To My Son On The Edge Of 17

If my parents had raised me
as an Orthodox Jew
I would not be frum today.

For a long time I lived
in rejection of them.
This manifested in anger,
in death-wish behaviors,
in self-destructive habits, decisions.
Persistent in my drive to experience
natural and synthetic highs,
to waste time and dream,
to strive for aesthetic pursuits
with no plans, to be a spendthrift
and a slob, to eschew the corporate world
and the trappings of the rat race.

I was my parents’ first child
and worst nightmare.

And they had and still have
no idea how close to death I came
on numerous less-than-sober occasions.

Now you will be 17
in a matter of weeks,
mere days, mere hours —
counting years,
scattershot images.
Four years ago,
Yud Shevat, Shabbos
at the Rebbe’s Ohel,
your bar mitzvah
a week before
your bar mitzvah.
Thursday morning before
Montefiore, we’d davened
in the Rebbe’s room,
and you were given an aliyah.
I believed I was raising
an eved Hashem,
and a chossid of the Rebbe.
A boy who would grow his beard
and go out on Friday afternoons
putting tefillin on fellow Yidden.

So when you rush davening
or complain about learning Torah
outside of school hours
or seek loopholes
or you’re late in coming to shul
or when you wanted to trim your beard
and then shaved it (with my permission)
or when you barely listen
to words of Torah at the Shabbos table
or you’re more interested in sharing
the music in your Beats
than sharing what you’ve learned in Gemara,
when you’re acting like a typical teenager,
I sense my own failures viscerally,
my dearth of Torah learning,
how late I always get to shul,
goes hot on my face, a slap of shame.
I point at my lacking,
rather than genes
or the fact that you are 16.

Here, this is the language
of simplicity. Straight up.
A plea in verse
to get me
to dig this,
and know this, Papo:
You are more of a mentsch
than I ever was or could hope to be
when I was your age.

And this is only to say
about your challenges
that are my challenges,
to answer you with clarity,
to answer you with love’s greatest strength:

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You ask me,
Why do you call yourself
a failure when I mess up?
Because I can’t let go.
Because your birth anointed me
with the pure oil of fatherhood,
crowned me with a diadem
jeweled with responsibilities
and burnished with tears.
Tears of love.
Tears of joy.
Tears of exasperation
at the impossible
job it is to be a father
who is a hero
who is a mentor
who is a guide
who is an example,
the embodiment of living
the truth of my soul
in the eyes of Gd.

Because I fail so often
that when you mess up
when you make
a regrettable choice,
when you behave
like I once did,
when the spirit
of foolishness
enters you,
it is my lacking
that has allowed
for your lapses
in judgement.

But I’m a teenager,
you say with a smile,
I’m supposed to
do these things.

But I’m your father,
I reply with a smile,
and I’m supposed to
instruct you to keep
your hands up,
to defend yourself,
so that you, too,
will one day know
what it’s like
to be the king
to your prince.




Image from Flickr.