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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Jonah’s Guitar Journey – Part Two

Jonah & the Junkie Guitar Dec 2005 (photos by Katie)

Jonah & the $12 Guitar
Dec 2005 (photos by Katie)

Jonah kept that twelve dollar guitar close by for a long, long time (see “Jonah’s Guitar Journey – Part One”). He mastered his first chords on it, and wasted no time before learning Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad. He wouldn’t sing often for me, but I got a couple of free performances of that particular tune. I think he was paying homage to his old father who had learned Irish Ballad when he was young (albeit on the piano).

Although our kids had abundant access to the internet, we always kept a watchful eye on them so they were never permitted to keep a computer in their bedroom. When, upon his high school graduation, we finally allowed Jonah to move his computer into the privacy of his own space, that junky guitar was right there with him, residing on a stand adjacent to his desk (even though, as you’ll read below, he’d gotten himself a fancier guitar quite a few years earlier). From time to time, he would pick it up and play quietly while Skyping with friends or waiting for online video games to load.

Time came, however, when neither a junky $12 guitar nor a Martin Backpacker (again, see “Jonah’s Guitar Journey – Part One”) would satisfy Jonah’s expanding musical desires. He wanted a real guitar. And he’d certainly demonstrated that this was no passing fancy. Music, and especially the guitar, had become central to his life. So one day, I took my 15-year old to a cool little guitar shop in White Plains, NY, called Toys from the Attic. I remember him timidly speaking with the salesperson who showed him a wall filled with acoustic guitars and invited him to try each and every one until he found what he wanted. We were there for hours, Jonah sitting on a big couch in the center of the room, wrapping himself around each prospective instrument, playing every song he knew about a hundred times until he’d found the guitar he was looking for.

Dean Tradition S TR More importantly ... BIG RED FACE!

Dean Tradition S TR
More importantly …

I’d never heard of Dean guitars until that day. They hadn’t existed when I’d last bought myself a guitar. But Jonah fell in love with a Dean guitar that had a big red face on it, and a big sweet sound. So after another hour or so confirming what he’d known from the first strum, we took it home with us (for those who care about such things, it was a Dean Tradition S TR – “TR” being Dean’s code for “trans red,” or, as I like to describe it, “big red face”). The guitar had been built when Jonah was 14, so it only had to wait one year before he found it.

After Jonah died, memories of him and his “bright red guitar” would trickle in. He’d taken it with him to UB, and the friends he made there (who knew him as Mac) would recall the many times they sang together while he played. The night after Jonah’s death, we were fortunate to witness an outside gathering in a spot where he and his friends had made much music together, an iPod mix now offering up the melodies they had previously all sung. While the tracks were playing, his friends sang along and wrote messages in chalk on the surrounding walls. It was a beautiful tribute that our family will never forget.

Since Jonah’s death, that Dean guitar has stayed with us, making brief appearances throughout our continuing journey of remembrance, showing up in expected and unexpected places.

Seven weeks after Jonah’s funeral, I returned to work. Among that weekend’s activities, I spent time with the kids in our religious school. I spoke with them about Jonah, about him dying, about him living, and about what it feels like to grieve for someone you love. I also brought with me Jonah’s bright red guitar. We sang “Redemption Song” together, one of Jonah’s favorite tunes (and which, Ellen tells me, Jonah learned and played on the big red guitar for many a youth group High Holy Days service). It felt so good to be sharing it, and him, with the kids, most of whom had known him from singing with him and being tutored by him. Jonah had been a huge presence among the children at Woodlands Community Temple, and his loss was felt deeply by them.

About a year after Jonah died, we established an annual concert of contemporary Jewish music whose purpose was to raise funds that would help kids in our temple go to camp. At that first concert (with Dan Nichols and Josh Nelson), Jonah’s presence was powerful and unmistakable. He was on all of our minds and in all of our hearts. He’d have loved being there. The second year, however, things were a bit different. The music would be great (Craig Taubman) but with time, Jonah’s presence was not as palpable. So unbeknownst to the audience (and probably to Craig, as well) I placed Jonah’s big red guitar on stage where it could serve as a reminder – to those who knew what it was – that we still missed Jonah.

Poster for March 2012 Dan on the Big Red Guitar

Poster for March 2012
Dan on the Big Red Guitar

A year later, Ellen and I were sitting in our home with Dan Nichols and Josh Nelson planning the third Jonah Concert. We had, by then, taken most of Jonah’s instruments and created a bit of a tribute wall around our piano, mounting them along with a few others (including Ellen’s engagement banjo … yep, another story indeed … and her father’s army bugle that he obtained and played in World War II Italy) that carry special memories for us. The red guitar, however, had always remained in its stand right next to the piano, ever ready to be picked up and played by whomever. Typically, this would be either Ellen or myself as one of us prepared for a Shabbat service and happily worked out our material on Jonah’s guitar. But the night that Dan and Josh came by in November 2011 to talk about their upcoming concert, the bright red guitar came out along with Jonah’s ukulele (more on that another time) and, next thing we knew, the concert poster that year featured Dan Nichols on Jonah’s guitar and Josh on his ukulele.

Dan sings "Redemption Song" at our family seder (March 2013)

Dan sings “Redemption Song” at our family seder March 2013

Then there was a night about a year ago when Dan Nichols, family in tow, showed up on our doorstep for seder (okay, Ellen probably worked that out beforehand with them). And I have lovely memories of Dan playing a few tunes (there are always more than a few guitar tunes at our seder!) on the big red guitar. It needn’t have been Dan, of course; it’s just sweet to see Jonah’s guitar continue to bring music into the world. It’s not quite Jonah, but one takes what one can get.

Interestingly, the Dean guitar is residing in my temple Study right now. My own guitar is spending the summer at a resort in Connecticut (you know, a guitar spa) (okay, a repair shop) having a number of scratches, cracks, and even holes removed so that it can begin the second decade of its life with me in good health. Meanwhile, Jonah’s guitar is keeping me company and I’ve been deeply moved each time I pick it up and play it in front of my congregation.

The day Jonah died, messages began flying across the internet. On Jonah’s Facebook page (and on a tribute page set up for him), unbelievably lovely words were left. One message came from Genevieve Van Dussen, whom Jonah had met during that only year of his at college. Genny writes about more than the guitar but she includes the guitar which, in a way, with its memorable bright red face, touched everyone who spent time around it, just as a very memorable red-bearded kid I used to know.

I’ll close out with Genny’s words:

You were truly one incredible person. You were always able to put a smile on my face and reverse my bad mood into a good one. You are not like anyone I have ever met. I will never forget our ridiculously long walk from South Campus to North Campus. I asked you if you would tell me a story and, boy, did you ever. I never laughed so hard. I will also never forget that “V for Vendetta” mask in your room, watching random movie clips together on your computer, your walk (or, should I say, your swagger), the checkered hat, the red aviators, the many trips you made to my dorm (you were such a gentleman and always walked me to my room), your guitar playing with that bright red guitar of yours. It was only a couple of days ago when you asked me if I wanted to buy it, but that guitar could only fit one person – you, and nobody else. You were such a lovely person inside and out. I will miss you so much, Mac. You will always remain in my thoughts and prayers.



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