It’s the day after Jonah’s third yahrzeit. What an utterly amazing day it turned out to be. And while we hadn’t been as emotionally overwhelmed as we’d been for yahrzeits #1 and #2, we were very much overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support that flowed into our hearts yesterday. I felt like I’d really celebrated Jonah’s life. So many of his friends checked in with us, shared thoughts and feelings … about his absence, and about the effect he’d had on their lives. And so many of our friends checked in too (some going all the way back to nursery school!), each one with something loving to offer our family as we treaded oh-so-gently through the day.
Feeling this abundance of warmth and caring, I thought, “This might be the time to go back and reopen some very special words.” They were written by our dear friend Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, who presided over Jonah’s funeral service and who helped all of us – Jonah’s family, Jonah’s friends, our friends, and anyone else who felt the profound sorrow of Jonah’s death – to not only survive that day, but to feel elevated by the beauty and the accomplishments of Jonah’s life … gifts to all that death would never take away.
Uncle Jeffrey’s words (yes, our children’s uncle, not by blood but by friendship and love) need to become part of the canon recorded here of our stories and memories about Jonah’s nineteen years. Jeffrey captured so much of the good stuff. So if you want to smile, give this a read. If you want to remember what was so spectacular about my boy, if you want to learn what others of us had known from Jonah’s earliest years, if you want to celebrate rather than mourn, spend some time here with Uncle Jeffrey.
I can’t think of a more loving, more insightful tribute to my boy’s life than this one.
I remember the call like it was yesterday – from Cleveland – with the big news.
“It’s a boy!”
“Mazel! That’s great! What’s his name?”
“Beautiful. And the middle?”
“Jeffrey, his name is Jonah Maccabee Dreskin!”
[Billy continued, knowing this one needed some explanation.]
“Jonah is the dove, so he’ll love peace. And Maccabee is for the fighting spirit, so he’ll have the courage to pursue it.”
Never has a name suited so well, for what appears on the outside to be cause for inner conflict – the push for peace and the right to fight – is actually the unique blend of quirk and character, of angel and devil, of sweetness and spice, of humor and heart, that makes this name not alone beloved, but in a way more real than nineteen years of living could allow possible, made this name great.
L’chol ish yesh shem … the poet Zelda’s poignant words. Overlaid on Jonah’s life … with love:
Each of us has a name given us by God and given by our father and mother. Each of us has a name given us by the way we stand, and what we wear, and how we smile. Each of us has a name given us by the mountains, and given by our walls. Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing. Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our celebrations. Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love. Each of us has a name given by our friends and given by the stars. Each of us has a name given us by what we do not see and given by our death.
Each of us has a name given us by God and given by our father and mother. Each of us has a name given us by the way we stand, and what we wear, and how we smile.
How many of us have been charmed by that Jonah smile? Even before all his teeth were in … the picture is priceless. There he is in his toddler onesy pj’s, standing on a chair with his favorite musical toothbrush, not in hand but in his mouth, playing with Katie’s doll house – a treasured hand-me-down from the Gelfands – using his tiny Sesame Street figures to create an alternate universe. Turning to the camera, he’s beaming, smiling away, creating and controlling his own little world.
His name then was “JoJo,” and that smile was so sweet. He could get away with murder. Case in point. Katie, pinpointing the start of your sibling rivalry, you remembered the old VHS video of you, dressed in costume, all of five, dancing and prancing and singing for the camera. And there, just behind you in the background comes Jonah, and taking aim with the umbrella in his hand, not totally appreciating your performance, he pretend shoots you … of course, still smiling.
It was amazing how well you got along at school, together this year at UB, having lunch every Wednesday, really talking life, listening to one another, like a big sister and her brother, heart to heart. Yet still, being back home, you’d slip back into those old roles, as Jonah once again would become your 5-year old annoying little brother.
Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love.
