each was well instructed before attempting to enter the gas chambers for this test. They also took an infiltration course. To make sure they could handle a serious war situation, Greenspan and the others with him had to crawl through the infiltration course. A practice session was held during the day, with bullets flying overhead, though not too close. At night, as the chaplains crawled, shells exploded in bright colors. At the same time machine-gun fire filled the air, making each chaplain quite aware that he was in the army. IN THE SUMMER OF 1962, after he was ordained, Greenspan went on active duty. His first assignment was at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and he took his new bride, Gala, with him. The chaplain quickly became expert at caring for his troops' spiritual and mental needs. He conducted a school for the children of Jewish officers and enlisted men. Since he was a golfer, Greenspan hit several balls in the rough where the American Gold Reserves were kept and which was off-limits. He and his wife got to know the members of the Jewish community in Louisville and also entertained at their home on the military grounds. Since this was the military, Greenspan decided he wanted to drive a tank. Fort Knox, in fact, had a school for preparing Army tank drivers, so the chaplain felt that he should have his chance. He was bothered by one important question in this process: "How could I relate to the claustrophobia of a soldier in the confined body of a tank if I did not know what the inside of one looked and felt like? I set out to learn and experience as much as I could by visiting soldiers during field training," he recalls. This was the first step; now he went further. The commanding officer of the school set him up in a mock version of a tank, teaching him how to start, steer, stop and turn it off. "What a thrill it would be to drive a tank for the first time." Although it took trainees a period of time to acquire these skills, Greenspan was a "quick study." Having been in the mock version, he was ready for the next step. "Now I entered a real tank as the driver," Greenspan explained. Next, he received the command "to start the engine" and was informed where the bow, the rear and the stern were located. What an experience for him. "I began to drive feeling an awesome sense of power when I spotted a small tree.... I was amazed how fast a tank could move," he recalls. The army photographer captured the chaplain in the tank for a memorable portrait. From Fort Knox, he was sent to Korea, even visiting Vietnam briefly. Then he returned to the US and was stationed at Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia. In early 1966 he received orders to go to Vietnam where the conflict was escalating. WHEN CHAPLAIN Alan Greenspan arrived in Saigon in early March 1966, he was greeted by a fierce battle in which the 272nd Regiment of the Vietcong 9th Division had attacked the American Third Brigade. The Americans only succeeded in forcing the Vietcong soldiers to retreat with support from the US Air Force. The chaplain realized how significant his mission would be and he wrote about it: "The role of a rabbi in a war zone is an extremely gratifying one because of all that he can do to help our fighting men adjust to its horrors. It is a difficult one as well, because of the misery that one sees." With this battle and others as his initial military contact, Greenspan began to work very diligently to prepare for the first Seder on April 4. "I knew that I had to make sure there would be Pessah Sedarim along with Pessah in toto, and I would not be deterred." Day after day he fashioned the holiday observance, putting into place all the objects required plus the food. At first, Greenspan pinpointed the new dishes, flatware and other equipment required. The dishes were supplied via the US Army channels, but the chaplain noted "they did not all arrive until two and a half hours before the first Seder." He wanted to make sure each branch of the US military service received credit so he phrased it in that way in a report. "The army came through in fine style; as did the navy with beautiful linen tablecloths. The air force flew in all the supplies as well as the Jewish personnel from all parts of Vietnam. Last but not least, the State Department via the United States Embassy in Saigon loaned a new stove for the holiday." The chaplain had the complete backing of Army Headquarters in Vietnam. Prior to Greenspan's arrival, on February 19 1966, Adjutant-General Major Shulze issued a notice to all units in the country which read: "Passover will be observed from sundown April 4 through sunset 12 April, 1966. The first two and the last two days are days of religious obligation for individuals of the Jewish faith." Then there was a listing of Pessah services to be held in Saigon in the south, Nha Trang, in the center of the country and Da Nang in the north. "All commanders are encouraged to permit Jewish personnel to travel to one of these locations to attend scheduled religious services," the notice read. Pessah in Vietnam in 1966 was to be a legendary occasion with full military support as well as assistance from the Jewish Welfare Board. IN ADDITION to the US Army's preliminary orders, Greenspan learned about other activities which preceded his arrival. "Having arrived in Vietnam about a month before Pessah, I was pleased to find that supplies had been ordered well in advance of the holiday. Some of the foods were already in Saigon. However, he pointed out kindly, "were it not for keen eyes of one of the men who worked at the port, they might not have been found." One of the significant pieces of memorabilia preserved by Greenspan is a wine-stained list detailing what was required for the Sedarim. This included "white tablecloths and napkins, two forks, knife, soup spoon and teaspoon." In the china category he listed the following for each person: "soup bowl, two salad plates, dinner plate, cup and saucer, dessert