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Eating (In and) Out of House and Home – Part Two

We Dreskins have simple tastes. There are not a lot of fancy restaurants in our story (although Ruth’s Chris is definitely at the top of the list when it comes to celebrating important stuff like high school graduations). Mostly, we’re about fast-food chains and family dining spots (which could be why we often eat alone). The collection of watering holes we’ve frequented is an always-changing list, but many of them have become backdrops for sustained family memories. I think this may be because my mind’s eye has compiled an album of “brain-matter images” that include Jonah with us in these places. And if for no other reason than to be able to see his face in my memory, it’s worth recalling every junky restaurant where he had a burger and a Coke and we got to spend just one more hour with him.

Makin’ A Motzi! Kutz Camp, November 2006

Makin’ A Motzi!
Kutz Camp, November 2006

Here’s “the list.” Brace yourself. If you’re not a junk-food journeyer, you may cringe. But the criterion was a simple one: Have something on your menu to satisfy each person in our family, and we’re yours (at least until someone decides they hate it and won’t ever eat there again … and we wouldn’t). Subway, Arby’s, Skyline Chili, Bob Evans, Chuck E. Cheese’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Burger King, Applebee’s, Fuddrucker’s, Outback Steakhouse, Gasho, Planet Pizza, McDonald’s (until Aiden forbade us from eating there ever again … see what I mean?), LaManda’s, Cactus Jack’s and the Cheesecake Factory.

There are stories associated with each one of these restaurants, moments that brought a smile to our faces, or simply things that we did which, while being really very trivial, have become the sacred memories both of our kids’ childhood years and, of course, Jonah’s life. For instance, the McDonald’s we frequented had one of those PlayPlaces to keep little kids busy for more than the 2½ minutes it takes for them to consume their meals. Jonah probably overstayed his place in the PlayPlace beyond the time when most kids age out of it. But he really couldn’t help himself – he was a playful kid (who also didn’t at all mind being the biggest kid on the block when the opportunity presented itself). After dinner, we’d usually walk down the sidewalk to Play It Again Sports, which sold used athletic equipment, and the kids would mess with the loads of stuff that was sold there while watching me befriend yet another stranger (a recurring theme in our lives): the store’s manager who always sat behind a counter in the center of his shop, ruling his tiny kingdom with a watchful eye and a friendly word.

Like McDonald’s, Burger King lasted until the kids aged out of it. When they were little, I took them there a lot, befriending yet another manager, this one giving us free desserts and spending a few minutes chatting with us between customers. He was an immigrant, which provided a curious backdrop for our encounters. Two individuals from different countries and very different upbringings, sharing a really nice acquaintance that was utterly bizarre to my children but (as they can tell you) no longer a surprise to them. Jonah never stopped loving Burger King and neither did I. So right through the end of high school, when we were by ourselves, he and I would often stop there to get burgers and (for him) a Frozen Coke. By the way, Jonah always got a Whopper, asking them to leave off two ingredients (which two, tomatoes or onions or mayonnaise, none of us can accurately remember, emphasizing the seemingly trivial but no less important and emotional act of trying to recall the details of the life of this boy we so dearly loved). Just a few weeks ago, I stopped in for lunch (yep, still haven’t outgrown it) and my friend was there. Telling him about the death of one of the kids he’d watched grow through the years brought great sadness to his face, along with a weary, knowing acceptance of the pain that life can place before us.

In the early 90s, when we lived in Cleveland, Bob Evans was one of our very favorite restaurants (remember the main criterion … something for everyone). In July 1993, when the city got hit by a massive storm that caused a three-day blackout, we were sitting in “Bobby Evvy” (as Katie and Jonah called it). Our family watched through the windows as Cleveland was plunged into a world without electricity, and a pioneering adventure began for us all. Arriving back home, we embarked upon three days of camping out in our living room, sleeping bags on the floor, keeping the night at bay with flashlights and candles, playing board games, reading books, telling stories, going to sleep much earlier than even 3-year-old Jonah was used to doing, and being part of something much simpler, much slower, than we’d previously known. I even wrote two sermons by hand, which was something quite novel for this young rabbi who’d entered the personal computer age with zealous devotion and had no intention of ever looking back. Eventually, the Cleveland Illuminating Company turned the lights back on, but not before we all got the rarest of treats – long hours of lazy, uninterrupted time with the family we loved, a memory we’d not soon forget and that we would cherish far longer.

