When 2nd Lt. Jonathan Zagdanski arrived in Kuwait last January, he found himself on an urgent supply mission.
The kosher meals he had arranged back in Fort Benning, Ga., hadn’t arrived, and the supply officer in Kuwait City knew nothing about it.
"I had to bust his nuts for two weeks to get me my meals," Zagdanski said. "He got so sick and tired of me, he showed up with a truck": enough meals to feed a kosher battalion, if there was one.
Word spread about the food, and dozens of gentile soldiers suddenly turned kosher.
"They know the kosher meals, which are also halal, are 10 times better," Zagdanski said. "They don’t constipate you."
That’s one of the tales Zagdanski, 31, has been telling at area synagogues since his return from Iraq last month. While he remains on active duty for two more years, he is currently in a program that allows him to finish his college degree. Zagdanski is spending the time with relatives in New York.
The seven-year veteran was awarded a Bronze Star for outstanding leadership. But he also distinguished himself by remaining true to Jewish observance under difficult circumstances.
"I always made time to put on tefillin," said the New Jersey native. Some days that meant locking himself in a Humvee. Other days, after the capture of Baghdad, he awoke to the sounds of a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer and davened beside Saddam’s mosque.
Outside of chaplains, it’s extremely rare to find religious Jews in the active military, much less on the front lines. A few years back Zagdanski wouldn’t have been among them.
It’s one of many changes in his life since a "personal crisis" in his mid-20s while living in Belgium, where his family moved when he was 2. His father, Bernard, wanted him to take over the familyís clothing business.
"It wasn’t for me," Zagdanski said in an interview in Manhattan, sporting a crew cut and speaking in crisp, confident, military tones.
While studying in Brussels at a branch of Boston University, Zagdanski didn’t fit the mold of a young Jew.
"There is a lot of pressure to be a good provider and professional, a doctor or a banker, and I just didn’t see myself being happy doing that," he said. "I didn’t know what to look for or who to ask for advice."
He found himself in Mexico, far from family and friends, where he could think for himself "without influences or outside pressure."
It was during that year that he decided the military would "shape me up." The Belgian army was not an option. "It’s an immensely anti-Semitic country," he said.
Zagdanski considered the Israel Defense Forces before eventually deciding to return to the United States.
When his parents heard the news: talk about shock and awe. "They always wanted me to go into business," he said.
Zagdanski underwent basic training at Fort Benning, followed by parachute instruction with the Airborne Rangers, with whom he spent three years practicing in Africa and Panama. Two years after enlisting, he was accepted to Officer’s Candidate School, and graduated as a second lieutenant assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade.
At about the same time, he met Shira Webber over JDate, a Jewish Internet matchmaking service. She lived in Great Neck, L.I., while he was stationed at Fort Benning, and she came to visit while he was teaching jujitsu to recruits.
As the relationship grew, Shira inspired Zagdanski to become more religiously observant. As an officer he had more flexibility with his time and the clout to secure special arrangements.
The Zagdanskis were married Sept. 16, 2001, five days after the 9-11 tragedy, and they anxiously watched the world change.
"When we were engaged, she was worried about marrying a military guy, asking whatís going to happen one day if we have to go to war," Zagdanski said with a smile. "I said what are you talking about, who are we going to fight? That was before Sept. 11, when everything changed."
Although he wasn’t sent to rout al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Zagdanski knew heíd be on the front lines as war clouds gathered over Iraq. Meanwhile, the newlyweds lived at Fort Benning, never ostracized by other officers and their families, but never quite fitting in, either.
"It’s an old boys club," Zagdanski said. "Being a Jew I never really fit in the picture. We didn’t go the Officers Club or the Officers’ Wives Club. Instead of going out for drinks, I would go home to my wife and eat and learn."
Zagdanski’s faith drew the attention of fundamentalist Christians, who would engage him in conversations about the Bible, to the point that when a Christian chaplain paid extra attention to his needs, Zagdanski suspected ulterior motives.
One Passover he needed permission to miss a training exercise in order to observe the seders. After a chaplain helped him obtain it, he told Zagdanski, "Deep down we hope you come over to our side."
Then came Operation Iraqi Freedom. "It wasn’t fun," said Shira, 27, of the months-long separation. "I got through it all right by being home with my family and friends. It was OK before the war started, but after that there was no communication at all until about a month."
Zagdanski was assigned to lead a platoon of 34 soldiers in four armored mortar carriers dispatched to bomb enemy positions. After the initial hostilities, Zagdanski was assigned to patrol an area of northern Baghdad, and he became even more convinced that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States when his men came across a cache of chemical weapons protection gear.
"They knew we weren’t going to use chemical weapons on them," he said. "They were protecting themselves from their
Zagdanski believes U.S. forces have been unable to locate the weapons of mass destruction cited to justify the war only because they were smuggled into Syria.
"Saddam had ample time to conceal them," he said.
Zagdanski was struck by the anti-Semitism of the Iraqi people. At one mosque he found a mural depicting Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock with an inscription dedicated to a future "Jews-free Jerusalem."
While working with an Iraqi electrician to restore power, the man called him "naive" because Zagdanski did not believe that Saddam was an American agent dispatched to hand over Iraq to the CIA and Mossad, or that Washington was controlled by "the Zionists."
Zagdanski was transferred home in July, along with most of the 3rd Brigade. Most other units will remain in Iraq indefinitely, but the 3rd Brigade received special consideration because it had also served in Kosovo.
Zagdanski is spending his time in New York taking on-line courses through the University of Maryland. He has no plan to seek another commission when his stint ends in late 2004. He is considering aliyah, and would like to do some work to help Israel’s cause.
Shira Zagdanski won’t miss the life of an officer’s wife.
"It’s hard to raise a Jewish family in the army," she said. "They station you wherever they want, in the middle of nowhere, not close to any Jewish community. And nowadays they are away more than they are home."
But she is quick to add that "I supported the war, and his role in it."
Not every visitor to JDate winds up with a husband who has a Bronze Star pinned to his chest. Zagdanski earned the medal for "outstanding leadership during combat operations," which included a firefight with a Republican Guard unit on the way to Baghdad. The platoon suffered no casualties, and although a soldier was later lightly wounded by sniper fire, everyone made it home safely.
Zagdanski is also proud that the men destroyed an Iraqi bunker south of Najaf in the early days of the conflict, and launched dozens of shells on target without harming friendly forces.
But Zagdanski, who participated in the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement as a child in Brussels, is even prouder that he emerged from those tough days in the desert without compromising his faith.
"I never lost my Jewish identity," he said.
Synagogues that are interested in a lecture by Zagdanski on his experiences in Iraq should e-mail him at JonDanski@hotmail.com.