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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A Pair of Reluctant Prophets

This entry is also not a Jonah-story. It’s adapted from words I wrote for Yom Kippur, this time celebrating Jonah Maccabee’s incredible determination to become the version of himself that he (and we who loved him) most admired: a silly, smart, smart-assed, golden-souled friend.

Billy

 

Kutz Camp Summer 2008

Kutz Camp
Summer 2008

Dear Jonah Mac,

When you were born, mom and I named you Jonah Maccabee because we loved the implied mission it conferred upon you. Namely, that we wanted you to value kindness (as embodied in the original Hebrew for Jonah … yonah, dove). But at the same time, we’d hoped you would work hard to bring that value into your life (hence, your second name … maccabee, warrior). In our fantasy for your life, Jonah, you would become a champion and defender of decency and grace in our world.

For those who knew you as a child, of course (or worse, were on the receiving end of your impassioned, retributive acts), “defender of decency and grace” would not have been among the phrases spoken by local moms to describe you. Too many stinging words and well-directed punches, how can I delicately put this, obscured others’ ability to see your better nature.

But what was amazing, exquisite to witness, and a tonic for my faith in humanity, was watching your transformation during high school. You never stopped being playful, either in words or deeds. And I’m so glad for that. But what I’m referring to here is your no longer needing to lash out at, or diminish, others. As a result, you acquired countless friends. People came to know you, and to trust you, as someone who was not only fun to be with but, more importantly, as someone to be counted on, someone from whom others would draw courage and strength. Over time, even the kids here in town to whom you’d become a menace, even they grew to like you. Way to go, kid! And Aiden, who’s brotherly relationship with you across the years so often modeled the classic definition of sibling rivalry, proudly took to calling you “larger Dreskin,” as if to acknowledge how close older and younger brother had grown in recent days.

Yom Kippur features the prophetical Book of Jonah, which became one of the few spiritual access points for me during this year’s services, owing simply to the fact that you and he shared a name. You always loved the biblical Jonah. In your email address and AIM screen name, you called yourself inthewhale. As a songleader, you loved teaching Jeff Klepper’s Jonah and the Whale to the little kids at temple. And your favorite tzedakah box was probably the cast-iron whale that swallowed a quarter along with your scriptural ancestor.

In the department of useless information, a place you were known to visit from time to time, it’s known that, in the 1950s, there were two idiomatic understandings of your name. One referred to someone who was mightily cool. In groups that favored this idiom, to be called a “Jonah” was quite an honor. During the same period, a “Jonah” was also known as someone who ran away from responsibility, someone who couldn’t be counted on. Members of this crowd were not likely to name their kids after the dubious star character of that biblical tale.

In 1990, when you were born, your mom and I weren’t aware that a “Jonah” had once been someone who drew popular admiration. We only knew about the delinquent runaway. But she and I had always looked at the Jonah story differently. Actually, all we did was read to the end of the book. While yes, Jonah had indeed run away from God’s call to prophesy Nineveh’s end, he also ultimately fulfilled the purpose of that calling. After fleeing south to Tarshish, and after spending a few days inside the whale’s belly, Jonah lived up to God’s faith in him. In fact, Jonah saved that entire city!

As your Aunt Joan observed, biblical Jonah’s story seems to end abruptly. Not unlike your own, kiddo. But a person’s story is not nearly complete when it stops partway through. So the question, my son, is can a life be cut short, and yet its impact still be full. Can a story that’s way too brief … somehow be complete? Looking at your life, I’d say, “Yeah, the impact is very full. This story does have a completeness to it.” Even while I continue to cry far too many tears.

By the way, Jonah, those of us who got to know you across this second decade of your life, we know the great efforts you made to reinvent yourself. Efforts at which you very much succeeded. I think each of us receives plenty of opportunities to change the narrative of our life. Jonah (of the whale), reluctant to become God’s prophet, fled … but not forever. He rewrote his narrative. Just like you.

I don’t know whether you spent any time thinking about Jonah of the whale, but I see a parallel in your lives that I wouldn’t mind seeing in my own. You, like every kid, had a lot of growing to do. Incredibly, you did it! When you left for Buffalo, you’d really become the kind of young man a parent prays for. You’d been able to set aside childish immaturities – the more selfish and impatient parts of yourself – and adopt the steadier, more respectable qualities of supportiveness and kindliness, all the while holding onto your child-like playfulness and joy. Jonah Maccabee Dreskin, between your middle school years and high school graduation, you transformed yourself into a truly fine human being. A mentsch. I couldn’t have been prouder, nor could I have loved you more.

