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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Reflections on Jonah as Musician – Part Four

I’ve got some more documentation for you about those rare Jonah-playing-in-public sightings.

One that I’ve mentioned before but haven’t fully described is when Jonah joined Dan Nichols on stage at Kutz Camp in July 2005. Jonah was 15 years old at the time and had been playing the ukulele for only three months. He’d purchased it with his own money during a family trip to Hawaii. He’d known from the beginning of that very special, probably once in a lifetime for us all, family vacation that he’d be bringing an ukulele home with him. He was very clear upon our arrival that he’d be needing to make an excursion to an authentic Hawaiian music store.

Dan Nichols.Jonah Camper.Kutz2005

Dan and Jonah, “Turn the World Around” (Jul 2005)

I distinctly recall our driving over to the Lahaina Music shop. Jonah made a bee-line to the uke display and it wasn’t long at all before he’d found the one for him. From then on, Jonah was hooked. When he went off to camp that summer, the ukulele went with him, setting up the backdrop for Dan Nichols’ visit to Kutz. Dan always invites a few kids to work with him the afternoon before a concert. Ellen and I were serving on faculty at Kutz and were unaware of what we were going to see that evening. During the concert, the band began a vamp to introduce one of Dan’s biggest hits, “Turn the World Around.” As the vamp continued, Ellen and I heard Dan say, “Won’t you welcome to the silver sparkled microphone … please welcome Jonah Dreskin.”

Now since Jonah only rarely performed in public, you can imagine our surprise, and our good fortune, at being present for this one. Jonah hadn’t yet fully emerged as the wild, overcharged, inclusive and embracing guy that he was destined to be. His time at Kutz was, thus far, only okay as a social experience for him. He didn’t own Kutz yet, but that was all soon to change.

Jonah's mom and dad kvelling Kutz Camp, July 2005

Jonah’s mom and dad kvelling
Kutz Camp, July 2005

What’s amazing about this moment is that while no one would be surprised to find me taking snapshots of Jonah onstage (and I did!), we were stunned to later find out that a friend of ours (Hope Chernak) had pointed her camera toward us, capturing our reaction to seeing our shy (but not for long) little boy up there with Jewish superstar Dan Nichols. To top off the wonder of this incredibly exciting and gratifying musical moment, another friend (Cantor Leon Sher) had been visiting camp that evening and turned on his digital recorder just in case Dan sang something new that Leon might be able to use in his work. As a result, Ellen and I are able to relive that evening again and again, viewing the pictures of Jonah and of ourselves, and listening to this rare and precious recording of that unforgettable night.

By the way, “Turn the World Around” is performed in 5/8 time. That ain’t so easy to play, folks, and Jonah nailed it! That was how it was possible for me and Ellen to feel even prouder of (and giddier about!) our little boy. You can listen to this great, rare performance right here:

A brief note about ukuleles. Jonah felt very strongly and was very specific about the proper “handling” of his instrument. Chana Rothman, one of his 2005 songleading instructors during that summer at Kutz, wrote us shortly after Jonah had died:

I remember when you guys came back from Hawaii and he had a ukulele in his hand. This memory is imprinted indelibly on my mind; I can tell you the exact spot in Kutz where he stood (between the Faculty Dining Room and the Lobby, with friends and chaos all around) and told me the story of how he got his ukulele. And then he taught me how to pronounce it, since most people don’t do so correctly. He taught me with respect and enthusiasm, eager to share not only the instrument but the story and the culture behind it. Ever since then, I call Jonah into my mind when I pronounce oo-koo-lay-lay (not yoo-kuh-layl-ee) and I remember how powerful it can be to respect another culture not your own.

One summer later, Jonah would attend the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), held during five days in August 2006 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. One night – late – there was an open mic. Ellen was sitting with a few friends (Jan Katz, Doug Cotler and Rabbi Tamar Crystal) in the food court when who should appear on a makeshift stage in the middle of the room but Jonah Maccabee Dreskin! With ukulele in hand and sunglasses for coolness, Jonah played and sang (very likely, “Over the Rainbow”) as a very supportive audience cheered him on, his mama beaming with tremendous pride and (as always) infinite love.

Jonah @ CAJE (Aug 2006) … see his mama against the windows to the left?

In our family, Jonah was a huge presence, as if every moment existed solely for him to leave his mark, to make an impression, to make sure he wasn’t forgotten. Not his goals at all, but the kind of impact he made on us. We loved it. He was so incredibly entertaining, and we never tired either of being his audience or jumping in and making noise right along with him. That was one of Jonah’s great gifts. He was never as interested in stepping into the spotlight as he was in dragging you in with him. Nothing was ever as much fun as sharing center stage with a friend.

For nineteen years, Jonah shared his spotlight with us, and we were ecstatic. Then one day, his place on the stage was empty, and we were bereft. But life is an uncanny sort of journey. The stage is patient. The empty place beneath the spotlight will quietly wait for the show to resume. And so it has, quite surprisingly considering how lost we’ve been without him. There are so many moments now when I am surrounded by good people – family and friends – who have taught me to smile again, to sing again, to make noise again, to take the stage again, and to live again. And always, I think of Jonah. How he would love to be part of this. And how he would be happy that his place on the stage is neither empty nor is it ever limited to any single performer for very long.

This, I think, was one of his great lessons to us all.

Billy

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