LeBron’s Bar Mitzvah Magic

It is the wanna-be Miami Heat dancers clapping and yelling that throw me off. They follow the Bar Mitzvah Boy out the double doors into the party space.  I look around the room and take in all the jewelry and tight dresses worn, not by the kids, by the South Florida Moms.  It is then that I realize that I am experiencing a Bar Mitzvah – east coast style. Westin Florida is flashy enough to contain LeBron James and plenty of snapping Everglade turtles. Our cousin’s Bar Mitzvah theme is “Backstage.” My wife is asked by a glitzy mother “what is Jake’s theme”?  She struggles and replies “A…Bar Mitzvah?”

I’ve got to admit the SoFla party is terrific. My brother-in-law is one of the biggest concert promoters in Florida. He has pulled out the stops for his sweet son. Complete with event “security” and laminated passes. This Northwest Squarepants is just not prepared for the professional dancers and leather Mommies. Yep – a Mother wore a form fitting, uber-short, leather mini-dress. Plus a couple of Mom’s were in full on evening gowns. Jake is mesmerized. He asks me “how much of this dressing up is for our Bar Mitzvah cousin and how much is for the grown ups?” I replied – everybody is dressed up to celebrate.

Later Jake stands alone at the mini-burger stand. A cute girl, a foot taller than him says “you have beautiful eyes.” Jake stammers “Thank you.” Ten seconds later Jake asks to see me outside. “Did I respond correctly?” Yes. “Do I have to ask her to dance now?” If you want to. “Holy cow, are all the girls here so direct?” I’m not sure. I do know you have nothing to lose if you ask her to dance. “I have to think about it.” Jake did not have that opportunity unfortunately.

Jake’s Bar Mitzvah planning is in full effect. My dear friend is a TV personality who has built her career on event planning, she recently came to our house to talk with Jake about his Bar Mitzvah vision. She knows how to throw a party right. She asks – What are your favorite things Jake? Jake ponders. Just stack rank your very favorite things.  “Hmmmmm… first I like reading. More than anything… second has to be music… then if I had to pick a third thing, it would have to be street magic. Not David Copperfield — David Blaine.” So now we know. We are planning a quasi-intellectual party with a great playlist and street thugs doing magic. No dancers.

Thick as Thieves

I have not known the love of a little sister. For many brothers it must be a magical thing. For others it could be seen as a mild annoyance. For Jake it is a matter of pride.

Jake’s love for his little sister Lily is the stuff of family legend. When he was not quite two he nearly tore my arm off in the hospital parking lot running to the maternity ward. Little Jake could not wait to see his newly hatched sister.

They have always had a connection. It is the stuff of genetic fairy dust. Year after year, especially in school, Jake has looked out for Lily. Jake’s respectful way with Lily garners the mass admiration of girls in his class, many of whom, I know, have torturous toddlers or mini Mussolinis waiting for them at home.

Recently I was cleaning up the loose items around Lily’s homework and I came across this story.  She submitted this in her fifth grade writing class.

The Super Hero Story – by Lily Rehfeldt (not edited)

Have you ever felt brave and powerful like nothing can stop you? I have. The time when I felt these things are when I am with my brother Jake. We always have the greatest times together. Even though we fight and disagree sometimes, we always find a way to get along.

There was one time I had an especially great time with Jake. That was when we played Super Heroes in the basement. Jake showed me his Marvel Encyclopedia. Every Superhero is in it. We tried to find a Superhero we liked the most. I usually picked Dagger – she can fly and make ice force fields. Hey Jake, which Superhero are you going to be? I asked. ‘I don’t know… though I really like Captain America.’ He looks awesome, I say with a smile on my face. ‘Cool I think I’ll be him’ says Jake.

We start playing and we hear this BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of a car alarm outside on the street. Jake and I stop in our tracks. We look at each other and then swing our capes behind our backs and jump off the couch and race to beeping sound. Right there in front of us is EVIL Sir Smackbottom (he is really invisible) trying to make a bomb go off.

Nice to see you again Sir Smackbottom, I say. With that I spray ice all over Sir Smackbottom. Sadly, Sir Smackbottom has a forcefield protecting him and the ice bounces off and hits me in the face and I fall to the ground. I can’t move.

