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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Flying High

Dear Jonah,

Yesterday, Mom and I attended the funeral service for Rabbi Aaron Panken. He died young, although not quite so young as you were. It was, of course, an incredibly sad gathering. And like many funerals, it was uplifting too. Aaron was a good guy. He was well-loved by his family and his friends. He loved his life and his work, and he loved living fully. So as we were grieving his death, we were reveling in Aaron’s good fortune to have lived such a beautiful life.

Remind you of someone? (Except for the work part.)

Aaron loved to fly. It was also how he died. Rabbi David Stern said it best, “He fell from the Sabbath sky, but oh how he loved the Sabbath sky.” At the end of the service, two cantors stepped forward and, inspired by Aaron’s love of flying, sang an Israeli tune written by Arik Einstein, “Uf Gozal – Fly Away.”

Fly, my chick
Cut the sky
Fly anywhere you want
But don’t forget
There’s an eagle in the sky
Fly away*

Mom and I gasped. We of course were thinking of you. How we let you go, assuming all would be well, aware of, but pushing deep, the fear that it might not go well. Then came that night when you too fell from the sky. The same sky you loved to watch when, during high school, you’d climb onto the roof from our bathroom window and simply gaze heavenward. We too knew the eagle was lurking somewhere above, seeking its prey, but what were the chances?

Here’s the surprising thing. Another chick had also flown yesterday. Aaron’s funeral took place only hours after Aiden had climbed into his first car, one day after his 24th birthday, pointed the car southwestward and headed out to Colorado, toward whatever destiny awaits him. This is the “fly away” Arik Einstein had been singing about. The natural course of things, with kids flying away while parents settle in for their own ride toward the slowly setting sun. How it’s supposed to be. And while we cried, these were the right kind of tears.

Uf gozal. Fly away, chick.

I usually put up a pretty good front, Jonah. Nine years later, I live a life filled with love and laughter, with your memory strong but firmly placed in frames upon a shelf. That’s a lie I’m usually fine with perpetuating. And I’m okay when Aaron’s funeral, and Aiden’s departure, tear away the thin curtain that veils my truth: that I still miss you terribly. Endings and beginnings betray that secret. They don’t overwhelm me, but they remind me I won’t ever be done with you.

Watching both your brother and your sister fly into their own airborne stories, ever feeling the upward lift of their lives’ exhilarating moments, these bring me such sweet joy. I like also imagining that your story still hasn’t ended, but continues elsewhere. And while I too revel in the good fortune of your having lived such a beautiful life, I pray for the lift that comes from believing your wings are still aloft.

So fly, my children. All three of you. May you too forever love your Sabbath sky. I, amidst my own flight, will rejoice in the occasional glimpses of yours, wishing the eagle its own glorious but (please, God) distant voyage.

Dad

* Complete lyric: My chicks have left the nest, spread wings and flown. And me, an old bird, stayed on the nest, hoping that everything will be okay. I always knew this day would come, when we’d need to say goodbye. But it arrived so suddenly and, to my surprise, I’m a bit worried. Fly, my chick. Cut the sky. Fly anywhere you want. But don’t forget, there’s an eagle in the sky. Fly away. Now we’re alone in the nest, but we’re together. Hug me hard and tell me yes. Don’t worry, it’s fun to get old. Fly, my chick … I know this is natural. I left a nest too. But at the moment, it makes me a little sick. Fly, my chick …

2 Responses to “Flying High”

  • Rebecca Shinder:

    What a beautiful gift to be able to grieve, remember, and continue to imagine and pray for a better tomorrow. Every new hurt pulls at the healing heart, and your extended HUC/URJ family form concentric circles of love around you all.
    With love,
    Rabbi Rebecca Pomerantz Shinder

  • Leon Sher:

    Extraordinary, as usual. (As impossible as that should be)

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