The Torah reserves some of its most elegant poetry for nautical phenomena amid the Red Sea parting. Exodus 15 describes the “heart of the sea” and Divine nostrils blowing “majestic” waters. Immediately after Miriam’s song celebrating the maritime miracle, the next verse announces that no water can be found after a three-day trek into the desert.
Herman (“Herm”) Shelanski, a retired vice admiral who achieved the highest rank in the U.S. Navy of any Jewish serviceman, and Jeff (“Goldy”) Goldfinger, a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy, both know a good deal about Passover and deep waters.
The unusual, engrossing stories they shared with JNS demonstrate that the broader theme of celebrating and protecting freedom within a structure of strict regulations characterizes both Passover and the Navy.
To describe his mother Thelma, Goldfinger quotes George Bernard Shaw. The Irish poet wrote that progress depends on unreasonable men, who make the world adapt to them, not reasonable ones who adapt to the world. “My mother was the most unreasonable woman all the time about everything,” Goldfinger told JNS.
Once Thelma tried to buy a stick of butter, which she removed from the box. Informed that individual sticks were not for sale, she insisted to the cashier that she only needed one. Told to buy the lot and give the others away to friends, Thelma tried to buy the whole box but to take just the one stick. Goldfinger doesn’t recall how the situation was resolved.
Thelma, who grew up in an Orthodox family, lost her mother at an early age and felt the whole world was against her. She needed to fight every injustice. So when she shipped three 40-pound boxes of matzah to her son—a lieutenant junior grade on a ship in 1985—and the boxes didn’t arrive, she decided another injustice loomed.
Unbeknown to Goldfinger and the skipper—his squadron’s commanding officer, who was three layers above him in the chain of command, as he wrote in 2021 in the San Diego Jewish World—Thelma called her local congressman. Next, she got top Navy brass and even the White House on the horn. Never mind that the ship was so far out that every pound mattered for supplies that had to be brought in by helicopter.
‘A barcode for military supplies’
Word came down from on high that those boxes of matzah were to be found—or else. Goldfinger didn’t know that when he was summoned to the skipper, who had received a Naval teletype from the secretary of the Navy.
Both skipper and junior grade lieutenant were on a collision course of misunderstanding, as Goldfinger exclusively told JNS. The skipper thought Goldfinger was quitting the Navy and complained to his congressman about life on the ship. Such a complaint would mean that the skipper could forget any future promotions.
“Wouldn’t you know, we maxed out the seating capacity of the wardroom,” said Herman (“Herm”) Shelanski. “I mean, a lot more cooking when the time came.”
“His perception was, he just received a career killer,” Goldfinger told JNS. Meanwhile, Goldfinger assumed the worst because the skipper was the only person on the ship who could officially notify him that he had lost a close relative, perhaps a parent.
“At that young age, I would never be told to go see the skipper unless somebody in my family died,” said Goldfinger. “I’m walking down the hall sad. He’s sitting in his stateroom steaming.”
When the two realized it was all Thelma’s doing, they changed their tunes. “This was like a relief valve in an over-pressurized water system that all of a sudden just went away,” recounted Goldfinger. “We both realized this was my mother’s doing, the unreasonable one.”
Eventually, the matzahs made their way to the ship via helicopter—after Passover. But that’s not where Thelma Goldfinger’s Navy story ends. A few years later, the Navy created a National Stock Number (now called a NATO Stock Number) for a Passover kit.
“Think of it as the barcode for military supplies,” Goldfinger told JNS, or the naval version of a Sears catalog. “You want to order a roll of toilet paper, it has an NSN. You want to order an F-18, it has an NSN. It doesn’t matter. From pen to bomb to airplane to ship, they all have NSNs.”
“My mom single-handedly changed the military supply system—not just the Navy’s but the NATO supply system forever,” stated Goldfinger.
‘This procedure says that we need full cups of wine’
In 1985, the year after the helicopter matzah incident, the ship’s non-Jewish chaplain checked with Shelanski to make sure there was enough matzah. Shelanski told him there was.
“It’s kind of a big deal, I just want to make sure you’re OK. I’m going to order you some more matzah just to make sure,” the chaplain told him. “So the word had gotten out—like don’t piss off these Jews with the matzah. Make sure they’ve got enough of this stuff because you don’t want your captain or your strike group commander to get involved in this. By that time, everyone knew the story.”
“No one wants this mistake to happen again,” he said.
Leading up to Passover in 2008, Shelanski—then skipper of the squadron on the USS John C. Stennis—was spending time during off hours in the kitchen with some dozen other Jewish crew members cooking for Passover. One person trotted out a grandmother’s special chicken soup recipe. Others baked chicken and gefilte fish.
But then, things got interesting. Shelanski figured there would be about the same number of people at the first-night seder as there are in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” (also a seder). The meal was scheduled for the ship’s wardroom, typically reserved only for officers.
A week before the seder, the chaplain got the green light from the ship captain to open it up to non-Jewish sailors who wanted to join. In line with Passover tradition—and the seder’s central Aramaic text Ha Lachma Anya, which invites the needy to join the meal—the chaplain posted a sign-up sheet on the chapel door.
“Wouldn’t you know, we maxed out the seating capacity of the wardroom,” said Shelanski. “I mean, a lot more cooking when the time came.”
Now, about 200 people were coming to Passover dinner … but there was more. “We thought that was kind of hairy, but then the captain of the air wing, the captain of the ship and the admiral found out about it, and now they want to come,” said Shelanski. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know. You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s a lot of pressure.’ ”
During the seder, Shelanski sat with the admiral, rabbi, chaplain and other top officers at the head table. That and the others were set with real dishes and silverware on tablecloths. The rabbi began the first kiddush—the blessing on wine—and each participant had what Shelanski describes as a “thimble-sized” cup of Kedem wine. (Alcohol is only allowed in small volumes for religious ceremonies on Navy ships.)
“This was like a relief valve in an over-pressurized water system that all of a sudden just went away,” said Jeff (“Goldy”) Goldfinger.
After the rabbi finished the blessing on wine, the admiral cut in. “Hey, wait a second. I’m reading ahead a little bit here, and it says about four full cups of wine,” he said.
“He holds up the little thimble, and he goes, ‘This is ridiculous. I don’t think this lives up to what we’re trying to do here today,’ ” the admiral said. Shelanski reminded him: “That’s sort of the policy. That’s all you get.”
“I’m all for following the instructions, and this procedure says that we need full cups of wine, and we’re supposed to drink all of it,” the admiral persisted. “So he goes, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pour the water out of our water glasses, and we’re going to fill them with that wine.”
And so on the holiday that celebrates freedom via procedures articulated by a detailed manual called a Haggadah, some 200 members of the Navy got the OK from the top official on the ship to follow a rabbinic lead, rather than the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) manual—the book Maverick tosses in the trash in “Top Gun.”
“It’s like sacrilegious to throw that in the trash,” Shelanski told JNS. But to the admiral, the Haggadah was like the NATOPS. “We need to follow this. This is important stuff,” the admiral said.
“Let me tell you, we all had the glasses. Everyone was happy. We finished up, and then all of a sudden, you have these 200 sailors who, number one, never expected to be in the ward room, let alone have four glasses of wine at sea,” concluded Shelanski. “That was beyond their expectations.”