dish for fruit, water glass and wine glass." A very efficient planner, he made certain that the flatware, plates and bowls were in place. As the Seder came closer, Greenspan drew up a specific listing of foods. To make sure that the drinking of the four cups was possible, he put the following on his instruction sheet. "One bottle of wine will be placed on the table, unopened, per four people. This will be accomplished before the Seder. A second bottle will be placed on the table per four people at the conclusion of the meal." Since the army was not permitted to purchase any alcoholic beverage for sacramental use, the kosher wine was provided by the Jewish Welfare Board in New York. The chaplain always kept it under lock and key. WHAT WAS the wonderful menu which Greenspan and his crew were preparing? For the Seder plate there was to be "haroses [apples, walnuts, cinnamon, wine], whole horseradish root and parsley." Greenspan noted that real horseradish could not be located even with the Vietnamese scouring the countryside. "We used a weed," the chaplain stated, that "was maror [bitter herb] as fierce as ever tasted." For the meal itself the planning was precise. "There was to be chicken soup with matza balls (from a can) gefilte fish (from a can), kosher chicken (from a can), vegetables fresh, matza pancakes (freshly made), lettuce and tomato salad, fruit salad, macaroons (from a can), tea, coffee, lemon (no milk), hard-boiled eggs. "Not a person complained," the chaplain added, "the food was excellent and eaten with gusto." With the table set and everything in readiness, just an hour and a half before the first Seder, a real problem arose. "The tension then was unbelievable, but one has to find a way." What had happened? Greenspan received a phone call from one of the men wanting to know if he had heard anything about Saigon being put off-limits to all US personnel from 5 p.m to 6 a.m. the next morning. Greenspan contacted the Provost Marshal and the curfew was confirmed. It seemed for a few moments that there would be no Seder in Saigon in 1966. Now Greenspan went higher, contacting the assistant Chief of Staff of the Saigon district. Time was of the essence. Quoting "Army regs," Greenspan stressed how important this Pessah observance was and how much effort had been put into the planning of the Seder, scheduled to start now in only an hour. Greenspan remembers quite well those moments and recalls while sitting in Jerusalem 43 years later that "it was agreed that an exception would be made for those 'off-limits ' in order to allow the Seder to go on as scheduled provided that it ended by 9 p.m." The chaplain had made his point well and "the upper brass" had taken him seriously. The soldiers began to arrive, 135 in all, having waited anxiously to participate in the Pessah Seder so far away from home. Greenspan looked out over the room in the USO (United Services Organization) building which he had been lent for the entire holiday. He found joy in the way the tables were set with beautiful white tablecloths and napkins. The plates and all the chinaware sparkled as did the wine glasses and flatware. He saw all the waiters ready to serve the Seder meal. As he was about to begin the traditional Haggada, he asked everyone to listen to the message of General Westmoreland, the American Vietnam commander. General Westmoreland's words rang out at all the Sedarim of the American military in the Pacific zone that year. "The Festival of Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. The exodus marked the first struggle of a people to secure religious freedom and the right to govern itself independently. All of us are here to continue that struggle. The era may be different but the aims are the same. We, too, must help a people to live without fear of persecution and aggression. "As you gather to celebrate your holiday, may its message of hope ring true. In this vein, I extend to you my best wishes for a meaningful observance... May the hallowed customs of these days give each one of your people the inspiration to carry forward the struggle for freedom." Greenspan stood before all those gathered and led the Seder. Army photographers even took a few pictures. One of Greenspan was published in newspapers around the world. As the Seder was continuing, Buddhists monks began to riot outside. When a group of soldiers left the Seder, demonstrators came rushing down the street. The soldiers retreated into the building. One soldier had to climb over fences to escape the monks. When Greenspan left the building, his eyes burned from the tear gas which had been fired to control the crowds. "Services were held the next morning" the chaplain stressed, and "the response from the men was gratifying. What a spiritual moment it was. To join in prayer, with a large congregation, so many miles from home and under conditions of combat, was indeed an inspiration." THE SECOND Seder was almost a washout as well, Greenspan recalls. He explained that the Seder had to begin at 5:30 p.m. so all those who worked that evening could be home before curfew. The numbers were impressive, 135 the first night, 100 the second night: "not bad considering the obstacles." Greenspan was in Vietnam for an entire year and he made 144 short hops by plane to visit the men where they were in the fields of combat. His words then should be remembered now on Pessah. "The Jew has known more vividly than anyone what oppression is. It is my fervent hope that the day will come that we will see an end to war. Until that time, Jewish men and women and their rabbis will proudly serve to further the cause of peace." Rabbi Greenspan and his wife made aliya in 1989 with their two children. Now they have six grandchildren. Rabbi Dr. David Geffen, the author of the American Heritage Haggadah, was a chaplain in the US Army, 1965-1967, stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma with his wife, Rita, and his two children, who, plus, their third child live in Israel today.