Aiden, your brotherly love was playful as it was fierce. How many hours did the two of you spend on your bedroom floor, playing with those Bionicle action figures? Taking out the big bucketful – since you had every one – you’d make up an epic saga. But lost in the story for four or five hours, with Jonah’s favorite figure fighting yours, it would inevitably end in a clash of the titans, often with the middle school titan winning out over the elementary school titan. Clearly, you did not always receive the respect you deserved, at least for the first ten years or so of life with Jonah.
But somewhere along the way you went from his loving name for you, “Stupid” – the bratty little brother – to the virtually cool “bro” and friend. No wonder your greeting changed as he’d address you with “Dreskin,” you responding with “Larger Dreskin.” Maybe your observation, Aiden, was part of it: “As our heights got closer, we became more like equals.” But I think it was something more. Because in you, Aiden, he saw someone who loved what he loved, someone who shared his passions, and so, shared Jonah’s heart. What an amazing gift that, among the PGT productions you shared, most recently, you actually played brothers … in “Hair.” Working on perfecting your duet together down in the basement, Jonah writing harmony for your song, and then actually doing the show. Beyond the characters you played, what made you both stars was the joy you brought to the stage, because your brotherly love was real. You were truly connected. So much so that you got to be part of his circle, playing World of Warcraft online, often getting the updates on his life at UB because to him you were such an important part of that life. As he said to the audience in “Hair,” but to you as well, “I love flowers and the fuzz and the trees and the sun and the moon and the stage and the lights and my little brother.”
Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing.
From the youngest years, Jonah had a profound sense of right and wrong, and his own way of meting it out – what became known as “Jonah-justice.” Like biting Dan Roth when he crossed the line in 1st grade, or in the 2nd grade when he punched a girl because, as he said when asked why, “She deserved it.” Or at Eisner Camp, upon first meeting Andrea, as the unit was doing tie-dye, and Andrea accidentally stepped on his piece, he let her have it! Jonah may have borne the brunt of his retaliation from the powers-that-be, but he never acted without good reason. Seeking justice, it was justified in Jonah’s eyes. Eventually, as adolescent maturity kicked in, he stopped hitting, but he never stopped pursuing justice, protesting wrong wherever he could. Like the anti-Scientology demonstrations he’d attend in the city, part of a protest group called “Anonymous,” which, Billy commented, “were definitely shaping his sense of righteous indignation.” Or like knocking on peoples’ dorm doors, canvassing to get the vote out on campus. Standing up to wrong with the power of right made Jonah, better than his reluctant biblical namesake, a truly prophetic Dreskin.
Each of us has a name given us by the mountains and given by our walls.
Jonah had some mountains to climb, but he was more than equipped for the ascent. Knowing Ardsley High, great school as it was for most, was not for him the right fit, he approached you, El, and you responded with reason and parental patience: “Jonah, it’s temporary. We’re working on it. Mom and Dad are trying.” But frustrated by the system, Jonah had enough waiting, so he took matters into his own hands, effectively persuading the administration that it would be in everyone’s best interest, especially the teacher he hinted he’d like to throw out the window, if he found a different school setting. And Ellen, when you questioned your sophomore son, “Why did you do it?” his response, like the boy ever true to himself, was real: “You said things would change, and they weren’t changing fast enough.” So he found his way to Summit, a school for kids who don’t quite fit the mold, discovering a place he could learn that he loved. Connecting to a community where difference was celebrated, Jonah excelled. In fact, what he found was that fellow students really liked him, because he affirmed that individuality far outweighs conforming to the “norm.”
And Billy, how wonderful those high school years for you as his Dad. The unforgettable image of Jonah parked at his PC at the living room desk, working away, searching online, and in between, playing his electric guitar, un-amped of course, managing what he needed to get done and multi-tasking his heart’s desires, all at the same time. And never once complaining, no matter what was going on around him. With everyone else eating, or watching TV, Jonah took it all in stride. Right in the middle of the traffic flow of family life, yet having built his own little wall to diminish the distractions. Billy, in more ways than one, you “watched him grow up at that desk.”