On Friday evenings whenever Ellen had to leave early for work, Applebee’s became our restaurant of choice. The only time she would allow us to have a Shabbat meal that wasn’t a sit-down at our dining room table was when she was away and everyone understood I’d never excel at preparing a full and proper dinner for my kids. We dubbed it “ShabApplebee’s” and once we even lit two matches to usher in Shabbat at our table. Jonah liked it when we ordered the Sampler, competing with us for scoops of artichoke dip and sticks of fried mozarella. Somewhere around age 16, Jonah stunned us when he became concerned about healthy eating and his meal became, first, a fried chicken salad and, later, a fried chicken salad wrap (but with no tomatoes and no dressing, which I record here simply because I like to remember what he liked). When Jonah and Aiden finished their meals, they would run down to EB Games and check out the latest and greatest possibilities for separating dear old dad from some of his buckets of money (because they knew he enjoyed an exciting videogame almost as much as they did). Oh, and sometimes on a weeknight, the “Shab” part dropped off the Applebee’s name and Ellen got to eat there with us too!

Fuddrucker’s, Feb 2006 See the light-thingie?

Fuddrucker’s, Feb 2006
See the light-thingie?

There was no Fuddrucker’s anywhere near us. Jonah and I first tried one when he was in the seventh grade, the day he’d been suspended from school for 24 hours (for talking back to one of his teachers) and accompanied me to New Jersey for a graveside funeral service at which I was officiating. He was fascinated by the cemetery, and was so well-behaved that I rewarded him by finding somewhere we could get him a great burger. The fact that Fuddrucker’s also served root beer on tap is probably what completely won him over. After that, it wasn’t often we’d go to Paramus, NJ, for a burger but, when we did (including Jonah’s 16th birthday), it was noteworthy that Jonah always volunteered to hold the light-thingie (can you think of a better term for it?) that let customers know when their meal was ready for pickup. He was always the one to go up and retrieve our food. I was forever impressed by this because it seemed like the kind of thing kids would expect their parents to do for them. I always felt it was so kind of Jonah to get the food, a sign he was growing out of his (sometimes infuriating) self-centeredness and transforming into this gentle, self-assured, generous young man.

Gasho May 2004

Gasho
May 2004

Gasho is a Japanese hibachi restaurant, the kind where you sit around a large flat cooking area, often with other guests you’ve never in your life seen before. Either Ellen or I served as the buffer between our kids and the unknown others at our table, and I admit that I was as reluctant to engage in conversation with them as my kids (they may have known me as the guy who was always talking to strangers, but I like to pick which strangers). Something about having dinner out was a very personal affair for us, and sitting with people we didn’t know was not what enticed us to eat there. As usual, it was key that Gasho had something each member of the family liked to eat (Jonah’s favorite was hibachi shrimp). But we also all got a kick out of the comedy routines the chefs always presented, which seemed ancient (as in “Don’t you guys ever find any new material?”) and universal (as in “Do you think the chefs here in Butte, Montana, apprenticed at Gasho?”). Jonah, long a fan of broccoli, looked forward to catching a piece in his mouth as it was flipped his way across the hibachi grill. The little boy peeing cooking oil onto the stove surface never ceased to bring a smile to the kids’ faces. And the flaming onion volcano, being of pyrotechnic status, was probably Jonah’s favorite. When the chef had completed his routine, cleaned off the grill and set off to find his next audience, Jonah and Aiden liked taking pieces of ice from their water glasses and skimming them one-by-one across the still warm cooking surface. There, the ice would move through all of its physical states: solid ice, to melted water, to steaming bubbles, and then gone. The two brothers were entertained by this game until all of their ice had disappeared and then, if they had no more food to consume, they’d head out to the gardens and goof around out there until we were ready to depart. On the way home, we usually stopped at Carvel Ice Cream where Jonah would most likely order a cookie dough or chocolate milkshake. Because everything melted quickly there, we’d hang out in the parking lot to devour our ice cream before heading back home. All in all, this was always a really nice evening for the five of us – some of our favorite foods, with ample room for some of our favorite characters to be themselves and have some fun with mom and dad who were as pleased as could be to simply watch it all happen.