Luckily Captain America is there to save us. Captain America takes his sword and shield and goes over and attacks Sir Smackbottom and says ‘You are about to die!’ Then he cuts through the forcefield and stabs Sir Smackbottom in the heart.

Suddenly the ice on me has melted. I am soaking wet (not for real.) Jake comes over to me. He leans down and gives me his hand. I take it. ‘Let’s go upstairs and get something to eat, that was too much fun.’ Ok, I answer.

I will never forget that day. It will stay with me forever. That is when I really felt like nothing could stop me. I was brave and powerful. I would never have felt that way without my brother beside me.

So thank you, Jake for being there for me when I need it. I love you and once again, Captain America – thank you. Written by Lily

I had not known the joy of having a sibling until I was eighteen, when my brother was born. Even though we were thousands of miles apart and had different mothers I still felt a deep connection to him. I remember seeing his infant picture for the first time.  In that moment I thought — we will always have each other. For Lily and Jake that statement is so very true.

Charlie Sheen, the Arm Wrestling Rabbi and Stalag 17

There is an incredible moment in “The King’s Speech” when the King’s family is gathered together in an empty Palace room to watch a replay of his coronation. At the end of the newsreel there is a vintage graphic montage of Hitler speaking to the German masses. The German people line the streets with hypnotic reverie, their right arms outstretched to the sky.  At this point in the movie Hitler’s angry oratory is commanding compared to the tongue-tied travails of the newly minted King. Hitler’s confidence and maniacal personality is evident. It’s not an actor but the actual footage. Next to me, Jake sits watching the film, fascinated by the oddly shaped mustached man. He squeezes my hand repeatedly and Jake does not let go until we get to the parking lot.

Now in my truck, Jake is shaken. ‘Dad, that’s the first time I’ve really seen what Hitler looks like live on film. The way he moves scares me. How could so many people follow him?’ I fumble for a sufficient response. I turn the conversation towards the odds on the film winning Best Picture.

On a rainy Saturday morning Jake sits with me in bed watching Billy Wilder’s film “Stalag 17” for free on my laptop via YouTube. The film has been on my mind. One of my producer friends has made several references to the film lately. The pre-Hogan’s Heroes story of a German POW prison still stands up. Wilder’s direction is brilliant. The crisp performance of Peter Graves as the Nazi spy whom William Holden discovers is an informer in Barrack 17 can still grab you. While watching the film I see that Jake is engaged with the humorous parts of the film and noticeably repelled by Otto Preminger’s portrayal of the commandant. ‘Dad, were the concentration camps like this?’ I quickly tell Jake that the art direction is authentic but the reality of the conditions were not that plush. I clarify further – Jake, soldiers were treated differently. People in concentration camps did not have individual bunks. ‘Dad, was it just Jews in these camps?’ No, from 1933 to 1945 there were mostly Jews but also Gypsies, Slavs, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, musicians, composers and artists. Many died in 1500 camps placed throughout Europe.

Several days go by. Jake is sitting in the kitchen drawing characters for the next issue of his zine, “Worldopolis”. On the radio an erudite NPR reporter tries to explain the insane anti-Semitic ramblings of Charlie Sheen. Jake looks up and blasts me with ‘Dad, why do people hate the Jews so much?’  I’m caught off guard. The parental protective bubble is exposed. I wonder for a half second if I should give him the unvarnished truth or do a temperate with a soft platitude — Jake, it’s easy for individuals to hate cultures and traditions of people they don’t understand or that they are afraid of. The harder challenge is to stop and try to learn about groups that are not like you. There is a pregnant pause and Jake returns to drawing.

It’s Jake’s first meeting for his Bar Mitzvah with our Rabbi. In the middle of the meeting, the Rabbi rolls up his sleeves and challenges Jake to an arm wrestling match. He pushes the Torah and prayer books out of the way. This challenge is no easy task. The Rabbi leans in. At first Jake is surprised. The Rabbi’s grip is serious and he is not going lightly. Jake laughs, I can see he is squeezing hard and starts to put up a fight. The Rabbi says to him “Do you know what your name means, Jacob? Jacob means God Wrestler. As we prepare for your Torah reading, let your mind wrestle with the text.” At this point the Rabbi has Jake’s arm in the Leaning Tower position. His face is red. They are both laughing. Jake caves. The Rabbi wins. Whew. It is powerful thing to witness your son wrestling with his Rabbi.

