I just booked our Summer family vacation in Lake Tahoe. It will be an amazing place to spend a week…serious mountain biking, hiking and water skiing. As excited as I am I can’t help but be a bit melancholy. I have had the great gift of being your dad for the past 18 years. You are a superstar kid and have given me nothing but nachas (Jewish joy.) I celebrate the fact that you are entering your college years with so much enthusiasm and readiness to take on the world. I believe in you, Max. There’s nothing you can’t do.
So yes, it’s our last family vacation with all of us together for a while. Too soon we’ll have our last family dinner, our last Shabbat, a rockin’ graduation party and you’ll be off to camp and then the Holy Land. What a gift to have a year in Israel before college kicks off. Dreamy. I think some parents of teens are ready to see their kids hit the road. I’m not one of those parents. I love spending time with you. My greatest memories are the time we’ve spent together. We’ve had amazing adventures, deep musical connections, great conversations. I dig all your friends and love the fact that the gang comes over every Shabbat afternoon. I have great joy being your music teacher and getting to see you grow on the guitar in Jazz Ensemble and rockin’ Pro Tools in our recording technology class. I love watching your mom look at you with unfathomable love in her eyes.
In fact, everyone that I know that has ever met you only has great things to say about you. That’s a pretty rare thing. I’ve never seen leadership ability like yours. You’ve had it all your life. You are totally comfortable in every situation that you find yourself. On my concert tours on which you’ve joined me you are connecting with the synagogue youth whether it’s Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Your teachers and rabbis rave about you. I get to watch you every year on the Pesach programs that I lead. Mom and I just gasp at how the entourage gravitates to you and how when you move on, they move too!
You are so at ease with yourself and remarkably you wear your confidence without pushing anyone down. Working the crowd without having to be the joker or the troublemaker or the scammer. Clearly you have learned only the good side of the things from your devious dad. Other than driving too fast. You are incredible with kids and are a beloved cousin, counselor and mentor. You are so open and loving with those “specially-abled.” You are so totally there for your four beautiful grandparents. You are a wizard on the guitar, with the computer, with just about anything you do. You have gotten school wired and should have so much pride that you have excelled more and more every year, on every report card and are busting out nearly straight A’s your senior year. Do you see a certain trajectory here?
And now you’re off to the Promised Land. Oooooh you are so lucky. It is such a wild, beautiful, exciting place. A place where holiness is flowing in the very air you breathe. The opportunity for connection is so powerful and present. You will be in an amazing growth environment with rabbis and peers that will support you into your own spiritual flight. Starting your post high school educational and professional life with Jewish fundamentals makes so much sense. After all, whether you become a hedge fund manager, psychologist or rock guitarist, you will have a serious foundation in place. I first got turned on in Israel when I was just a bit older than you. I was totally ready to do great things in my life and my heart was open. It may be hard to believe but you will become even more open as you put teenage angst, LA hype and living with your parents behind you. Yes, you can spend the year partying, but if you can find the discipline you will come out of this year with a passion to maximize every moment of your time, becoming more creative, productive and the master of your destiny.
There are a few things I’ve been thinking about now that you are launching into your official Israel gap year, a tradition, thank God, for most of the young people in our community. I’m so happy that you have my brother Yom Tov and Leah and their amazing eight kids to hang out with on a regular basis. Please bond deeply with all of your cousins. They miss you so much. They have been deprived of having you in their life and deserve to get their fill of you. You will blow them away and I know that they will see what a towering mensch (real human) you are. I’m getting weepy as I write this. I’m so proud of you, Max. I love you so much. You are such a credit to our family, a living testimony that mom and I did pretty good job with you. You are an extension of us to the world. We will be living vicariously through your adventures. Please keep us posted!
You are already a powerful ambassador for the Jewish People. Everyone who sees your kippah feels your good vibe and feels good about the heritage you represent. Do you understand what an intense Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that is? You will likely ramp up your commitment in Israel. It’s true that many “frum out” there but not just on the surface. You just feel God’s presence so powerfully through your learning and holy lifestyle that you would never ever do anything to mess it up. You do mitzvahs not because your parents or rabbis expect something out of you. The motivation comes from an outpouring of intense love for your relationship with God. The relationship becomes palpable. Why would you ever mess up your best friend in the Universe?? You will be driven by sweet longing and unspeakable gratitude for your life and everyone you meet will be deeply attracted by the light that you radiate. Yes, you!
