I’d known Joel since I was 14, when we bonded over golf, skiing and baseball. Over the years while he was married to my sister, our relationship ebbed and flowed, as is often the case with brothers-in-law. Since their divorce I ran into him once at a local golf course where I ended up playing with him, and saw him once again at my niece’s wedding.
Driving through the California farmland near my home, I was listening closely to an interview on National Public Radio with Michael Pollan. He’s a hero in these parts, and I was really surprised to hear him say that he’s had to eat restaurant food while on tour for his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”
I am the eldest of four siblings. I was 10 when my Grampa died. Larry was 8; Eddie was 4 and Ronnie was not yet born. So I am the one who carries the memories, of which I have only two, and those are more impressionistic than they are specific.
I’ve never been one to hide our son Ben’s diagnosis. I’ve always spoken openly about the difficulties that Asperger’s can create for him as he navigates a world rife with bumps at every turn. But what I did conceal for many years was the pain I felt — the sometimes-oppressive nature that an autism diagnosis can foist upon all the members of a family. The isolation. The depression.
I hid behind my work. I hid behind the tasks I had been called to do when I was ordained as a rabbi. I shielded my son from much of the public aspect that comes with being the child of a congregational rabbi. I shielded my California congregation from seeing the sometimes-ugly aspects of a complicated and misunderstood disorder.
I live on the tiny island of Okinawa, Japan, but it often feels like much of my life is still taking place in the States. I have worked hard to create a life for myself in Okinawa, but — even after living there for almost 18 months — it’s still sometimes surprising to me how little I have in common with the majority of military spouses.
At Fenway Park, with Bostonians celebrating the end of their excruciating, week-long siege, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz wrapped things up in one brief exclamation. "This is our (bleeping) city!" he cried, and the crowd went wild, while in bars across America, millions of people turned to total strangers and asked, "Did he just SAY that?"
I always knew this time would come. I just didn’t think it would come so soon.
It was during a recent trip to Israel to visit my son, Max, who has been serving in the Israeli Defense Forces for the past seven months. We were sitting together in the synagogue during Shacharit, the morning prayers, as the kohanim were preparing for the priestly benediction — a ceremony that occurs daily in Israel and only on holidays in the diaspora. Customarily, the congregation does not watch as the kohanim perform this ritual. While some just look away, I have always followed the custom of placing my tallit over my head to block my view.
In the past, whenever Max was beside me, he would come under my tallit as I placed my arm around him, holding him close to receive the blessing together. It was as if I were protecting him from whatever evils might occur should one gaze upon the priests at this holy moment.
On this day it was different. I raised my tallit and extended it to him as I drew him closer and draped it over both of us. I could feel that he was awkward, complying though somewhat reluctant. His body language seemed to say, “What are you doing?” At that moment, I realized that our relationship was changing. He is serving in a combat unit, carries a gun, stands proudly as a defender of Israel, is seriously involved with a young lady, and I am offering him the protection of my tallit as if he were still my little boy. We did not speak about this, but the very next morning I raised my tallit over my own head and let him be.
Max is tall, around 6-feet-1, as am I. In recent years we would occasionally stand back-to-back and let others decide who is taller. It was always too close to call. But this time, as we went through the routine, my wife and daughter agreed that Max had won. Could it be that he is still growing at 19 years old, or perhaps I am shrinking at 54? More likely, it is one of those examples of how perceptions influence reality.
His Hebrew is excellent, much better than mine. It used to be that I was the Hebrew speaker during our family trips to Israel. While that’s no longer so, there were still a couple of occasions in which I knew a word that he didn’t know. In hindsight, I reveled a bit too much at this.
Max is, as they say, his own man now. He believes his calling is to remain in Israel and build his life there. My wife, Debbie, feels otherwise, that he is still too young to be making such decisions. She wants him close, and her worst-case scenario would be a future with each of her children and their families living in different countries. One night in Jerusalem during dinner with another couple, close friends who moved to Israel many years ago, Debbie and I were discussing our situation. “I understand how you feel,” the wife said to Debbie, “I made aliyah almost three decades ago and my mother still hasn’t forgiven me.”
There is also the matter of Max’s military service. While his original commitment was 14 months, staying would entail his having to serve another 16 months. I must admit that this is daunting, especially with the challenges facing Israel in the near future. In discussing this with him, he responded, “What else is new? They’ve been trying to wipe us off the map for 65 years!” He sounds, dare I say, like an Israeli. And he has a point.
As I write this, Max is agonizing over his decision. He loves his family, and Israel. He wishes he could satisfy everyone, but is learning that life’s hardest choices don’t allow for that. I pray that God will give him guidance.
Parenting is tough, at times impossibly so. And the most difficult part is learning when to let go. I once had a little boy who was eager to come beneath my tallit, who looked up to me to protect him, to teach him, to guide him. Now he is grown, and although I still have a few things to offer, he is the protector, and has much to teach me.
Andrew Kane is a clinical psychologist and author, most recently, of the novel “Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale.” He has chronicled his son’s IDF experience in this space.
To escape persecution and even death, my parents posed as Muslims while living in Mashhad, Iran, in the 1940s. Like the Marranos of Spain, they and their underground Jewish community artfully balanced dual identities. Outside, my mother wore the black chador, concealing herself from head to toe.