The Rabbi rolls back his sleeves. “The Jewish tradition believes that by engaging with the text, God talks to us. The act is holy. What thoughts or ideas do you wrestle with right now?” Jake tells him how he is haunted by the image of Hitler. Jake then artfully talks about his confusion as he peers down the dark well of history, at the human soul, looking for answers. For the next thirty minutes the Rabbi and Jake have a conversation that journeys from the past to the present and it lands on a discussion about the history and existence of Israeli state. ‘Jake do you know that Jacob’s name is changed later to Israel?’ Before they can proceed time runs out.

My twelve year old, my God Wrestler turns to me later ‘Dad, I’m so excited for my Bar Mitzvah.’ I am too Jake. I am too.

This Pure Moment…

Recently I chaperoned Jake and his schoolmates on Ski Bus Fridays. The Olympic and Cascade mountains surround Seattle, some schools hire buses to ship their kids up to the snow for one day a week in the winter. Teachers join in with parents to ski with the kids. As it turns out it is a great opportunity for both bonding and exercise.

For a month, I accompanied the wannabe Shawn Whites and Lindsey Vonns. Jake and I both ski. On the lift to the top of Crystal Mountain, Jake turned to me and said, “Dad. Did you hear that?” What? “Listen.” What is it? “Nothing.” With the exception of the sound of a dropping dollop of snow from a tree branch, there was absolute silence. Our modern life is consumed by noise. Jake is a typical twelve year old boy bombarded by the sounds of neighborhood traffic, rushed schedules + challenged by churning hormones and having to do daily duties like make his bed, takeout the trash and occasionally wash the dishes. In this one instant, all of that static was gone. We sat alone together in silence on the lift. Jake reached for my gloved hand and squeezed. He turned to me and smiled. “That is so cool. No cars or anything… Wow.”

I’ve lived in the northwest for eighteen years. Tragically, this is the first real season of skiing in the mountains. Twelve of those years I’ve made up some wonderful excuses, like, the kids are too small (I’m lazy), it’s too expensive (it is!!!), it takes too long to get up there (ridiculous skiing is an hour away), etc. This year we took our friends’ advice and got skis for the entire 2011 season. “You can get the kid’s price. We only pay $170 for the season. It’s so worth it.” Twenty-four hours after hearing their encouraging words I found myself with Jake trying on boots and skis.

In a small, cramped, urban, mock ski chalet we crammed our Flintstone sized feet into boot after boot. The vise-like action on the boots gives you the feeling that you’re wearing a pint size plastic Iron Maiden on each foot. Eventually we found something that worked for Jake and me. Then came the skis and the bill. “Dude, your total is $250, per person for boots, skis and poles.” After an hour and forty-five minutes of wool, sweat and tears I asked for the kid’s rate. “Nah, man your kid wears a men’s 11 shoe, no kid’s rate.” Thus started my investment into U.S. economic recovery program driven by the ski industry.

Jake and I have three months of regular ski trips under our belt now. We prep the night before. We lay out our clothes and all the essentials, like protein bars, special lederhosen sized ski socks and a well thought out combination of layered clothes depending on the weather report. We do it with the discussion and precision of a Special Forces team going into battle. The early morning load-in is quick and painless. We always make a stop at Starbucks for peppermint hot chocolates and strawberry yogurt. Then we are off, with Jake kicking out the jams as he dominates the iPod, a DJ picking the right mood for the trip. Fleet Foxes and Head and the Heart work for the sunrise synchronicity. As we get close to the slopes the beat changes and old skool hip hop prevails as Mos Def, Tribe Called Quest and RUN DMC fill the confines of our Acura. We are ready to attack the slopes.

Last weekend, we had our first spring-like ski day. It was sunny and relatively warm. We lost count of how many runs we did together. We had short bursts of activity capped by ten minutes of engaging conversation about how lucky we were to be on the mountain. There were no screens to worry about, no obligations waiting for us, no emails to read and no schedules that were pulling us apart. Instead Jake and I were simply together: a father and a son, listening to the quiet mountain wind on a sunny winter’s day and enjoying this moment, this pure moment in time.

