While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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Fireworks (A Fourth of July Tribute)

One of Jonah’s friends, in remembering the impact he’d had on her life, excerpted a Walt Whitman poem:

Still though the one I sing, (One, yet of contradictions made,) I dedicate to Nationality, I leave in him revolt, (O latent right of insurrection! O quenchless, indispensable fire!)

I love this verse. It really captures some of Jonah’s essential qualities. Endless song. Exuberant contradiction! Communal commitment. Righteous revolt. Indispensable fire.

I especially love the part about fire. You see, Jonah had this “quenchless” flame inside of him. We noticed it very early on when, in the first grade, he bit Dan Roth. It seems Dan did something, right or wrong, that Jonah felt demanded retribution. You may be interested to know that, despite this momentary beastliness, Jonah remained a friend of Dan’s throughout high school. You may also be interested to know that Jonah did not remain a biter. He did, however, retain his sense of righteous indignation – his “fire,” if you will. On more than a few occasions, we heard from parents who were not pleased that Jonah’s anger had been directed at their child. We apologized. But the flame burned brightly, and we aimed to tend it and guide it as best we could.

We loved that fire. Because, as Jonah grew, it began to get lit by things that mattered. Toward the end of high school, he got involved in a group that protested not the beliefs but the behavior of members of the Church of Scientology. Jonah would meet fellow protestors in New York City, spend some quality time annoying the scientologists, and then get something to eat. I wasn’t sure how valuable these efforts were, but I quietly admired my Maccabee as he began to activate the warrior-spirit that resided inside his mostly dove-like persona.

Then, this past January, in the days leading up to elections, Jonah knocked on doors in Buffalo to get out the vote. I was so proud to learn he was doing that, to discover that he was beginning to kindle that flame of his for truly righteous reasons.

Who thinks he liked being Jewish because he could light things on fire? December 2006

Who thinks he liked being Jewish because he could light things on fire?
December 2006

Ironically, fire played another role in Jonah’s life. It seems my son had a rather zealous interest in making fire; he apparently had a thing for flames. Every Friday night, as our family welcomed Shabbat, Jonah was the one to light the candles. Always Jonah. And when Hanukkah would arrive, we enjoyed setting out some 5-7 hanukkiyot, creating quite a “festival of lights” in the front window of our home. As the nights of Hanukkah advanced, it became quite a job to ready all those candles. Now who do you suppose was always volunteering to set them up?

Taken on January 1, 2009 ... we missed Hanukkah by only 3 days!

Taken on January 1, 2009 … we missed Hanukkah by only 3 days!

Each year, during Hanukkah (or sometime after … once we didn’t get around to doing this until the following summer!), we take a family photograph by Hanukkah candlelight. I would have to cajole my wife and kids to get closer to the flames so their faces would be properly illuminated for the portrait. But Jonah’s face was always right there. I never had to give him instructions (except to stop playing with the burning candles). We now have a 21-year series of candle-lit Hanukkah family photographs mounted on our refrigerator, begun shortly after Katie, now 21, was born.

Hanukkah also meant gifts. And Jonah’s were always handmade. More often than not, they included fire. Once, he made me a cardboard synagogue, with a tiny me inside on a tiny bimah. On top, he mounted two candles. Maybe they were Shabbat candles, I’m not sure. He just liked getting some fire in there. This past Hanukkah, Jonah made me a box that had a single candle mounted inside with a hole on top to keep from burning down the box (and probably the house). All over the top and sides he had punched tiny holes so that, in a darkened room, the candle-illuminated box looked like a night sky full of stars. “Any excuse to burn things” was, I think, one of Jonah’s mottos. I cherish these kooky gifts of his.

Hurricane Katrina relief work in Mississippi February 2007

Hurricane Katrina relief work in Mississippi
February 2007

In February 2007, Jonah and I joined our temple’s mission to Mississippi, to help rebuild homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Once more, Jonah’s flame of righteousness burned brightly and there was no question that he would be there, even though he had to arrive late following the NFTY Convention in Washington. But once he got there, he worked hard, lending a hand to anyone who asked for it. He pulled nails out of water-ravaged boards, so that they could be used again in the rebuilding. He pulled down ruined parts of houses to make way for new construction. But I think his favorite part must have been helping to build a 12-foot bonfire for our team of three churches and a temple to enjoy an evening of relaxation and fun. I had to return home early from the trip, so I missed this little spectacle, but that bonfire had to have been the biggest fire he’d ever helped create. So I imagine he was feeling pretty good that evening.

Jonah LOVED the bonfire in Mississippi! February 2007

Jonah LOVED the bonfire in Mississippi!
February 2007

It is with the following story, however, that Jonah attained legendary status. On the first floor of our house is the bathroom he shared with Aiden for fourteen years. In that bathroom there is a formica countertop. The countertop had been there for probably a decade or more before we moved into the house in 1995, and had always been pretty much in pristine condition. Formica is fairly impervious to abuse, so the sudden appearance one evening of a prominently positioned two-inch charred hole in the countertop caught my attention. I had my suspicions as to who caused the burn mark, but felt it important to perform my fatherly due-diligence and questioned Aiden, who was maybe 4 or 5 at the time and, thus, not a very likely culprit. Moving on to my older son, I tried to use gentle but firm persuasion to draw the truth out of his (I was hoping) guilt-ridden soul. Wasn’t gonna happen, though. In fact, in all these years since the burn mark appeared, I never managed to get Jonah to admit anything about it. And the fact that, in succeeding years, he would amass a collection of matchbooks, 11 Bic and/or Zippo lighters, a container of lighter fluid (!), 8 boxes of sparklers, and even more boxes of incense … well, let’s just say I held out hope to one day get a confession. This past Hanukkah (Judaism’s fire holiday, always a good time to discuss arson with your child), I actually came close to connecting Jonah to the crime when I mentioned the burn yet again and suggested that enough time had gone by and that the statute of limitations on punishment had run out, so wouldn’t he just tell me what happened in there. Jonah paused what he was doing, looked over at me, peering deeply into my eyes, smiled that amazing smile of his, and then walked away. He walked away! I never did get the story of how that burn mark got there. It will remain a mystery forever.

One night during shiva, Rabbi Josh Davidson, our family’s longtime and very close friend, read a poem that I have long loved. It describes a person none of us frequently sees. That Josh selected it to remember Jonah took my breath away. Here are a few of its verses (written by Stephen Spender):

The names of those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire’s center. Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun, and left the vivid air signed with their honor.

I believe Josh was correct. Jonah did indeed wear at his heart the fire’s center. For a brief time he, a child of the sun, traveled towards that great, flaming orb. And when his too brief but intensely blazing and spirited life came to an end, Jonah Maccabee Dreskin had indeed left this world of ours signed with his honor.

Billy

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