You also know from your hyperactive father that our Judaism doesn’t mean you have to sit on your butt and study all day. Judaism means that you are out in the world, spreading light. Yes, we’re an Orthodox family, but we ski and surf and vacation and travel and drink in everything that life has to offer. Except non-kosher wine, of course. I give you permission to get on a bus to Eilat the moment your neshama (soul) tells you you need a break. Go spend some time underwater… learn to scuba dive (as your chassidic cousin Avrami just did), mountain bike, climb, play beach volleyball (my captain of the YULA Volleyball Team!) When you have a l’chaim please have a round for your old dad back in LA – and have a designated driver.
I hope you can get to the Old City as often as you are able. Catch as many minyanim (services) at the Kotel (Western Wall) as you can. It’s the center of the universe! Try your hand at bargaining in the Arab shuk. You’ll get a kick out of Yom Tov’s 10:00am daily lecture at Aish, in a spectacular room overlooking the Temple Mount. Your zany uncle catches major air on his mountain bike as he flies down the Arab Quarter steps. He gets to his class out of breath and addresses an unusual group of hippies, deadheads, Harvard grads and grandparents with an unscripted flow of whatever is on his mind. Anyone can come to his class and it would give him great nachas to see you there. Remarkably our yeshiva, Aish Hatorah, has become the number one outreach address in the world. It has the biggest Jewish website in the world. It brings over more young people to Israel to learn than any organization in the world. I’m not saying your should ditch your program in Mevaseret but I hope you can wander the Rovah (Jewish Quarter) and get to know my old Aish rabbi friends that will be excited to meet you.
Speaking of Aish, as you know we’ve been members of Aish LA since you were born. There are plenty of other synagogues that we go to and love, but Aish is our home. It’s where you crawled around every Shabbat, where you boys had your Bar Mitzvahs, where you rock the teen minyan. What you’re going to discover is that it’s more than just a shul. It’s a movement. You’re a part of it whether you realize it or not. You have seen me and your mother dedicate much of our time, money and effort towards making sure that every Jew we meet has the chance to get excited about Judaism. It’s why you’ve had strangers at a good percentage of your Shabbat meals. It’s why I leave you to go on the road every other weekend. We love sharing our heritage and it breaks our heart when our fellow Jews throw it away.
In my secular upbringing, I was raised with a devotion to Israel and the Jewish People but had no experience keeping kosher, davening (praying) or respecting Jewish law. It’s sad when you think about it. We had no idea what we were missing. Can you imagine your life without ever sukkah hopping? Partying up and down Pico on Purim? Surrounding yourself in the 24 hour feast that is Shabbat? We didn’t even know how to say the Shmoneh Esrai (central Jewish prayer.) Worse yet, we didn’t have clarity on God’s presence in our lives and the power of Torah to keep our act together. Thank God both your mom and I had great parents who gave us plenty of love and values. But we were in a free form “what the hell is this life all about” mystery and forced to explore the cultures of the world to find answers. Yes, there are lots of interesting answers out there, but not the fundamental truth that we celebrate in our own texts.
After my whirlwind four months in yeshiva the first time around, my mind was completely blown. I had amazing and patient guides to teach me and was mature enough to make my Yiddishkeit (Judaism) my own. I was so taken with Israel and the commitment of the people that I met there that upon returning to LA I started a Jewish library so that I’d have books to keep me connected. I became an advocate for Orthodoxy even though I wasn’t quite living it myself. I took “baby steps.” Shortly after I got back my friends started getting married. Most of my buddies with whom I grew up married non-Jews. Most of them didn’t bother getting them to convert. Our vast, 3500-year odyssey ended with them, the chain of Jewish transmission broken. They have kids who have no connection to their heritage and if they ever do connect, will have to jump through hoops to become Jewish.
I knew at that point I had to be part of the solution. I started writing Jewish songs. I met your mom and started doing Shabbas. After another trip to Israel I started wrapping tefillin and davening three times a day. Along the way I got my brothers to study over there and thank God two of them became Aish rabbis and have changed the lives of literally thousands of people. I know it’s hard for you to imagine your bubbie eating treif (non-kosher food.) She only started keeping kosher because some of her kids wouldn’t eat in her home and her reaction was, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Now she has sixteen Jewish grandkids who love their heritage and wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m telling you all this so that you understand that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we are on this path and that nothing would get in our way of giving you this rich Jewish life that has so nourished you. Yes, Jewish day school has left us broke. But we feel like we’ve won the lottery.
