The Jews Of ‘Restrepo’


His parents gave Misha Pemble-Belkin a pacifist, “hippie” upbringing, forbidding him and his two brothers from playing with toy guns or watching violent films.

But both of them, including his Jewish father, were “very proud” that he enlisted in the Army, says their son, now a sergeant at Fort Polk, La., and one of 11 soldiers interviewed in “Restrepo,” a new documentary about one company’s grueling tour of duty in Afghanistan.

In fact, although the number of Jews serving in the U.S. military probably reflects their percentage of the general population, Pemble-Belkin is not the only soldier with a Jewish background who appears in “Restrepo.” The other, according to the 24-year-old, is Sgt. Kyle Steiner, a close friend and a soldier who, he said, was always wearing a star of David.

Steiner, 25, was in training early this week and couldn’t be reached by phone, but his girlfriend confirmed that the Watertown, Wis., native is, in fact, Jewish.

The film, released in New York last Friday, has earned praise from the critics, one of whom called it “an impressive, even heroic feat of journalism.” What distinguishes “Restrepo” from other films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “is not only its uniquely intensive focus on a small group of men in a particular time and place,” wrote A.O. Scott of The New York Times, “but also its relentless attention to the lethal difficulty of their work.”

Both Pemble-Belkin and Steiner are among the soldiers who not only discuss those dangers in “Restrepo,” but whose actions are captured by the film as they engage in firefights, tend to wounded comrades, mourn other comrades and patrol villages in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley between May 2007 and July 2008. They’re also seen laughing, engaging in horseplay and more or less celebrating life in a region that was once considered of key strategic importance to American forces and especially hazardous to the lives of U.S. troops.

Pemble-Belkin, a native of Hillsboro, Ore., told The Jewish Week that he joined the military “because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help the culture that needed to be helped.” And although he still considers himself a nonviolent soul, he was also motivated by 9/11, a day on which “our country was definitely attacked.”

The sergeant, whose mother isn’t Jewish, said he and his brothers “celebrated Chanukah and Passover” while growing up, as well as Christmas, and that each had a bar mitzvah. His parents were “open-minded” people who raised their sons “to be whatever we wanted to be,” said Pemble-Belkin, whose first name honors his father’s mother, Myrna.

Calling himself non-religious, Pemble-Belkin paints, plays guitar and has thought of becoming a photographer. He’s also married and hopes to have children. But all that will have to wait: He recently re-enlisted and expects to be redeployed to Hawaii, followed by a second tour of duty in Afghanistan.

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