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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Biennial Snapshots

Ellen, Aiden and I recently returned from the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention in Toronto. As with so much else in my life these days, Jonah’s never far from my thoughts … even in Canada. On various occasions, the five of us had traveled as far as Niagara Falls, and in 2005, Jonah himself got to Montreal during his “Olim Summer” at Eisner Camp. But that was it for family travels to the USA’s northern neighbor. Nonetheless, this Convention, with its 3000 attendees and about 10,000 different things to do, was still unable to shake Jonah from my mind. He was who I was with and what I was doing.

Jonah actually attended three previous Biennials – one as our kid, and two as a NFTY delegate. He probably wouldn’t have gotten to this one, owing to college classes and such, but he was missing from it nonetheless.

Jonah’s first Biennial was in 1999. The Convention that year was held in Orlando, Florida, with everyone staying at The Dolphin Hotel right in the heart of Walt Disney World. I imagine this was when our kids got brainwashed into thinking that Judaism is fun. We certainly weren’t going to disabuse them of that bit of propaganda, so all five of us packed our bags and headed off for the amusement park (er, I mean the Convention Center).

Jonah, Aiden & Katie Disney World 1999

Jonah, Aiden & Katie
Disney World 1999

Jonah was only nine at the time so, needless to say, there wasn’t really much at the Convention that was going to claim his attention. Except for one thing. Krispy Kreme had a donut stand inside the Dolphin Hotel. We ate there at least twice a day. After that, I only remember Aiden and Jonah running (and running!) through the long, meandering corridors of the hotel. I was usually running after them (except when hotel personnel stopped them and wanted to know where their parent was).

Of course, the highlight of that Biennial was our time spent at Disney World. Nothing need really be said about that. Kids + Disneyland = awesome fun and memories. Grandma Ida, Aunt Joan, Uncle David and cousin Abbey spent the day with us. Where Joel Hoffman showed up from, we’ll never know. But as always, we were delighted to have him along.

By the way, my kids have always shared a very special relationship with Joel Hoffman. Jonah, in particular, responded to Joel’s fantastic command of all-things-linguistic. When Joel shared one of his arcane-yet-beguiling tidbits about the English language, Jonah not only loved it but he remembered it, and was always eager to share what he learned from Joel with his own friends. Joel was the first to point out to our kids the odd observation that “we park on driveways and drive on parkways.” And he always left us shaking our heads at this one: “Here’s a sentence that sounds like it makes sense but it doesn’t: More people have been to Europe than I have.” Jonah was never known for his commitment to school; education, however, was a different matter. That boy loved to learn, but you had to have something interesting to teach him. Jonah would tell you straight out that Joel Hoffman always had something fascinating to teach. Joel Hoffman may very well have been Jonah’s favorite teacher.

Jonah would skip a few Biennials before returning in 2005, this time with his ever-widening cadre of friends from NFTY.

Aiden, Gpa Jake, Gma Iris, Katie and Jonah Houston, Nov 2005

Aiden, Gpa Jake, Gma Iris, Katie and Jonah
Houston, Nov 2005

The event took place in Houston, which held its own attraction for our family. Ellen grew up there, and that was always where we’d find her mom and dad. By 2005, Grandma Iris and Grandpa Jake were pretty advanced in their years and our kids understood that these visits were growing in importance. Jonah and his grandfather (who died only a month after Jonah did) always shared a very special bond going back to a visit the same year we’d gone to the Biennial in Orlando. They both loved taking things apart and putting them back together again. Grandpa Jake was always a little bit better at it than Jonah, but we knew Jake’s grandson was catching up fast. These days, we like to think they’re back with each other, taking apart heaven and having a wonderful time trying to figure out how to put it together again.

On the 1999 plane ride to Houston, Jonah borrowed my PDA and typed the following (the spelling is his):

Today I’m fliying to texas on an airplane and my dad is holding my furby. Where going especaly for my birthday! I hope it’s the best birthday I ever have! My grandma and gandpa live there and they’re invited to my birthday party. My grandma is blind so I have to help her get around. otherwize, I like going.

Now I’m at my grandpa and grandmas house. It smells weird but my grandpa is giving us a train set that’s really small! And he’s giving me a broken tape player and it still has buttins!

I have two prominent memories of Jonah at the Houston Biennial. The first involves the struggle of a 15-year old kid to understand just how wonderful a guy he was and how valuable a friend he would become. But that hadn’t happened yet as I learned when, walking through an isolated area of the Convention Center on my way to one of the auditoriums, I came across a very dejected Jonah sitting by himself trying to figure out why he wasn’t having as great a time as everyone else. (By the way, as you’ll see, at the 2007 Biennial there will be no question in anyone’s mind about Jonah’s delight at being part of everything happening everywhere!)

The upside of Jonah’s “down” (and my second prominent Jonah-memory of the Houston Biennial) is that he spent some time with me that, two years later, would be completely unnecessary and even avoided (such are the travails of parenting a happy teenage son). During one of the plenary sessions, Jonah came and sat with me. It happened to be just as the gathered delegates took up the question of whether or not to call upon the Bush Administration to develop a clear exit strategy from the war in Iraq. Jonah sat next to me for the entire discussion and the vote, and I (positively giddy about suddenly having the opportunity to teach something to my teenaged son) quietly explained to him how important it was for people to speak up, regardless of their point of view, and how important it was for him to be witnessing the first time any American Jewish organization was taking a public position on this war. When the vote was called, I very happily placed my plenary credentials into his hands and let him vote on the resolution. I think he was very proud of that. I know I was proud of him.

In 2007 the five of us set out for San Diego. By this time, Jonah and NFTY had become synonymous. He had grown into that big, beautiful spirit of his and never considered for a second that he’d have anything but a wonderful time at this Biennial. It was, according to a friend of his, the time when he began to call himself “Maccabee.” So change was in the air, and the rest of us just sort of watched in awe of the giant he had become.

