Zachary Klein





About thirteen years ago my cousin Frank’s son, Scott, called to ask if I would mind if he and his wife, Christine named their son “Zachary.” (According to Jewish custom, parents do not name their children after living relatives. Which is why you don’t see many Jew Juniors.) As soon as he assured me that I wasn’t dead I quickly assured him that I not only didn’t mind, I was flattered. A pause on the line, then, “Uhh, not really after you. We just like the name.” Scott is nothing if not honest.

And I love that. But I still liked the idea and like it even better since I’ve had a chance to spend time, over the years, with the family: Scott, Christine, Rachael, and Zack.

Good people,  sweet kids.


Thirteen years after Zack’s birth, and it’s bar mitzvah time.

ZackNow, I hadn’t been in a synagogue (marriage and funeral chapels don’t count!) since Frank’s youngest son, Ben, had his bar mitzvah twenty-some years ago. Having spent most of my childhood attending yeshivas—the last of which was Hasidic—I feel I’ve done my time. Hard time. So it wasn’t surprising that I walked up to the Brooklyn brownstone temple with a belly clench…

Which continued inside its small sanctuary that reminded me of my old Hasidic “learning room,” a somewhat dark medieval kind of place. Trying to keep a tiny new-age neoprene yarmulke on my big head while listening to the cantor strumming on his guitar, did nothing to ease my gut. I’d just landed in what seemed like a cross between the ancient yeshiva world and the Catholic guitar masses I’d occasionally and uncomfortably attended when married to my first wife, Peggy.

For about fifteen minutes I was the standing embodiment of cognitive dissonance. Which finally subsided when the senior Rabbi, Rachel Timoner, urged the congregation to join in with the cantor’s If I Were a Rich Man. (Not really. Just a singing chorus that sounded like yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.) Somehow his voice, which was tenor wonderful, and the familiar happy/sad sounds chilled me out and I finally relaxed…

Only to be jolted to attention when a baby naming ceremony was announced and two men walked up front with a newborn. This was not my father’s shul. My experience, either. The entire congregation went silent as one father talked emotionally about his and his husband’s happiness and their love for the child. I saw tears streaming down my cousin Marcy’s face which, at that moment, perfectly reflected the collective heart of the congregation. It was a moving and amazing few minutes—despite my continuous struggle to keep that damn yarmulke on my head.

Turns out Beth Elohim was founded in 1861 and, remarkably, has kept pace with the rational world. I know there are other reform synagogues that have women rabbis, but my experience with them in past left me pretty cold. Those places were pretty cold. But this was different. The service combined Hasidic joyousness through song (though the Hasids never used guitars or pianos) with a modern day message and commitment to social justice. The Temple’s progressiveness and humanity was reflected in Rabbi Timoner’s interpretation of the Torah portion Zack read along with the cantor—and left a smile on my face.

Zack1Rabbi TimonerNow that I know something about her, Timoner’s interjections and sermon were not surprising. As an Associate Rabbi in LA, the rabbi sought social justice in public transportation, affordable housing, and health care. She also raised funds to rebuild a community center for low-income women, and founded two leadership programs and a peer hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth. (After the bar mitzvah we visited with my son Matt and his family who live in Brooklyn. We talked about the day and I mentioned Timoner. Matt told me that he knew her from college and described her student activism back then and the reputation she had in the borough. Small world, eh?)

Let me be clear; I have no inclination to begin believing in god. No desire to belong to a temple—no matter what type. No interest in High Holy Days, Passover, or anything to do with religion of any sort. Especially when I have to fight with a yarmulke. Still, if I need to spend a couple hours on a Saturday morning in prayer and Talmudic elocution, Beth Elohim would be the place to go. Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.

Happy Bar Mitzvah, Zack, you did great. And mazel tov to my cousin’s entire mishpocha.

Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination. ~ Oliver Sac


On May 19th my oldest son is marrying Alyssa Casden, a truly wonderful woman.  The marriage comes at the end of one of Matt’s most painful years when his mother and his mother’s sister died within months of each other.

Dealing with death is always tough, but not only did Matt and Alyssa work through their emotions, they played point on all the arrangements and every detail.

Yes, they had help.  Peg and Marlene’s friends, us, Jake, Alyssa’s family–but the weight fell on them.  Bigtime.