LaManda’s is a local, family-run Italian restaurant. They’re best-known for their pizza and salad. It wasn’t a restaurant we frequented but, from time to time, we’d get there. The best table in the house was the one beneath a window where the kids could stand on their seats and peer in as the pizzas were prepared. Of course, an argument always preceded that as to who would get the two seats that were actually next to the wall. Afterwards, we’d head over to the Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream Parlor for some scoops, always a welcome dessert in this family. Something about ice cream dampens orneriness, and always made the kids really nice to be around. Until an hour or so later, of course, when their blood sugar took a dive for the worse!

One town over, there used to be a nice little Mexican restaurant called Cactus Jack’s. We loved this one. A live mariachi band, tacos and popcorn chicken and, of course, Carvel always followed. Another Dreskin classic.

When the kids were younger, on Tuesdays (which has always been my day-off and, thus, a perfect time for Ellen to go to work) I always took the kids out for dinner (“helpless” is another good way to describe me in a kitchen). But we’d never eat at a restaurant; that wasn’t my style. Away we’d go to the Galleria in White Plains, where Dad (classy guy that he is) treated the kids to whatever they wanted in the Food Court. Jonah usually grabbed a burger at McDonald’s (although pizza at Sbarro was a contender as well). When Friendly’s was operating there, ice cream followed (what else is new?). But what made this outing an especially tasty treat was the quick after-dinner shopping (before getting home for schoolwork and baths) during which I gave each kid a five dollar credit at K•B Toys. It would take Aiden and Katie only a few minutes to select an action figure or Polly Pocket to bring home with them. But Jonah could never make up his mind. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes later, I’d be pleading with him to decide, and often ended up giving him the five dollars outright. And thus began his tenacious savings habit, earning him thousands of dollars in the bank because he rarely spent any money he earned or received as gifts. Until, that is, he realized he could purchase an acoustic guitar, two electric guitars, an ukulele and a mandolin … because he’d never spent a penny as a child!

Ruth’s Chris formal photos @ the rock May 2008

Ruth’s Chris
formal photos @ the rock
May 2008

No junk food is available at Ruth’s Chris (except maybe their Tempura Onion Rings). We’ve gone there to celebrate Katie’s high school graduation, Jonah’s high school graduation, Aiden’s middle school graduation and Katie’s 21st birthday. A fancy restaurant with the most amazing steaks in the world, that’s the one the Dreskins loved for our most special moments with the people we love. And of all the bistros mentioned in this writing, I hope Ruth’s Chris will be the one whose inside we see again soon. And Skyline Chili too!

At Eisner Camp in the summer of 2004, the Tzofim Show saw Jonah cast in the role of a Jewish rap artist named Etan G, performing his signature piece, “Makin’ a Motzi.” From that time forward, “Makin’ a Motzi” became Jonah Dreskin’s signature piece, performing it event after event throughout his NFTY years. The Motzi gives thanks for the earth’s ability to bring forth blessings of sustenance and well-being. At each one of these unremarkable yet well-appreciated focus points for our family’s gatherings, we were sustained both in body and in spirit. If wholeness is a goal for which we strive in our lives, these meals brought our family a wholeness which even the distance Jonah’s death has placed between him and us can never diminish.

Billy

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