Did Jonah of the whale play a role in your evolution? Yeah, I think so. I think you two Jonahs met daily. Not explicitly, but through the words and attempted guidance of a mom and dad who thought the biblical Jonah was a pretty decent, realistic role model. Mom and I have never expected perfection either from ourselves or from our kids, but we’ve continually challenged the five of us to be the best, imperfect human beings we can be.

It was always mom’s and my hope, Jonah, that you – flawed and human like all the rest of us – would be among those who ultimately learned, and chose to do, the right thing. So thank you. Because that’s the Jonah we eventually got. I remember sitting by your bedside one night when you were about twelve, trying to convince you that the Jonah we all knew inside of our home and inside of our family life, that this was a Jonah you could be proud of, a Jonah you didn’t need to hide, a Jonah that others would be grateful to be able to call their friend.

You had to spend a good while inside the belly of your own whale to understand this. But in time, Jonah, in plenty of time – in plenty of time for your adult life, and in plenty of time for your shortened life – you figured it out. You realized you had something to offer the world that would be valued by those who themselves had learned to appreciate menschlichkeit (decency and grace). And when your whale spewed you back out onto dry land, you too went to Nineveh. You went to Nineveh, where you did a whole lot of right and very kind things for a whole lot of us – for your family and your friends, and for a whole bunch of strangers in need – and you redeemed yourself, you built a person who was really good … really good in God’s eyes, in our eyes, but most importantly, in your own eyes.

Two Jonahs. Each faced with the seemingly insurmountable confusion about what to do with their destinies. Each thrown by life’s formidable circumstances into the white-capped waters of indecision. And each emerging again with the beginnings of a wisdom that would teach them to embrace the value (and the reward) of treating God’s creation with respect and with love.

If that’s what being a Jonah is all about, well sign me up! If you ask me, JoJo, it’s time to put away the pejorative references and bring back that old 1950s idiom, “He’s a real cool Jonah!” Because I know at least two examples for whom the shoe fits.

You and I once watched the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray played a jaded, rather offensive newscaster who had forced upon him the opportunity to get one day in his life right. For ten years, the character plugged away at making that single 24-hour collection of moments work. And in the process, he learned about the kinds of choices that bring a person multiple rewards – rewards that come in the form of goodness for others and goodness for oneself.

We can’t go back in time and get a do-over, Jo, but life has a way of presenting similar experiences again and again. When we screw up, something a lot like it is going to come along to see if we’re interested in doing better next time ‘round. That, I think, was a lot of what was going on throughout your nineteen years. Groundhog Day is a fantasy, but it has its roots in the stuff of our everyday lives.

For me — for the dad who can’t seem to do much else other than think about and cry for his 19-year old boy, the dad who’s actually caught, for the next little while at least, in his own version of Groundhog Day … playing tapes and memories over and over and over — I’d like to someday emerge from this having learned something about how to live. Not so different from riding in the belly of a whale. Catching glimpses of past, present and future. Being invited to sort through them, to explore their meanings and their challenges. And to come through all of that … different, hopefully better, for having embraced your absence as part of life’s experiences.

So, Jonah Maccabee Dreskin, it would seem that you and Jonah of the whale offer similar wisdoms. Two reluctant prophets, a pair of beautiful, inexact souls, who most honorably bore the name of the dove – yonah. Here’s hoping that more of us can learn how to ride a whale from the inside (our consciences seem to send them around pretty frequently). And if we can manage the trip, then maybe we too — like you, my sweet, noble son — can emerge from the bellies of our toughest choices, and find that, having bravely faced and reshaped ourselves into a truth that is virtuous and good, perhaps more of us can become a Jonah Maccabee – champions and defenders of decency and grace in our world. I imagine that, in return, quietness and peace will be the gifts from you that remain long after.

Love you forever,
Dad

No Responses to “A Pair of Reluctant Prophets”

  • Anonymous:

    I'm even happier to know that his middle name was Maccabee. From childhood on, I've been proud to be a Jew, who I owned a part of Maccabee spirit. And you imbued that in Jonah. I say that he was lucky to have you and the rest of your family for a long as he was with us.

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