Watching Matt handle the situation with calm sensitivity wasn’t a surprise.  Alyssa at his side didn’t surprise either.  But until Federal Judge, Mark Wolf, who will officiate their ceremony, asked Sue and I to write about them that my lack of surprise made serious sense.

When I think of life together with Matt, lots of thoughts and images pop into my mind.  He began living with me half the week at a point where I was much less stable than now.  But he rolled with it.  Even enjoyed some of the mishigas like being brought to school on a motorcycle (I wrapped a rope around the two of us) or when we hitch-hiked in town when I no longer had the cycle or a car.  Hard for people not to stop when a little, little guy has his thumb out.

He didn’t eat all that well when with me since I can’t cook.  Spagettios were a staple as was baked macaroni, the only meal I knew how to make.  But we did well, despite the lack of nutrition, and having to move into different apartments a couple of times during those early years

But more importantly than us doing well was Matt’s ability to do tremendously well academically and socially no matter what was happening in his home life.  Which, as time moved on, became more stable–as did I.

We moved in with my friend Bill who helped father Matt in more ways than I can count.  Built him his own house out of a giant empty refrigerator box and was always willing to play ‘pong’ which was the video game of those times.  We also ate a whole lot better.  It was Bill who took him to newly created video arcades.  Bill and Matt had a ton of fun together and still do whenever Matt visits.  And it still makes me happy to watch them hang.

But when Matt was seven our lives really settled down once we moved in with Sue.  During those beginning years I worked evenings at home upstairs.  When I’d come down after meeting with a client, many times during the week Matt and Sue were sitting at our kitchen’s enamel topped table having tea together along with an after-school snack.  And often their conversation centered around going to movies and having a ‘candy’ supper.

Despite the sugar, or perhaps because of it, I was always amazed at his intense work ethic.  I knew he was both smart and insightful, but the degree of commitment to flat out work (academic or otherwise) was mind-boggling.  I can’t count the number of times during high-school when, at 1 A.M. and I was ready for bed, I’d go into Matt’s room and find him asleep in his clothes, school book open on his face.  I’d wake him, suggest he go to sleep, and was consistently met with, “Thanks for waking me, Dad. I just want to get in one more hour.”

As someone (me) who always had difficulty with school, there were times when Matt’s success blew me away.  When he graduated from Boston Latin as president of his class, 6th academically, then accepted to Yale with close to a full boat, I felt like an immigrant parent: “My son the American.” 

It was also during his high-school years when his half-brother was born.  When Jake was able to motor around the house, Matt used to lay on the living room floor, wait until Little Guy was in reach, snatch him, and roll around wrestling and tickling until Jake would ‘get away’ and repeat his run waiting for the next grab.

Watching them become even closer now, as they both grow older, has given both Sue and I great pleasure.  And gave Peggy pleasure as well when she was alive.

Another picture also always comes to mind.  Matt’s internal desire to meet, reach out, make friends with people of all colors and nationalities.  A tough do in Boston.  But something he did from before high-school and continues to this day. Something that makes me proud and appreciative about the person he is.

And of course my intense satisfaction in knowing about all the positive work he’s done from his high-school years to now with people less fortunate.  Matt has an unending commitment to helping high risk kids in inner city schools.  It’s pretty clear he won’t rest easy until schools and school related programs provide an education that gives these kids a legitimate shot at a decent life.

Which goes for Alyssa as well.  It’s not accidental that they share those basic beliefs and dedicate their lives to them.

I can’t imagine anything that could bring more joy to a parent (me again) than loving Alyssa, for who she is herself, as well as for the wonderful qualities she elicits from my son.  I simply can’t imagine a better example of people who love and bring out the best in each other.

As mentioned above, Alyssa lived through one of the most difficult times in Matthew’s life.  And stood shoulder to shoulder every inch of the way.  I have absolutely no doubt he would have done the same.  It’s pretty damn nice to see people who love and give to each other.  It’s a mitzvah.

And finally, having spent time with Alyssa’s family, it’s gonna be really great to have them as relatives.

Although I’ll be writing next Monday’s post, Sherri Frank Mazzotta will pinch hit for the 21st.  The following week I’ll be hunting and pecking, the only difference–I’ll have a larger family.  And will love it.

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming “WOW, WHAT A RIDE”