Friday, August 27, 2004

The Last Tuck-In

For 13 years, I knew this day was coming. I’m not talking about my son Amir’s upcoming bar mitzvah. No, this was a moment of much more intensity.

The last tuck-in.

If you have kids – or if you ever were a kid – you know what I’m talking about. That special time of quiet bonding, books and cuddles, just before bed.

At first, the ritual fell mainly to mom: despite noble intentions, I just didn’t have the right equipment. I stepped in when bedtime evolved into story hour.

Instead of books, though, I created a whole set of make-believe characters whose tales I told every night. I never knew what I was going to say before I sat down on the bed. I’d look around the room for some inspiration – a new toy, a pile of dirty socks, a Barney doll – anything could trigger that night’s drama.

Over time, a whole oeuvre of characters developed. At the center were Frieda and Ernest, two pre-teens who lived in Paris and for some reason spoke perfect English. They had an inventor uncle named Giuseppe in Pisa, and another uncle who explored the jungles of Africa. Uncle Giuseppe was always getting into trouble, and Frieda and Ernest always seemed to save the day.

Did you know for example that it was Uncle Giuseppe who made that famous Italian tower lean...and Frieda and Ernest who stopped it from collapsing all together? Or that thanks to Uncle Giuseppe’s amazing time travel machine, Frieda and Ernest were responsible for the first Thanksgiving?

Well, now you do.

Eventually, my stories were supplanted by books. Amir and I read the whole “Indian in the Cupboard” series, various Beverly Cleary books, The Borrowers, Peter Pan and John Christopher’s sci-fi Tripods trilogy.

By the time we got to Harry Potter, Amir was reading on his own. His voracious appetite for literature soon pushed out any time for me to read to him. He was growing up and wanted to do it himself.

But that was OK. I just shifted my story telling and book reading attention to his younger sister and brother.

But no matter what the content of the routine, there was one thing that always remained: the tuck-in. A kiss and a hug before lights out.

Until a few months ago.

At nearly 13, Amir has already passed me in height. He hates it when I say how big he is, but I’m going to do it anyway: he’s huge. His body is 13 going on 30 and I’m not talking about the movie. He’s got the largest shoe size...and the biggest hands in our house. I’m dreading the day when he outgrows the bunk bed he shares with six-year-old Aviv and we have to get him his own room.

Where’s that Brady Bunch attic when you need it, anyway?

Along with his size, his bedtime has gotten later too.

But still, whether it was 11:30 PM, midnight or later, when I heard the call of “Abba, come down for a tuck-in,” I was there. Even if I was already nicely bedded down myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I loved every minute of it.

So imagine my surprise – and distress – when Amir announced one night that he could put himself to bed.

“I don’t need a tuck-in,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I answered. “Of course you do.”

“No, Abba, I don’t. I’ll put myself to bed. You don’t have to wait up tonight.”

He sounded so considerate, so mature.

“Really?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Abba.”


“I think you need the tuck-in more than me,” Amir said.

Of course he was right. But what’s so wrong with that? Giving up the tuck-in is a major milestone in a father’s life. Like the first day of school. Or sending your kid off to the army. He might have warned me. Given me some notice.

Something like: “Abba, listen, I’ll be giving up tuck-in’s in three weeks time, so get ready.”

But no...he wanted me to go cold turkey on the tuck-in’s. Well, I wasn’t having any of it.

Our tuck-in’s may be going the way of Frieda and Ernest and a book before bed, and my son may soon be a head higher than his poor old father. But darn it, tonight wouldn’t be the last tuck-in. I would make my final stand.

Amir and I faced off in the hallway. But looking (up) into his eyes, it didn’t feel so much as father and child. Rather as two men acknowledging a change...and the specialness of the moment.

It may have been the last tuck in. But it was also the beginning of something new.

“Go on, get into bed and I’ll wait,” I said. “I’m not that sleepy anyway.”

Amir's bar mitzvah is this Shabbat, Parshat Ki Teze, August 28. Feel free email a mazel tov and I'll forward it to him. This Normal Life will be taking a break for a couple of weeks while we celebrate with family here in Jerusalem.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

A Strapping Young Man

It is unquestionably one of the oddest sights in all of Judaism. I’m talking about tefillin, AKA phylacteries. If you’ve never seen them, it’s pretty jarring. Jet black and square, made of a single piece of leather molded under thousands of pounds of pressure, and worn on the head and arm during daily morning prayers.