And if ever he scaled the heights in those high school years, it was because of PGT … Jill and Steve, the Abusches. Thanks to the theatre company you’ve created, Jonah learned – from his involvement these past five years – what it means to be part of a community where mutual care and respect are expected, and given freely. And because he was not only a ham – he loved center stage – but was good at it (convincing actor, talented singer, animated performer), Jonah captivated people with his spirit, and his playfulness. What an uplifting experience for Jonah, to play roles he’d never become, and to learn from every one. For appearing as a murderer and a drug addict, a hippie and a hoodlum, a gay man and a gay-basher, a doctor and a priest, and a ukulele-playing Cheshire cat, Jonah found a little bit more of himself.
Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our celebrations.
How many summer seasons did Jonah spend at Kutz? From the time he was one, there was virtually never a summer without it. It was at Kutz that he took his first steps, fell down the stairs, and fell out of the top bunk and had his first stitches in his head. A Fac Brat by nature, it was tough for Jonah to actually keep the camp schedule, much preferring his own freedom. He didn’t need anyone to tell him where to go (even though they tried to get a staff member to shadow him at all times). Yet after connecting to the core, Kutz became Jonah’s passion. Just last summer, finished as a camper, he was in Avodah, working as kitchen dishwasher, but helping wherever he was needed. And when he talked with his parents about this coming summer, it was surprising to find he didn’t want to take the next presumed step and become an RA. Why not? Because “Jonah knew what he was good at,” and he did not need the recognition of following the beaten path. Kutz was his summer community, and he’d contribute the best way he knew how. Just as he did in his summers at Eisner, and especially in the NFTY-NAR community to which he was so connected. The 2008 Kutz Staff phone memorial service, the day after Jonah died, makes it clear: they’ve lost one of their own.
It goes without saying, Jonah celebrated his Jewishness, like everything else in his life, in a uniquely “Jonah-way.” From his hip-hop rendition of “Makin’ a Motzi,” to being the designated Shabbat candlelighter at the family table, he found what he loved about being who he was.
As a 6-year old, if that, Josh Davidson, then the Woodlands intern, taught him to play shofar, not to mention gifting Jonah with his trumpet which Jonah played from the 3rd grade on. And though he loved standing between his mother and father – the rabbi and cantor – at the Young Families Service as the Shofar Blower on the High Holy Days, when you tried, Billy, to move him into the Main Sanctuary, Jonah said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He wasn’t looking for that sacred spotlight.
And yet, recognizing that he was a teacher in the making – a Jewish teacher at that – Billy, you had him as a guest lecturer for Confirmation, teaching his favorite subject, Science and Religion, talking about their intersection and compatibility. But you had an ulterior motive. For in order to teach, the two of you had to plan. And how sweet it was to sit with your son and talk through the key points and help him think through his handout. “Rabbi Dad,” what you recognized in that moment is poignant as it is painful: “It was so thrilling to see him testing the waters, and for me to help my son discover who he is and, ten years down the road, who he was going to be.”
Each of us has a name given by the seasons.
Witnessing the seasons pass as Jonah grew up before your eyes, in for special family gatherings, or just a vacation visit … Grandma Ida, Grandpa Herman, Grandma Iris and Grandpa Jake, what a gift your time spent together with your grandson. This moment, we know painfully well, too little time. Yet moments shared made their mark. Grandpa Jake, who else would Jonah, would-be-engineer, write about for his college entrance essay? Spending afternoons in your workshop, taking apart broken VCR’s, you delighted in that shared curiosity of figuring out how things work, and why. Thus the bear hugs with which Jonah greeted you, so tight you still feel them long after, remain the lasting embrace, the unbreakable bond of Jonah’s love.
Each of us has a name given by our friends and given by the stars.
Ellen, there’s no question, as you said, that by the time he’d graduated high school, having truly grown into himself, “Jonah could just be Jonah.” Still, the fear of him going to the University at Buffalo was that at such a big school, he’d get lost. Of course, instead, by an amazing group of friends, Jonah got found. And though he used to threaten that he would legally change his name at eighteen, El, when you were helping move him into his room and called him Jonah, he pulled you aside to explain: “Mom, here, my name is Mac.” In fact, it was Maccabee, and his crowd of 25 or 30 kids called themselves after him. They were Maccabees’ Hippies, who’d all hang out at “the bench” – the back area between two buildings – where Jonah, flannel-clad and red beard flaming, sang and played guitar … or mandolin, or ukulele, whatever stringed instrument was available.