The Luckiest Kid on the Face of the Earth

Jake is retiring. Not in Lou Gehrig way but in the tradition of Sandy Koufax, Moe Berg, Richie Scheinblum, Izzy Goldstein and of course James Hymie Soloman aka Jimmie Reese, our Jake is stepping away from the game of baseball. It is purely his decision. The Hebrew Hammer cleats won’t touch the fresh dew of spring grass this year.

It is a tough decision. Since Jake was eight he has basked in reading books on the rich history of Jewish baseball players. “Hey Dad, when I play in the majors I would TOTALLY do a Hank Greenberg.” My response, always – Duly noted. “There’s no way I would play in a World Series game if it was Yom Kippur.” Lisa was always in earshot when Jake made these pronouncements. At ten Jake could talk about the banner year Al Rosen had with Cleveland Indians in 1954. He would recount in vivid detail how Rosen hit consecutive home runs in the All-Star game that year despite having a broken finger, earning him the game MVP.

For three glorious seasons I’ve either coached or managed Jake’s little league team. Jake started late. Even though baseball is my passion I did not want to push him. He did not play t-ball. Jake’s first season on the infield clay was playing Coach-pitch baseball in the North Central Little League (NCLL.) We were called the Patriots due to our bright red, blue and white uniforms. It was really because we didn’t have a sponsor. The beginning of the season was tough. Everyday I would rush home from work to practice with Jake.  It wasn’t that Jake had problem hitting as much as dealing with the cockeyed aim of over-forty Coach/Pitchers. Twelve pitches hit Jake. I was one of the coaches. Every game felt like the World Series. We went up against tough teams and won. I fell in love with the routine of the baseball drills.

In our second season we joined Greenwood Hardware. The game had no handholds for Jake. It was pure “kid pitch” baseball. Our forest green and silver uniforms were the best in the league. Our team was not. That did not matter. We had the greatest time. We played as a team. We all agreed that our season would be focused on the love of the game, not wins and losses. Jake got to play with some of his buddies from school. They spent their week chattering at recess about who might pitch one inning and when one of them was going to get the chance to hit a home run. Jake got deeper into baseball history that season. We spent our free time raking through thousands of baseball cards in trading card stores all around Seattle. At ten he would recite baseball stats freely in the dug out.

We made it to the playoffs. After three consecutive losses to Tri-West Reality during the season our greatest rival challenged us in the playoffs. Tied in the fifth inning we rallied and scored three runs. They came back to tie. Five innings is rule in Little League at this level and we went into the ninth inning. Four miles away, tourists circling the base of Space Needle must have heard us screaming when we won. We did lose our next game. It did not matter. We had climbed the mountain top from a season filled with losses and tasted the joys of a sweet Playoff victory. Greenwood Hardware placed third in the league.

Our venture into minor leagues started with a phone call from the President of League, “The Commissioner” asking me if I would manage Doctor Don’s Automotive. I jumped at the chance. Jake and I discussed how we wanted the season to go. I told Jake I wanted his frank feedback on how I was doing as manager. For the rest of the season, Jake would quietly take me aside and say “Dad, you’re a little loud” or “He has been practicing hard you might want try him at short stop.” Jake was my unofficial bench coach. Lily was always by my side as the team trainer and water girl.

In one of the pre-season clinics we befriended a former Cubs player turned baseball instructor. Over coffee I sat down with him and got taught the fundamentals of great coaching. I got on board with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nation wide movement that was started by Lakers coach Phil Jackson. I learn how to talk to young boys in a way that didn’t strip down their budding self-esteem. At the first practice, I asked every single player to tell me what was his one goal for the season. Jake said his was to pitch. I proclaimed that our season was dedicated to each kid reaching his personal best. One player simply said, “Coach I just want to hit the ball, I never can hit the ball.” Every kid was witness. It was an incredible season, culminating with that one player getting three hits in the playoffs. The other teams thought we were nuts. We could be behind five runs and a player would pitch well or make a double play and it was like we won the World Series. The Commissioner watched one of our losing games. After the game he looked confused. “How come your kids are so damn happy after a big loss?” I explained our team focus was on players achieving their personal best. That game Jake had just pitched three strong innings with no hits, for the first time.

After a brutal loss in the Playoffs, Doctor Don’s Automotive had a season ending pool party. It was a great day. I got trophies. As I handed each player his marble and gold statue I talked about how each of them played during the season. I watched these nine, ten and eleven year old boys shed a tear for their buddies when they heard how each of them attained their personal goal. We were a great team.