Not to overdo the accolades for our shul but I think it’s important to point out to you that the outreach revolution began with one man, Rav Noach Weinberg, zit’s, who had a vision and would not be defeated. He tried and failed several times establishing yeshivot. I think Aish is number seven. King Solomon in Proverbs tells us that the righteous fall seven times but always get back up. Thanks to Rav Noach’s tenacity, we have the incredible life that we do. Please learn from his example, Max. The sky is the limit. Dream big. Get back up when you fail. Depression is not an option. Just get back on the horse and try again. Know with perfect clarity that Hashem is with you. The days we have on this planet are too few to waste feeling sorry for yourself. Get up and get moving. Your face and your mood are public property. Don’t pollute the world with a scowl. Rav Noach always had a sweet smile for everyone and fought with grace until the end of his days. Keep the good attitude, keep the faith, keep smiling and the world will smile with you.
I hope that in your study you’ll find that there is no divide between our spiritual life and material life. We can make money in a holy way. We ski at the speed of sound because it nourishes and refreshes us. We eat only after we thank God for the miracle of our food. We are intimate with our wives and as a result deepen our marital bonds and bring holy children into the world. Living in the realm of Torah doesn’t make you a recluse or weird. You have a gift that you can share with Jews of all stripes. You have a gift that you can share with all nations. They don’t need us to try so hard to be like them. They are blessed by blessing us. Those whom you meet throughout your life will be fascinated by your story, by the things that make you different. In this politically correct world no one is allowed to “dis” people because they are different. We can use that to our advantage. We can be the best Jews we can be, living in the world, interacting and influencing and serving as a Kiddush Hashem, perhaps the highest of all mitzvot. Along the way you may meet some people who are not so excited about the Jewish People. You don’t have to be so excited about them either.
I’m telling you all this so that you get some perspective of what you are getting yourself into. This trip you are taking is not just for you or your family. Your learning is for K’lal Yisrael (the Jewish People,) for all the nations, for all those martyrs who perished in the Holocaust and other times of persecution. It’s to empower you to become a shining example of a great Jewish man, a spiritual leader that will help to bring back our disenfranchised brothers and sisters. You are truly learning when you are able to teach that particular subject. I hope you learn in order to teach. I hope you understand that it’s selfish to be complacent, to be self-satisfied while there are so many unaffiliated Jews that have no concept of the diamonds in their hands. I’m not saying you have to join any particular shul or movement. I’m just saying that you have a very unusual family and very serious passion in your veins that you have inevitably inherited. Yes, you are going to Israel to study, travel, party and make lifelong friends. You are also going to get a sense of the importance of your life’s mission, beyond just earning a living and raising a family. It’s your turn now, my beautiful son. I pray that you’ll use your vast abilities to be a hero for the Jewish people, to continue to be the powerful role model that you already are.
So, my dear Max, there’s my shpiel. There are some other things I want to discuss…we’ll save them for the next jacuzzi. Please try to break away from the computer to have a few more jams, oshkibunis (walks) and conversations with me. I treasure every minute we have together. Your friends will come and go over the course of your life…your family is forever. Make these few months meaningful. Hug your mom frequently. Try to imagine a world where she’s not cooking for you, driving you everywhere, feeding your friends, doing your laundry, making you ice chai just the way you like it. Start listing all the things she means to you and see where the resulting burst of gratitude leads you.
Please try to give love to your sister. She needs you. She needs your hugs and your compassion. She is going to miss you so much. She will be crying real tears of grief when she doesn’t have you around. You may think she’ll be fine but I promise that the gravity of the fact that you are gone for so long will profoundly affect her. You have this precious time to leave an impression. Regarding your brother Jesse, you already know that he adores you, looks up to you and so values your companionship. You guys are best friends and that fact alone has me crying again. He may not be able to express the intense bond he shares with you, but trust me, it informs his being. You have created big shoes for him to fill. You have set the bar high. Give him love and honor. Build him up and avoid words that tear him down. May you always take great pleasure in his successes in life and may he always celebrate yours.
I love you Max, Ze’ev Dov ben Shmuel, my pidyon haben, my beautiful, precious son.