That same gathering place, night after his death, where a spontaneous memorial miraculously occurred, celebrating Jonah’s life by filling the walls with wishes from his friends in chalk. And from their words, such as: “This chalk might fade but never your name,” what you knew was that they not alone held your son in high regard, they loved him, because he celebrated individuality, and affirmed the self-worth of each and every one. With incense and candles lit, playing the Dead and Clapton, as people were publicly sharing, when one freshman boy, Cody, said: “I don’t have anything profound. Just that, whenever Jonah came by he always smiled at me, and it made me smile, and feel really good. So, to remember him, I’m gonna smile at others.” You understood – true presence that he was in the lives of that special circle – Jonah’s name has been planted within their hearts.
Yet one friend’s heart exceeds all others. Jade, having met at Kutz, both of you working staff this past summer, based on hearsay and a few harsh Jonah justice stories, at first you thought [direct quote] he was “the biggest jerk.” But hangin’ out, you realized, as he told you himself, “I’m a second impression kinda guy.” And the impression he made was lasting, because by summer’s end, you decided the relationship was real enough, even with Hobart a good few hours away from UB, that you’d try and stay together. And the two of you did more than that. You shared a true romance that – attested by the poster you made for him and that he mounted on his dorm room wall, “20 Reasons Why Jonah Makes Me Smile” – brought immense happiness to one another. The song he wrote you especially for Valentine’s Day, like all the music he so loved to play, gave voice to the love he felt. And though it was scary to care for someone so much, what a gift to be head over heels for each other. How we so feel the words you wrote on the chalk wall at Jonah’s UB memorial as our own: “I only wish we had more time.”
Each of us has a name given us by what we do not see and given by our death.
Jonah loved seeing the way things worked, taking them apart and (sometimes) putting them back together. Fixing what was broken, like the garage door, and especially creating gifts, like anything from duct tape. Or like the light box he made his dad for Hanukkah. Jonah had vision; he could see possibility where others saw garbage, saw nothing. He lived to prove, whether through his music, or acting, or school, or religion, or life’s daily challenges, there is always another way. And though this life-perspective, so you thought, would be perfect for him as an engineer, after a week or so in the program and his announcing, “I hate math & science,” you knew he’d pursue a different path. Though he was tentatively “undecided,” from conversations and his favorite courses, you thought, El, that [like you] he might be on his way to being a Philosophy major. Thinking, Billy, “that Jonah would use his mind to inspire others.”
So honoring that unrealized dream, let the last word that we remember be his. From his “non-journal,” not private thoughts but musings meant to be shared (as he said). So Jonah write, “Fear is a tool. It is that little voice in your head that let’s you know that something just ain’t right. But, like most tools, fear can be used, misused, and abused.” Knowing the world is not quite right, what do we fear most with Jonah’s death? More than we fear for our friends – that they will find a way, through the strength of the love we share, to make it through, to go on living knowing that he is gone – what we most fear is that we won’t be able to keep Jonah’s memory alive. So Billy and Ellen, Katie and Aiden, we, all of us, make this pledge: Unspeakable as losing your boy, your brother, is, we won’t let Jonah’s spirit die. We’ll mourn this loss for as long as we live, but that won’t stop us from celebrating his life, and making his legacy our own. Nineteen years was way too young to have his dreams be over. But with this amazing outpouring of support, realize how great his impact in such a short time. Jonah’s song, Jonah’s vision, Jonah’s justice, Jonah’s Jewishness, Jonah’s smile, Jonah’s playfulness, Jonah’s ingenuity and individuality, Jonah’s quirkiness and compassion, Jonah’s heart and his love … will become part of the fabric of our daily reality. Jonah’s spirit, a part of us. And then his love, and his dream, and his name – Jonah Maccabee Dreskin – will ever live on.
So may it be. Amen.