The Runaway

Father’s columns illuminate Caleb Jacoby’s childhood.

01/14/14
Associate Editor
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In 1997, an old man with a blue tattoo on his forearm, “A-10502,” held his grandson Caleb (Calev) Jacoby at the bris where the baby was named. Sixteen years later, many thousands of Jews across the country were saying that boy’s name in prayer, psalms for Calev Avraham ben-Elishevea Rus. At 12:30 in the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 6, Caleb, now 16, a junior at Maimonides, a Modern Orthodox school in Brookline, Mass., stepped into a winter’s day, not to be found until that Thursday night, Jan. 9, in Times Square.

Each year, in the late spring, around the time of Caleb’s birthday, Caleb’s father, Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, would write his son a public letter. He wrote the first one just days after his baby was born: “My beloved Caleb…. virtually everything about you is still a mystery,” and as parents of most teenagers know, a mystery it stays.

The night Caleb disappeared (police determined there was no foul play), a classmate posted on Facebook, “Hey, everyone. Caleb has not been at school today and did not come home for dinner. His parents are getting concerned.”

Parents can protect a child, but only so much. That’s when God takes over. Jacoby, who sent Caleb to the local Chabad school until two years ago, liked old chasidic riddles: What lesson do we learn from a train? “That for being one minute late,” [a rebbe] replied, “you can lose everything.”

And what do we learn from a telegraph? “That you pay for every word.”

And from a telephone? “That what you say over here, is heard over there.”

“Never forget, Caleb,” wrote Jacoby to his young son. “Every word counts. And never forget: There is One who hears everything you say.”

No one is ever really lost. There is One who sees you everywhere you go. In 2000, Jacoby wrote, “Like every parent, Caleb, I want to keep you safe from harm. ... But not every risk is physical. There are also risks to mind and spirit. … I am more aware than ever of all the unsettling messages orbiting out there, competing for your attention. … You will be exposed to things — like TV — that you aren’t exposed to at home. You will be bombarded by ideas and values and temptations of every description.”

There are Jews who so love other Jews, and the day school world is so intimate, that some Jews in Israel, and from around the United States, went to the Boston area to join hundreds of other volunteers, searching on the coldest nights of the year. The lunchroom at Maimonides, with coffee and bagels, became a center for students and volunteers, posting on social media and fielding tips. Caleb’s classmates e-mailed other yeshivas, such as Salanter Akiba Riverdale in New York: “Dear SAR, One of our classmates has been missing since Monday. There is a possibility that he could be in your area. Please keep an eye out for him and distribute this flyer to as many people as possible. Also, please keep him in your tefilot [prayers] — Calev Avraham ben-Elisheva Rus.”

In 2001, the father wrote to Caleb, “I’m sure I won’t always approve of your friends — but already you are teaching me how little say I have in the matter.”

In 2003, Jacoby wrote: “My beloved Caleb ... [On] the whole, you’re a joy to be with — cheerful, bright, enthusiastic. ... My power to shelter you from the worst of what’s out there is gradually decreasing...’

For all of a parents’ early hopes and dreams, there is the inevitable humbling: “My beloved Caleb,” the columnist wrote in 2005. “I used to think I had this fatherhood thing down pat. ... But as splendid as you so often are, Caleb, you can also be quite awful. At times your manner is shockingly disrespectful. You mimic Mama and make faces when I scold you. You respond to criticism by laughing or rolling your eyes, or you mutter ‘Whatever’ with all the disdain at your command. You get surly or angry and snap at us rudely — you’ve even written poison-pencil notes and left them for us to find (“I hate you. You’re a bad mother.”). ... If this is the way you act in second grade, what are you going to be like in high school?”

And in 2006: “Sure, we want you to grow up to be good at math. But it’s even more important that you grow up to be a mensch….”

Who knows for whom the police or ambulance sirens wail and travel through the night? In 2007, Jeff Jacoby wrote a column to Caleb in which he discussed adopting a practice first suggested by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. When you hear sirens, say a prayer that the responders arrive in time to help whoever is in trouble.

In 2008: “My beloved Caleb, Not long ago I stumbled upon a document you created on our computer. It was titled ‘Rules and suggestions for stealing candy,’ and, sure enough, what followed was a series of pointers on how to filch sweets and get away with it. … To your credit, you didn’t deny authorship when I confronted you with it. Unfortunately you didn’t seem the least bit remorseful, either. … At times you seem to go out of your way to give offense, spouting ill-mannered comments or mocking gibes. … The backtalk and insubordination you save up for your parents, while at school your teachers sing your praises and tell us how courteous, mature and pleasant you are. To tell the truth, Caleb, I prefer it that way. I’m quite willing to live with your occasional pique and petulance if it means that the rest of the world sees you at your best. ... And if you think your parents excel at finding ways to annoy you now, just wait till you’re 14 or 15. We’ll be really good at it then.”

In 2009: “My beloved Caleb … Early on, the Haggadah introduces the Four Sons,” wise, wicked, simple, mute. “Which son are you? In a way,” from an infancy before talking to a pre-teen’s back-talking, “you have been all of them.” And also the wise, helping the family get ready for Passover. That was Caleb’s last Passover before his bar mitzvah, and the last time his father wrote about him in the Boston Globe. “The years are racing by,” wrote “Papa” to Caleb, “and you are coming into your own.”

Disappearances and misunderstandings happen in the best of families. The biblical Jacob didn’t know where Joseph was for 20 years, long after Joseph could have let him know but didn’t.

A little more than four days after he ran away, Caleb was with his family again. Jeff Jacoby tweeted, “Our prayers have been answered. ... Words can’t express our gratitude for the extraordinary outpouring of kindness and support. … All we can think of at this moment is how wonderful it will be to see Caleb again and shower him with love.” Maimonides School tweeted “Baruch Hashem,” Thank God.

The family was together Friday night. Candles were lit. Caleb’s “Papa” blessed Caleb as Jewish fathers do, as he did every Friday night of the boy’s life: “May God protect you … be gracious to you.” They sang Shalom Aleichem.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say that the last verse of Shalom Aleichem, the “tzeis’chem l’shalom,” “may your departure be to peace,” refers not so much to the heavenly angels but to our children. They grow older from one Friday night to the next, and before too long, if they’re not gone, they’re leaving. 

jonathan@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/21/2014 - 06:25

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If my father had shared my life with the rest of the world, quite literally, via a newspaper, I'd have run away, too. Someone needs to teach the father to respect his son's privacy; maybe therapy for the two of them is in order.

Even we Christians kept Caleb in our prayers. I'm so happy he was found safe!!

I second that comment - beautifully written, par for the course for Jonathan Mark. Best writer this paper ever had.

I completely agree with the previous commenter. This child evidently felt so smothered and controlled that he took the extraordinary step of trying to walk away from his life. The father's columns seem terribly intrusive and inevitably embarrassing to the child. Even the descriptions of the child offered in aid of his recovery seem intrusive. Since he wasn't at the library after he went missing, why include that in the description? Regrettably, the family's weirdly effusive comment at the moment of his return - about how they intend to "shower him with love" - suggests that nobody is backing off this kid. I suspect that he wants less of a showering and a little more autonomy.

This is a beautifully written and touching article. It relates truthfully to so many of us.
However, it led me to wonder, how it must be for a child to grow up with a columnist father, who writes an annual column about our relationship. Maybe, it's time that Jeff Jacoby ends this ritual.

According to the article he ended it in 2009. But you raise good points. Perhaps it should have been ended sooner.

maybe you missed the part about how 2009, when Caleb was 12, was the last such post?

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