Rabbi Sheldon Lewis in uniform in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Rabbi Sheldon Lewis in uniform in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Rabbi recounts heartrending year in Vietnam in new memoir

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Rabbi Sheldon Lewis wasn’t planning on writing a seventh book during the pandemic. But a virtual reunion he attended put him in a reflective state of mind.

Lewis, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, has just published “Letters Home: A Jewish Chaplain’s Vietnam Memoir.” Based on letters he wrote to his wife, Lorri, and reel-to-reel tapes he kept for 50 years, the book is a reconstruction of his service during a war he adamantly opposed, even if some memories have faded over the years.

“Being retired and the confluence of the 50th anniversary of this incident, and being mostly shut in during this period, definitely gave me purpose,” said Lewis, who will soon turn 80. “I felt a surge of energy and it seemed the time was ripe for it.”

He didn’t feel that way when he came home from the war.

“There were reasons for leaving it behind,” he said. “Part of the reason was we came back to a very indifferent if not hostile homecoming, and I didn’t think people wanted to hear about it.”

The “incident” Lewis is referring to, one that had a deep impact, was a November 1970 bedside visit with Lloyd Kantor, a Jewish soldier who had lost both legs, both arms and one eye and suffered other wounds in an explosion that killed several others.

The visit was at the request of Kantor, someone Lewis had met several times in his chaplaincy work. Lewis traveled to see him at an evacuation hospital at the U.S. coastal base in Chu Lai, Vietnam.

two old men pose together smiling; one has a prosthetic arm.
Rabbi Sheldon Lewis (right) with his friend Lloyd Kantor; the two met in Vietnam.

The bedside meeting with Kantor has stayed with Lewis as a reminder of “how many dreams were truncated or completely cut off,” he said. “It’s true of every war, but particularly in a war that was avoidable and was morally so indefensible to have had that kind of terrible price. It’s very hard to witness that.”

The two men stayed in touch over the years, and Kantor’s wife, Loretta, had been planning an in-person reunion for several of the men from her husband’s unit when Covid hit. So the reunion took place virtually instead.

Before Lewis arrived in Vietnam in June 1970, he was taking part in anti-war demonstrations in New York City, where he was studying with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Reconciliation has been a lifelong interest and topic of his books, both for adults and for children.

Despite Lewis’ personal misgivings about the war, and the fact that he could have been exempted from the draft because of his status as a clergy student, he felt compelled to enlist in June 1969. He ended up serving for two years, one of them in Vietnam.

“I knew most of the Jews who were there were drafted. It was not something they chose,” he said. “I knew intuitively that they wouldn’t believe in this mission and this war, and that weighed on me. Although I could be exempt as a clergy student, they couldn’t, and they deserved to have a Jewish presence there.”

Serving also meant a personal sacrifice, as Lewis had to be apart from his wife early in their marriage.

The memoir goes through the months of the Jewish calendar, with descriptions of how the enlisted men observed the holidays, so far from home and anything familiar. Especially moving is Lewis’ account of their Sukkot celebration. A master carpenter who helped Lewis build a sukkah was a German who served during World War II and had been shot down by the Americans. He re-enlisted in the German military 30-odd years later to help the American war effort in Vietnam because he remembered how humanely he had been treated as a prisoner of war.

In addition to offering the comfort of Jewish traditions, Lewis said that most often, he felt his role was to provide a sympathetic ear for the roughly 500 Jewish men (and a few women) whom he met as he traveled through Vietnam, and who were just trying to survive.

“Listening to them one-on-one was the most important part of my work,” he said.

Despite the personal sacrifices he made, Lewis said, “I never felt more needed in my life. I have felt needed in the community, but never more than I felt needed there.”

“Letters Home: A Jewish Chaplain’s Vietnam Memoir” by Sheldon Lewis (120 pages, HaKodesh Press)

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."