It should come as no surprise that in America -- a country whose very economy and cultural identity are inextricably wed to consumption -- that most of our national holidays have devolved into little more than days off filled with special sales and deep discounts. And what is even more disconcerting is the trivialization of nearly all of this nation's most revered icons: Washington, Lincoln, Uncle Sam, Christopher Columbus -- even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- have, over the past two generations, degenerated into professional pitchmen -- frenetic farkoifers (Yiddish for "hawkers" or "salesmen") of everything from pizzas and blue jeans to mattresses and used cars. And when our leaders publicly aver that shopping is about the most patriotic thing an American can do -- George W. Bush certainly did -- one wonders whatever became of remembering, honoring and teaching the ideals, vision and heroic deeds of our national icons.
Which brings us to Veteran's Day.
Time was, each Veteran's Day would see hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers, sailors and marines donning old ill-fitting uniforms and marching in downtown parades, past fellow citizens who would line the route, offering heartfelt thanks for their selfless acts of bravery and patriotism. How many of us currently live in cities or towns that support such patriotic pageantry? Today, we gladly stage well-attended parades whenever our hometown team wins a Superbowl, World Series or NBA championship. But when it comes to veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq? We close our banks, libraries and public schools and hit the mall for some good old-fashion purchasing. Where once Veteran's Day meant the waving of flags, today it is far more often the swiping of plastic.
While shopping, consuming and the swiping of plastic are undoubtedly good for the national economy -- and ultimately the national jobs picture -- they are no substitute for good old fashioned hand-over-the-heart, tear-in-the-eye patriotism. Simply stated, patriotism is far more than shopping . . . or waving rhetorical flags as so many of our politicians like to do when the camera lights are on. Patriotism, it seems to me is the daily devotion and dedication to the ideals which made this country unique in all the annals of history; ideals of inclusion and communal action, of justice, mercy and an insatiable thirst for the truth; of daring ourselves to turn far-fetched dreams into stunning reality.
And this, mind you, is coming from a dyed-in-the-wool 1960s anti-war, anti-draft protester . . . one whom many of his most conservative readers firmly believe is still some sort of irrepressible "Commie stooge." Sorry to deflate your flag-waving balloon, but I, like you, am a patriot . . . in both heart and deed.
As a practicing rabbi for more than 30 years, I have performed somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 funerals. Of these, likely 500 involved a veteran of World War II. Over the years, I have heard literally hundreds of veterans recount literally thousands of stories about what they went through during that battle to save humanity from history's most diabolic evil. Frequently, I come away marveling at the strength, the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit. I am aways amazed at just how terribly young these young men -- and occasionally women -- were when they were out saving the world from Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. Whenever I perform the funeral of a World War II veteran -- whenever I look at the flag-draped coffin and tell the stories I have been given the honor to relate, I find myself standing in awe . . . and frequently conclude my remarks by urging those sitting in the pews to ". . . never pass up the opportunity to say 'Thank You' to an aged veteran . . . never forget, that if it were not for young men like Irv (or Ben, Harvey, Henry, Ernie or millions of others) we likely would not be here today. Never forget that humanity's greatest battle for freedom was won by children and the youngest of adults. NEVER forget to say 'Thank you . . .'"
Which brings me to George Katzman -- one of those for whom mere thanks are just not enough.
To those who know and interact with him today, George Katzman is a spry, articulate, intellectually youthful gentleman of -- I believe -- 92 years. Many at Florida AtlanticForeign Policy Association. (I am honored to be the young fellow who took over the course from him about 5 or 6 years ago.) "The Professor" still wears his World War II dog tags and still speaks about his grueling experiences in Europe; of storming Normandy Beach; of fighting his way across France; of being one of the soldiers who -- literally -- shot the lock off the gates of Dachau and liberated the 30,000 prisoners there. When he shares these haunting recollections, it involves neither a whit of braggadocio nor a hint of self-aggrandizement; rather, it is his intention to teach. For Professor Katzman -- George -- like the steadily dwindling number of his comrades-in-arms who still walk this planet -- does not consider himself a heroic warrior; rather, he is a thorough-going man of peace -- a man who, in his own words, " . . . simply did a job that had to be done."
And this, dear reader, is the very definition of a patriot.
On this Veteran's Day, in addition to acknowledging the selfless bravery of -- and offering humble words of thanks to -- Professor Katzman and all his comrades-in-arms, I would like to urge our newly reelected president to create new pathways to patriotism -- pathways which have nothing to do with pizza, plastic or p.r. huckstering. I would urge this nation to institute a program of national service whereby ever able-bodied 18-year old would spend two years in service to the country. It could be defending America through service in the military, bolstering national security through the rebuilding of roads, bridges, dams and levees, or becoming community organizers -- just like our 44th president. To my way of thinking, this could be a win-win-win situation.
It would help to rebuild our dangerously eroding infrastructure;
It would add seriousness-of-purpose to an entire generation of young Americans;
It would bring people from our diverse ethnicities, geographic regions, religions and socio-economic groupings together in common cause, thereby permitting them to meet, work -- and in some cases live with -- people who they would otherwise never have any contact with. (Do remember that for many Americans of an earlier time, it was the universal military draft which, in so many cases, first introduced Southern "crackers" to New England "blue-bloods," the children of urban immigrants to the children of 4th and 5th generation farmers, Jehovah's Witnesses to Jews, etc.)
There are undoubtedly those who will see this as a proposal in which collectivism trumps individuality and liberty is sacrificed on the altar of the common weal. Guess again: this is the very living, breathing definition of patriotism; putting the ideals, vision and energy of this nation's most revered icons -- some universally famous, some understandably anonymous -- to work for the betterment of all.