I had another letter all done and ready to send to you, but the war in Ukraine has been weighing heavily on my mind and I want you to hear from me about it.
You always had such clear ideas about right and wrong, and you were a zealot for fairness. You could never tolerate injustice.
You would hate this war.
When you were in the first grade, you got into big trouble at school. Another child had done something which, right or wrong, you felt deserved a clear response. So you bit him.
While your biting phase came to an end, your sense of justice did not. If it was happening to you, woe to your adversary. But as the years moved forward, your sense of fairness extended far beyond yourself. You looked out for others all the time. And we loved that about you.
When you were graduating from high school, NFTY NAR (your regional youth group community) voted you “most likely to lead the Jewish people in a revolt against the Romans.” Okay, so your middle name was Maccabee and that’s almost exactly what your namesake did (it was the Greeks, but the Romans got theirs later on). Your friends’ sentiment very likely transcended that historical reference. Everyone knew you enjoyed raising a ruckus, especially for a good cause.
Mom and I named you Jonah Maccabee with real intention. Yonah (Hebrew for Jonah) means “dove.” Combining that with the name of Jewish history’s greatest warrior, Judah Maccabee, we couldn’t have made it much clearer that it had been our fervent wish for you to grow up and become a “warrior for peace.”
And lookee there. It’s pretty much exactly what you did!
On the other side of the world – actually, in the land of your great-grandparents! – there is an unjust war being fought right now. Russia has decided to destroy Ukraine. Putin and his gang thought they could act with impunity, that there would be little resistance from the Ukrainians and a divided world looking the other way. But neither of those things has happened.
Like a modern-day Judah Maccabee, these Ukrainian underdogs have fought back with such determination and fierceness that the Russian authorities are in a tizzy about what to do next. In addition (and quite surprisingly), the world has rallied around Ukraine in so many powerful and loving ways, with governments and everyday citizens across the globe all responding and trying to help.
You would be so proud, Jonah.
Because no one should have to endure the relentless bullying of thugs. I’m pretty sure you’d be rolling up your sleeves to help in whatever ways possible.
When you were younger, JoJo, you were quite famous in our home for your inconveniently combustible temper, and we all knew to give you plenty of safe space whenever we saw smoke coming out of your ears.
As you grew up, we loved seeing that anger subside, even as your sense of justice grew stronger. By age nineteen, you had become such a caring and giving young man, it was sometimes hard to believe all that goodness could emerge from a kid who, only a few years earlier, wasn’t able to see beyond his own needs.
But you did.
And that’s why so many of us loved you and continue loving you.
I pray each day for Ukraine. Mom and I help out where we can. We simply have to. And I’m pretty sure you would too.
Thirteen years ago I lost you, Jonah. Life veered far off its course that night, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to grieve your death. But as much as I love you (and always will), it’s been crucial that I remember I wasn’t the one who died.
And so I live. I live as fully and joyfully as I can. In addition, I carry you with me. And in carrying you, I try to honor your life and your memory each day. I do so by trying to act when another is in need, hoping to preserve the impact you might be having on our world were you still with us today. I do so for you. I do so for those who need you.
Thank you for being part of my life, Jonah. Thank you for sharing your heart and your goodness with me and with so many others. And thank you for learning not to bite. With your teeth, that is.
However, if it were Putin …
Love you and miss you forever,