Kyleigh and Mac, URJ Biennial, Dec 2007 ... He must’ve loved the badge!

Kyleigh and Mac
URJ Biennial, Dec 2007
He must’ve loved the badge!

My first memory of Jonah (excuse me, of Maccabee) at the San Diego Biennial was during the opening night’s “Maariv of the Future” service, which featured the debut of very colorful words and pictures projected onto huge screens we call “visual worship.” Aiden ran the computer and made sure everything appeared when it was supposed to. Maccabee, who had operated the computers with Aiden and me when we first experimented with this at Woodlands during Hanukkah 2006, sat (very proudly, I think) at the computer table while the Convention got wow’ed by his 13-year old kid brother.

The next day, I participated in a workshop on the use of technology in worship. NFTY hadn’t yet arrived to the Convention so Maccabee was on his own for the day and he came to his old man’s session. In an email to me shortly after Mac died, Kathy Sebo, a cantorial soloist and longtime friend from Cleveland, described the workshop thus:

Jonah was towards the back of the room and I remember at one point he was helping his dad with something … but he was also mildly heckling his dad. Watching this adorable interaction between Billy and Jonah made me smile and also laugh out loud. I recall thinking “what a cool father-son moment.” They both had the biggest grins on their faces and you could see their love and their friendship. It was really sweet.

Jonah Maccabee had the ability to drive me nuts, but Kathy was right. This time, I was thrilled that he was in the room, and I enjoyed it to the max.

I have one more image of Maccabee from the San Diego Convention. It’s a shifting image, though. At each Biennial, there’s a Shabbat Evening songsession that puts a band and about forty songleaders onstage to lead five thousand people in some very spirited tune-sharing. First, I see Jonah in the front row, singing and dancing his heart out, never more at home than he was with this gang he’d gathered from his Eisner days, his Kutz days, and his NFTY-NAR days. So many of the friends he’d made (and new ones too, of course) having just the greatest time. Until that is, when NFTY was invited onto the stage and the image shifts to him swaying back and forth, singing just as loudly as he could, smiling from ear to ear, his arms straddling any shoulder that came within his reach.

I always have a great time being one of elder songleaders invited to lead from the stage, but those moments were utterly dwarfed by the feeling I got from seeing my son up there too. At this most recent Biennial in Toronto, I was once again invited back to join the throngs of songleaders during the Friday night songsession. And just as before, I had a great time. Until, that is, NFTY took the stage alongside us. At first, I was saddened by it all, arrested by the images of my son once so happily engulfed by that mass of high-spirited youth. I considered leaving the stage, but then my heart filled, indeed it overflowed, when I saw my son there once more. It was Aiden, attending his first Biennial of NFTY age, surrounded by old and new friends, singing just as loudly as he could, and having what looked to be the time of his life. Why the music shifted from Jewish folk songs to the Beatle’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,” I’ll never know. And why Aiden chose to break out of his NFTY group and through the tightly hugging line of aged and decrepit songleaders, to join me at my side for this piece, that too I may never know. But he did. And a fantastic, new memory in my life was suddenly created. From the outside, I know it looked like hundreds of songleaders and NFTYites on stage, and three thousand participants in the auditorium. But for the couple of minutes that song was playing, it was just me and my son, my Aiden, arms around each other on that stage, in that auditorium, in the entire world. There could be no sweeter moment at the 2009 Biennial for me.

I’m hoping someone got a photograph of it but, if not, the image will still remain. It was unforgettable. In Gates of Prayer, the Reform movement’s retired siddur, there’s a beautiful little meditation written by an anonymous Japanese poet:

As the moon sinks on the mountain-edge, the fisherman’s lights flicker far out on the dark wide sea. Just when we think that we alone are steering our ships at midnight, we hear the splash of oars far beyond us.

Just when I thought the waves of grief would once more engulf me, I heard the splash of my youngest son’s joyful bounce. And I was rescued.

In one of Maccabee’s desk drawers are most of the identification badges he’d been issued at NFTY events throughout his high school years. His 2007 Biennial badge is among them. Sure enough, he’d crossed out “Jonah” and replaced it with “Mac.” Over the years, he accumulated a lot of badges with which he identified himself to others. During the kallot and the conventions, he wore them all close to his heart. And for a long time after, he continued to keep them close. Perhaps because even though he’d finally learned to identify himself with his heart and with his soul, these badges reminded him of the journey he’d taken, one he wanted to remember because it had not only brought him amusement and delight, it ultimately helped him figure out just who he was.

Jonah (far left) & NFTY Friday Night Songsession, URJ Biennial  Houston, Nov 2005

Jonah (far left) & NFTY
Friday Night Songsession, URJ Biennial
Houston, Nov 2005

This month, just before heading off to Toronto, I happened to visit the Biennial 2009 webpage. There, at the top of the screen, was a line of NFTYites singing their hearts out at the Friday night songsession in 2005. Mac’s the guy at the far left (tho he was still Jonah then). Turns out, NFTY didn’t just bring good things into Maccabee’s life; he brought pretty good things to NFTY and to everyone lucky enough to meet Jonah and Maccabee along the way.


2 Responses to “Biennial Snapshots”

  • Beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

  • Danielle Rodnizki:

    Hi Billy,

    This post brought tears to my eyes. I was part of the NFTY Leaders Assembly at the 2007 Biennial, and I had the honor of spending those four days with Jonah in addition to two summers at Kutz.

    I remember speaking with him the first day of the Biennial and seeing him up on the stage singing his heart out during that Shabbat Shira. Jonah was a very special person and I'm very lucky to have been his friend.

    With love,

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