To the Western eye, it just looks weird.

Still, when I started becoming more interested in traditional Jewish rituals some twenty years ago, I took on the mitzvah of tefillin myself. And after awhile, it didn’t seem so wacky. I got used to it. It seemed even normal.

Eventually, though, my overall commitment to prayer began to waver, and with it my dedication to putting on tefillin every morning. The reasons for this change are between me and God. Or my therapist, I suppose. But I was OK with it. A little nostalgic, but OK.

Until last week.

You see, my son Amir is about to become a bar mitzvah. At the age of 13, he will be considered a man in the eyes of Jewish law. And religious men (well, most of them anyway) wear tefillin when they pray.

I could have just given Amir my old tefillin. But that would be saying that I’d given up entirely. I prefer to think of it as "taking a break." Like Ross and Rachel from "Friends." Or Israelis who go for an extended trip to North America but, when asked, always say they’re "just visiting."

So off we went to shop for tefillin. That’s when sticker shock set in. I had no idea tefillin was going to be so expensive!

First there’s the leather itself. There are thick ones and skinny ones, and naturally the thicker the better "for everyday use," explained Rivka, the tefillin saleswoman at Oter Israel in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood.

Then there’s the quality of the calligraphy on the parchment that’s stuffed inside the tefllin. There are five pieces of parchment in total, each with lines from the Torah. A top-notch sofer can jack the price of tefillin up to thousands of dollars.

Let me tell you, for a guy who’s ambivalent about tefillin in the first place, that was a lot to shell out. But Amir was into it.

"Why not order tefillin now for your younger son?" Rivka offered. "Lock in the price."

One tefillin at a time, I thought.

$550 later, we walked out with a beautiful pair of perfect, unblemished tefillin

Now, custom holds a bar mitzvah boy may begin putting on tefillin thirty days before the big day.

"Do it with me," Amir said.

My heart skipped a beat. Why hadn’t I seen this coming? Of course he would want me to do it with him. It’s a father’s responsibility. Like teaching your child to swim.

"Abba, do you even have tefillin?" six-year-old Aviv wise-cracked, overhearing our conversation.

"Sshhh..." I said feeling guilty and embarrassed at the same time. Most kids from religious homes catch at least an occasional glimpse of their fathers praying. But what could I do?

We agreed to start bright and early the next Sunday.

Fortunately, there’s another custom where the day a bar mitzvah boy first puts on tefillin, there’s a little celebration. And since we’re Jews, we celebrate with food.

Jody went out and bought a dozen fresh bagels with cream cheese and lox spread from the just opened Tal Bagels store on Emek Refaim Street. That was a nice enough reward.

Or was it a bribe? And for whom?

While Jody laid out the spread, Amir and I got out our tefillin. Amir looked at me expectantly. "Which side goes up?" he asked, holding up the arm tefillin.

I looked at the tefillin hesitated for a moment, then began. "The strap goes towards…the back...yes, that’s right," I said referring to the long black leather strap that comes out of the tefillin box and is wrapped seven times around the arm before making a loop-the-loop on the hand to spell out the Hebrew letter "shin."

"Here watch me," I said.

Amir tried. His tefillin fell right off his arm.

"Pull it here tight enough that it stays on, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation," I instructed.

"Ow, that hurts," Amir complained.

"It will get better. Your straps are still stiff. After a few weeks, the leather will soften up. Like a good pair of shoes. Now continue like this."

And as I started circling the straps of the tefillin around my arm, memory shot back like an Arrow missile chasing a Scud. I guess all those years of tefillin-wearing were like riding a bike. The spokes might get a bit rusty, but you never really forget.

I put on the head tefillin. So did Amir.

"It’s a bit crooked," I said.

"So’s yours," Amir responded.

"It is?" I said, and we picked up a small mirror to examine the placement.

"It’s supposed to rest on the hairline," Amir said, remembering what he’d learned in school.

"I can’t see yours, Amir. You’ve got too much hair."

"I can see yours, Abba."

"Very funny."

We adjusted and straightened and pulled and then after what seemed like a half an hour, we stood opposite each other. Both of us wearing tefillin. A father and his nearly thirteen-year-old man-cub. Suddenly playing on the same field.