This year Jake would have moved to NCLL Major Leagues. The game is faster and more competitive. The wins and losses are felt and worried right about now. I went to one of the open League meetings. This year they have made big changes to the draft. I was not asked to manage a team. There was even a strong chance I would not even be an official coach. Jake and I sat down. Our discussions started on trying to get a handle on all the unknowns. Jake and I looked at the stress of the draft (no guarantee on team he wanted) the deal with the coaches. It was all of this and the prospect of Jake not playing with his buddies that kicked up a huge discussion about the priorities in our house.

Jake starts his Hebrew tutoring next week. He is in Hebrew school on Tuesday and Sunday. There are three games a week on the Major league level + practices three to four days a week. I asked him what were his priorities. “Dad, I love school, I have a ton of homework now. I want to be prepared for my Bar Mitzvah. I love baseball. This is hard.” Somehow with all the League noise and uncertainty it forced us to look at what was important. A true teachable moment. In the end, being prepared and invested in his Bar Mitzvah is Jake’s number one priority. He made the decision. It was incredible to watch.

This decision is especially painful given the terrific season we had last year + Jake’s desire not to move past Majors to then play Juniors league (the pitches get up to 70 mph). After weeks of discussion, and given that Jake is twelve, this means this is it for us. No more baseball. All the great Jewish players picked a time to leave the game. For Koufax it was it was 1966 and Greenberg 1947 for Jake Rehfeldt it is 2011. In the end, Jake and I just wanted to play ball, a simple game of throw and catch.

Pocket Full of Memories

Recently Jake suggested that Lily sit in the middle seat between us at the screening of “Harry Potter – Deathly Hallows.” He was worried that the notorious opening of the film would be too scary for her. These are the breadcrumbs of memories that stay with me lately. I see my son sprouting up taller every week. I long for that bread loaf that I held in my arms. As we prepare for his Bar Mitzvah I find myself stopping by the playground close to our house. The pint size squealers are shadows of the kid Jake once was and I realize now that my memory is quite hazy.

I do have flashes of recollections that flicker in my head. They come like a slideshow on a constant loop. I see Jake (6) and Lily (4) with me laying in grass, for our traditional sunset at the corner, down the street. The Olympic Mountains blaze from the day’s last sun. I see our sweet Katie chasing Jake up and down the hill and it is just another typical northwest dusk afternoon that is fading into a long summer night.

Now I see the image of Lily (8), Lisa (-) and Jake (10) in full-throated laugher after Lily kicks back a burp at the dinner table that shakes the windows in the house.

The slideshow in my mind’s eye shifts to Jake (8) starting a snowball and rolling it down the hill in front of our house. “Daddy look we can make a base for a snow man.” Then he stops, scoops up some snow and eats the chucky white ice while it’s still in his hand. Jake gives a big toothy smile – pure joy.

Now present, I am with Jake, just the other day to see another movie this one “Narnia -Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” I snag our tickets. Jake reaches for my hand. His long fingers now nest tightly in mine. It is the hand of a boy in transition. A group of teenagers enter the theater at the same time. I loosen my grip expecting Jake to do the same. Instead, Jake squeezes my hand tighter. I turn and look at his face. He doesn’t even notice the young adults in front of us. He is just boy, going to see a movie, with his Dad. I’m preparing. Jake is still enjoying being a kid, the wonderful kid he is right now.

Do You Ever Wonder?

Magic and Poetry are Jake’s passions now. The mechanics and setup of card tricks fascinate him. Jake is mastering how to engage his audience. He watches and learns from street magicians like Brad Christian, David Garcia and David Blaine. I’ve notice that Jake loves to hold that moment just after the reveal, that blissful few seconds when the audience member asks “how did you do that?”

Jake’s knack with poetry has that same level on wonderment. He enjoys sharing and reading his poetry. Here are a few gems.

First Haiku
The mother crane is
Never home because she is
Catching worms for me

Do you ever wonder?
Wonder why the wind blows
Wonder why the sky snows
Wonder why the sun rises
Wonder why life has surprises
Do you ever wonder?

Never Forget – For My Dog Katie
Those times were so great
But now you must go
You’re just awaiting the end of the show
I must say goodbye
To my best friend forever
But never forget
I will love you forever