August 8, 2012
My childhood best friend was Billy Thein. We met at Encino Elementary School in Mrs. Bernstein’s third-grade class, and were pretty much inseparable after that. Billy was funny and smart and cool — and in a public school packed with the striving, anxious, gawkward spawn of suburban Jewry, cool stood out.
So did handsome and blond and tan — Billy was a young Glen Campbell when there really was a young Glen Campbell. He once brought his guitar to class and sang “Blackbird,” hitting all the high notes. I swear I saw the teacher tear up.
Billy lived in a ranch house on a large lot, just a few blocks away from mine. The year we turned 11, his father died of brain cancer. His mother struggled to raise Billy and his little brother. As we grew into teens, I loved going to Billy’s house. There weren’t as many rules, and once we walked up his long driveway, I felt free.
Billy, on the other hand, liked my house. My mom and dad made Billy part of the family, and they were well aware of our comings and goings. There were family meals and holiday celebrations. At my house, Billy felt secure.
In college, Billy converted to Judaism. It was more a confirmation, he explained, than a conversion. “As I grew into my Judaism, it felt akin to my innate sensibilities and beliefs.” While a student at UC Berkeley he also lived and studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Judaism fit the soul of the man he had become, and it provided guidance for the man he hoped yet to be.
And when it came time to choose a Hebrew name, Billy took Aharon — my father’s name.
I understood why. My father is devoted to family, deeply engaged in his work and his community, a fun companion and a wise adviser. Like the biblical Aaron, he is a man who leads through kindness. The name, Billy explained to me, was, a “touchstone, inspiration, comfort.”
If you want to be the kind of Jew who scolds and cajoles and lays down the law with an outstretched arm and a mighty sword, pick another name. But if you want to raise people up by drawing them close to you, by setting an example, then, as the sage Hillel said, be like the disciples of Aaron.
Many years ago, Billy met a very nice, smart Jewish woman. He and Sharon now have two children. This past Saturday, I sat in a pew at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and watched their son, Adrien Thein-Sandler, become a bar mitzvah.
I don’t know Adi well, but unless his parents, friends and rabbi are lying, he is not only a top student and athlete, but also a kind soul. He is — surprise! — tall and blond and cool, and watching him now at the age his father and I once were made time seem both painfully fast and reassuringly cyclical: sunrise, sunset and sunrise again.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, in his blessing to Adi, told him to look at his parents’ faces, beaming — tearing — with pride and joy. Remember those faces, the rabbi said, and try always to act in a way that will inspire and honor the look you see now.
Adi spoke about the Ten Commandments, which he read as part of his Torah portion. What, he asked, is the most important commandment of them all? “Honor thy father and thy mother,” he said, echoing the wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel. If you strive to do that, you will naturally keep the other commandments as well.
All this wisdom came distilled for me in a single moment. When the cantor called Adi to the Torah, he used his Hebrew name: Adin Ben-Aharon, Adin, the son of Aaron.”
Long ago I understood why Billy had taken my father’s Hebrew name, but only then, at that moment, did I realize what it meant.
My father hadn’t just inspired and set an example for my friend. He was, through this power of ritual, the continuity of community, passing that name — its values, its traditions, its expectations, its love — on to future generations.
My mother and father, thank God, were at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that morning, too. I watched my father watching Adi. How could he have ever imagined, when he was a man not much older than I am now, that my childhood friend would have a son, and that boy, whom he had never met, had never spent a moment raising or teaching, would one day be called to carry his good name into the world?
My father had earned the tears of joy that, at that moment, he shed.
People say they despise religion, and religion has done its best to earn their disdain. But how better, in an age — in a week — when private morality and public integrity are in such short supply, do we transmit and enforce the ideals of character? How else do we let our children know that it is not just their mothers and fathers whom they must face, but all the men and women who have come before them, whose lives and actions — whose good names — are a constant standard for their own?
It’s a truism of many religions that the tree we plant today will only bear fruit in the future. Of course it will: it’s a fruit tree.
The real mystery, the real miracle, is we will never know, even in our lifetime, who will come and eat it.