"Where do you usually start praying?" Amir asked, opening the prayer book and waiting for a page number.

"I usually..." But there was no "usually." There was only the past...and the future. And as I looked into Amir’s eyes, so eager and full of enthusiasm, so mature and yet so new to all of this, there was only one answer.

"Let’s start at the beginning," I said.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Invoking Marla

I had been having problems with my computer. Small but annoying things, like you can’t be on the Internet and print at the same time.

So one night, after the kids had gone to sleep, I decided to upgrade the operating system. I’d done it plenty of times before on other computers. You just pop in the Windows CD and follow the instructions.

Or so I thought.

When the blue screen of death appeared, I got worried. When the computer froze up the second, third and fourth times, I started to panic.

I called my friend Craig.

“Have you backed up all your data?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said. I’m smart enough to know that things can and usually do go wrong with computers.

After some discussion, Craig took a pessimistic tone. “I think you’re going to have to reformat the hard drive.”

I had already anticipated this as a possibility. But before executing the Reformat command, I decided to just double check that my data was indeed OK on the backup CD.

I took it downstairs to Jody’s computer. A single CD with my most valuable data on it. All my stories for this column. Email communications for the past three years. Tax documents.

And then I dropped the disk on the floor.

OK, just pick it up, Brian. Don’t move. No funny stuff. Easy does it…

But as I turned the rolling office chair to pick up the disk, the chair’s legs moved unexpectedly and ran straight over the disk. I grabbed it.

Two huge skid marks across both sides. I put it in the CD drive. No response.

I tried again. OK, now I could see the files. I tried to copy something.

“Error: Can’t read from disk.”

Then it went dead completely. And I let out a scream.

It was as close to blood curdling as I know how. The kind the villain emits in the movies when the priceless jewels fall out of his hands into some deep dark void. All I could think of was: All my data. Dead. Gone. Forever. I needed that scream.

As soon as I did it, though, I realized it was a mistake. Ten-year-old Merav woke up from her adjoining bedroom. “What happened?” she cried out from her bed.

Twelve-year-old Amir, still awake in his bed had been listening to the whole thing and was sharing in my panic. “Abba, your data going to be OK. It has to be. Won’t it Abba?”

I was starting to feel faint. The blood was rushing from my head.

Jody came running downstairs. “Calm down,” she implored, the voice of reason. “It’s just a disk. I’m sure there are ways to get the data back. We’ll call someone. There are programs to fix these kind of things, aren’t there?”

And then she invoked Marla.

“It’s not like someone died,” she said.

Her timing couldn’t be more on-target. It's been two years this week since Marla Bennett, our cousin, was murdered in the attack at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002.

Immediately, I felt like an idiot. Getting so worked up over “things.” Possessions. Data could be reconstructed. Worst case, I’d just have to recreate the stories, or write new ones. Email addresses could be retrieved.

I was taken back to a morning a few weeks earlier. Merav and Aviv were fighting about something before heading off to school. Nothing major; just the sort of quibble that breaks out periodically between siblings. But Aviv started to cry, and Merav was sent to her room.

When her time-out was over, Merav immediately grabbed her backpack and violin and stormed out the door without saying a word.

Now, since Marla died, I have made a point of always giving a kiss and a hug before anyone trots off to school.

I caught up with Merav on the staircase. And I invoked Marla, too.

“Is this really worth it?” I asked, “getting so angry over a little fight. Imagine if on the morning that Marla died she had a fight with her boyfriend and had left without saying goodbye and then she was killed. That would be the last thing the two of them would remember; that they left angry without saying I love you.”

Merav got it. Kids are so much quicker than adults on the important stuff.

But afterward I thought: is it fair, is it right to invoke Marla? To “use” her death in such an obvious, almost cliched way, to teach a point about living? Is there a minimum level of injustice, I wondered, that is appropriate for invoking Marla, so that we don’t cheapen her memory?

Or is that the point? That any way that Marla, through her death, can help us to grow to be better people is worthwhile.

About my data. Fortunately, I hadn’t reformatted the hard drive when I went to check the CD, so the data was still there and I was able to retrieve it with the help of some high-priced technical support. The operating system was successfully restored and the computer is pretty much back to the way it was.

But I received some new data that hadn’t been there before.

That nothing is worth getting desperately upset over. Unless it’s someone you love, and then no program in the world can retrieve that data.