Hope Smiles — what’s that all about?

Hope Smiles — what’s that all about?

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Dear Jonah,

I don’t think I’ve ever written you about the foundation we created in your name. Sometime after you died, we decided it wasn’t enough to cry for you. We wanted to do something that would honor who you were, keep your name around in more than just a sad way, and maybe preserve your spirit in the world a little bit.

So in your name, in your memory, in your honor … we raise money. And then we give it away. We try to support projects and organizations we think you’d have loved, you’d have supported yourself (assuming you ever decided to get a job).

Every June and December, a lot of very nice folks send dollars our way. This current campaign is called Hope Smiles. Timing is everything, of course, and we designed the campaign just prior of Omicron’s appearance. We’d wanted to celebrate our gradual emergence from the pandemic which engulfed the world twenty-one months ago. Omicron, tho we don’t yet know how dangerous it is, reminds us there is still much to fear. The economy has taken a hit. And many of us wondering if our vaccines will hold.

But hope smiles, Jo. It’s incredible what the medical community has achieved these past two years, heroic doctors and nurses risking it all and saving countless lives tending to us. That so many Americans still refuse the vaccination (87% of those with Covid right now in Michigan’s overflowing ICUs are unvaccinated) and these healers don’t just walk off their jobs? Hope smiles. That big pharma (frequently a not-so-nice term) has nearly miraculously developed the vaccines and medicines that are saving billions of lives? Hope smiles.

And it all makes me think of you. Your seemingly unceasing goodness. Your kindness. Your hopefulness. Amidst my ongoing worry about the pandemic, and you are one of the lights that help me steer my ship.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There is a persistent mystery that you left to us. It concerns a burn mark on the bathroom counter that teaches us something about hope (or so I insist upon believing). In this case, hope that you wouldn’t get caught. Here’s an excerpt from my “Fireworks” letter to you back in July 2009:

On the first floor of our house is the bathroom you shared for fourteen years with Aiden. In that bathroom there is a Formica countertop. The countertop had been there for probably a decade or more before we moved into the house in 1995, and had always been pretty much in pristine condition. Formica is fairly impervious to abuse, so the sudden appearance one evening of a prominently positioned two-inch charred hole in the countertop caught my attention. I had my suspicions as to who caused the burn mark, but felt it important to perform my fatherly due-diligence and questioned Aiden, who was maybe four or five years old at the time and, thus, not a very likely culprit. Moving on to my older son, I tried to use gentle but firm persuasion to draw the truth out of your (I was hoping) guilt-ridden soul. Wasn’t gonna happen, though. In fact, in all the years since the burn mark appeared, I never managed to get you to admit anything about it. And the fact that, in succeeding years, you amassed a collection of matchbooks, eleven Bic and/or Zippo lighters, a container of lighter fluid (!), eight boxes of sparklers, and even more boxes of incense … well, let’s just say I held out hope to one day get a confession. This past Hanukkah (Judaism’s fire holiday, always a good time to discuss arson with your child), I actually came close to connecting you to the crime when I mentioned the burn yet again and suggested that enough time had gone by, that the statute of limitations on punishment had run out, so wouldn’t you please just tell me what happened in there. You paused what you were doing, looked over at me, peering deeply into my eyes, smiled that amazing smile of yours, and then walked away. You walked away! I never did get the story of how that burn mark got there. It will remain a mystery forever.

This makes me think, JoJo, of how we – your family – have chosen to live our lives in your absence. I often tell people, “Rather than always be mourning his loss, we celebrate that we had him with us.” And while that doesn’t mean the tears have stopped falling, it does mean that we try to focus on what we loved so deeply about you. Included in that list is your perpetual hope that things would be okay, that problems can be worked out, that people can make it through hard times, and that love and an exuberant, powerful bearhug never hurts (much).

So I’ve written you a song. Okay, not for you per se, but I’ve dedicated it to you. For a specific reason. Hope. You were so good at conveying that to others, this piece just reminded me of you.

It’s called “Hope Smiles (Neilah Conclusion).” The title references its placement as the last prayer of the long day of atonement we call Yom Kippur. The ancient imagery of the Neilah service is about asking God to forgive us for all the times we’ve messed up during the past year. With sunset and the end of Yom Kippur fast approaching, we stand with great urgency before the open Ark promising to do better in the year ahead, hoping God will grant us a boon: the blessing of an inscription in the Book of Life.

In my new retirement status, I had a gig this past High Holy Days being the musical voice (rather than the rabbinic one) on the bimah and there was no way I could pull off one of the old settings of Neilah’s final prayer. So I wrote a new one.

My objective (besides being able to actually sing the piece myself) was inspired by the writing of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who penned the following: “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’” I wanted to convey (because this is what I feel at the end of Yom Kippur) a confidence that the year ahead will be a good one, that each of us can do better at living our best selves, and we have every reason therefore to write ourselves into the Book of Life.

Here’s the song. It’s only a minute and a half long. It features three of me singing, plus a number of accompanying instruments.

Focus on the clarinet, Jonah. In the opening bars you’ll hear echoes of Kol Nidre, which started the Day of Atonement only twenty-four hours earlier. These opening notes remind us, I hope, that we have gathered here to sincerely prepare for a better year ahead. As the opening notes give way to the ancient words acknowledging God as God, we reaffirm a very real desire to do better with our lives, to make a difference, and to make life mean something substantially meaningful and good.

The clarinet follows along for the minute-and-a-half of this musical ride and then, in the final bars, offers its own final thought. With a jubilant flourish that some will likely frown upon, the piece ends on a celebratory note affirming that our promise to do better is not only a sincere one but one that gives reason to smile at our neighbor and to head home to that bagel and a shmear with unbridled confidence that we will make a difference, that we will, in whatever ways we can, make the world better for everyone.

Which is precisely why I’ve dedicated “Hope Smiles” to you, Jonah. This is how you lived your life: doing what you could – lending a hand, giving comfort, and simply sharing that beautiful smile of yours – to make the world in which you lived a little better for your having been here.

And what if it isn’t true? What if you had your sour moments too? What if you weren’t always there to lend a shoulder? Well, to that I have two responses:

First, in the years since you left us, so many acts of kindness have been offered because of you, in your name, and inspired by you, your impact in the universe has been exponentially increased. Maybe you weren’t a perfect angel, but you were good enough for us to want to remember you in these ways.

And second, there’s an old hasidic story I love which goes like this: The Hafetz Hayyim (Lithuania 1839-1933), renowned for his saintly character, had a student who was falsely arrested. The prosecution, hearing the Hafetz Hayyim would testify on his student’s behalf, said to his colleagues, “Do you know what they say about him? That he came home one day and, finding a thief ransacking his house, ran after him, even while he could plainly see the thief was clutching the rabbi’s possessions, and shouted, ‘I declare all of my property ownerless,’ just so the thief would not be found guilty of stealing anything.” When asked if the attorney actually believed that was true, he replied, “I’m not sure. But they don’t tell stories like that about you or me.”

In life, Jonah, you offered people hope. In death, you continue to remind us that each of us can be a force for good in the world.

And if that isn’t a hopeful conclusion, I don’t know what is. Thanks for the inspiration, boy. Keep smiling, wherever you are.

Love you forever,

P.S. How cool is it that so many people are contributing to Hope Smiles because you once walked this earth?!

BillyHope Smiles — what’s that all about?

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