It’s March 5th again. The third one since you left. And what’s on my mind this time is parallel lines. The ones that ran between your life and mine. It seems that you and I may have had a bit more in common that I’d ever realized.
I. When I was in the eighth grade, an unfortunate disagreement with my rabbi and his wife prompted my immediate withdrawal from temple high school, and a promise never to step inside a synagogue ever again. A year later, a young rabbinical student and his wife, (now Rabbi) Jonathan and Susan Stein, entered my life, offering me insight, encouragement and friendship as I navigated the choppy waters of my teenage years. I have no doubt whatsoever that at least part of the reason I became a rabbi was to thank them for all they did back then.
In the tenth grade, you had a similar disagreement with an English teacher, resulting in your immediate withdrawal from high school. But it would already be in the eighth grade that you’d meet Jill and Steven Abusch, who, along with Jeff Downing, would provide guidance and support for you throughout your turbulent teens. In large part, it is because of their time and attention that your life had become such a blessing by the time you turned eighteen.
I didn’t much notice this while you were alive, Jonah, but these past three years have brought to light a whole bunch of realizations about similarities between your life and mine. These parallel lines are stunning to me. And they serve as one more “meeting point” that allows me to keep your presence strong.
II. Spiritually, our paths were remarkably alike. You and I were both active not only in our temple youth group, but in NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth) as well. Of course, while I became a member of the elected leadership, you would have none of that. You were quite content to do your leading (and you did) from amidst the masses.
In youth group, we both served as vice-president in charge of religious life. Which is ironic, since neither of us ever claimed traditional observance as part of our religious expression. In your campaign speech, you promised, “I will make sure to add a little something extra to services, something that will feel more like another program rather than a sit-down service.” Not surprisingly, you found services (your dad’s, I imagine) less than riveting and had wanted to stir things up a bit to make them better. Well, it turns out you and I weren’t much different on this count. You know what my favorite complaint is about my being a rabbi? That people never know what to expect at a Friday night service. It seems I prefer a noticeably creative element too. Like father, like son, eh?
III. Then, in our senior year of high school, even though we’d both been around youth group a long time, we were content to stick around some more, even if that meant being looked at as “the old man.” But it was comfortable there, and neither one of us was in a rush to go chasing new dreams. That would come soon enough. For now (then), we were just fine continuing to enjoy and to help build the program we’d each come to love.
IV. You never made it to the summer following your freshman year of college. But the plan was to return to Kutz Camp. You’d been there a long time and, again, were in no rush to do something new. You were going to work in the kitchen, which you’d have enjoyed tremendously. I too went back to camp (GUCI, in Zionsville, Indiana) the summer after freshman year. Actually, I had two freshman years, and went back to camp after each of them. You and I both loved our camps. There was time enough to set course for new horizons. We knew when we’d found something good, and we stuck to it.
V. Then there was the music, Jo. You were the better guitarist, but I was the better pianist. I probably sang a little bit better than you but not by much. And we’d both wanted to become songleaders. I did a fair amount of it in college, but you didn’t care for the preparation and so contented yourself with hanging out with your friends and pulling out a guitar (or a mandolin or ukulele) and singing along with people that way. So you were a songleader after all, weren’t you?
VI. Lastly, there was college itself. You started out at UB as an engineering student. It took about three breaths before you figured out you didn’t want that, and you switched to philosophy. I started out at University of Michigan as pre-med and felt the need to leave college entirely to sort things out. By the time I returned, music had become my major. Of course, in becoming a rabbi I kind of switched majors again … to philosophy.
Which begs the question. Would you have become a rabbi? Probably not. You’d likely have had the heart for it, but not the patience. Too much work. And we know how you felt about work.
But who knows? I always believed you could do anything you put that fantastic brain and soul to. Where you would have ended up, I can’t even begin to guess. I can only tell you that I was really enjoying watching you take the journey. Which made me even sadder when it came to an end.
I guess we’re all kind of lost during our high school years. And our job is to try new things, look for adults who care about us, and take that wild ride into the future that will (hopefully) bring us to the person we want to become. If that’s the case, then parallel lines run between all of our lives.
But something profound linked you and me, my son. I loved watching you grow. Perhaps because the kid I was watching wasn’t so different from me.
It’s been three years, JoJo. I still really miss you. I guess I always will. But I sure won’t forget you. That life of yours was something else. A little bit like mine. And a whole lot not. I’m glad to have been witness to all of it. It was a happening. And an honor.
Love you forever,