Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lest We Forget

Perspective is a funny thing. Growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, my perspective on the significance of Remembrance Day was surely tainted by school choir performances, poppy drives, and a half day off of regular classes. Certainly we listened to the stories of our veterans as they visited in their finery, but we didn't pay much heed. War tales for us were distant, esoteric, or worse yet....something that Americans did. I just couldn't grasp the connection.

Of course much has changed in these intervening years. I have a great reverence and appreciation for those who have served and those who continue to serve. And I must admit that much of my thoughts on the subject have been influenced by one man, my friend Jack. 

I met Jack and his lovely wife when I first came to work at Temple "Sings All the Time and Won't Shut Up". Jack had already retired from the Canadian Forces by the time I had made his acquaintance, and was a tireless worker and champion for veteran's causes. But, that isn't how I saw Jack. To me, Jack was a member of my synagogue community, a choir member, a regular at Torah study, a joke teller, a character, and my friend's dad. Jack was just Jack. Perspective. That is, until Remembrance Week rolled around. Then Jack became the Squadron Leader. He was dogged and unwavering. He saw it as his mission to educate and leave an impression, a perspective. He visited countless schools to talk to the kids. He attended ceremonies across the city and he was the featured speaker at many. A man small in stature, his voice boomed with fervour and clarity as he recounted the history and the horrors of war. He especially spoke with great pride of the accomplishments of Canadian Jewish War Veterans. It was and still is Jack's great passion.

Every year since I have known him, Jack has been joining us on the bimah on the Shabbat closest to Remembrance Day to speak, to recount, to educate, and to pray for the fallen. To grant perspective. But the years have taken their toll and his health isn't what it was, even last year. There were many in our community who asked if Jack was going to speak this year. We just weren't certain. We should have known better. As we gathered for Shabbat yesterday, there was Jack sitting regally in the first row, his medals shining across his chest. When it came his time to speak, he accepted the arm of his daughter to help him to the bimah, but he refused the invitation of a chair. He began quietly; telling us all of the history of the poem he was about to recite. His voice cracking just a bit. Time can be cruel. And if a switch had gone off in his head....he spoke the words of the poem with eloquence, clarity, passion, and an amplification that took us back years. He was once again Squadron Leader Jack. I cried softly in my seat as I watched this proud man turn back the clock and share his perspective.

Last month, Jack was awarded the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal given to "honour significant contributions and achievements by Canadians" in recognition of Her Majesty's 60 years on the throne. (Remarkably, our small congregation is home to two recipients of this high honour! Kol Ha-Kavod) Jack beamed with pride as he showed me the medal. It is an honour most well-deserved. 

It is easy to buy a poppy and place it on our jackets. It is easy to stop at 11:00 am today and pause to remember, but how many of us actually do it. I do. All because my friend Jack has given me a new perspective. Lest we forget.

Here is the poem that Jack recited yesterday.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Officer John G. Magee, Jr. - November, 1941

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