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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On Being a 'Dutch Uncle'

Last night Zahava, Yonah and I attended the Bar Mitzvah celebration of a someone about whom I've written in the past.  

He was a great kid back then.  He's a fine young man now.

I was privileged to be asked to be among those who spoke at the party.  Afterwards, I received emails, whatsapps and in person requests for a copy of my remarks from a bunch of people.  So, to save time, I'm posting my speech here:

 

"Last year Zahava and I went to the states to attend the wedding of a young man who had lived with us here for almost four years as a ‘Chayal Boded’ (lone soldier).  And when I was asked to speak, I realized that before I could even begin to think about what I wanted to say, I had to figure out in what capacity I was going to be speaking.

I certainly wasn’t this young man’s father.  His father is my age.  And I was too old to really be considered his friend.

So I was torn, because I felt an odd combination of friendship and fatherly protectiveness towards the groom… but I was neither!

So I was forced to go searching for a hybrid relationship; some sort of close connection that combined fatherly protectiveness with friendly intimacy. 

What I discovered at the end of that search was something called a ‘Dutch Uncle’; an American expression that has mostly fallen out of use.

For you amateur lexicographers:

Dutch Un·cle

noun

NORTH AMERICAN informal

a person who gives firm but benevolent advice.

[By the way, benevolent is just a fancy word for ‘kind’]

 

So, getting back to my story, when I was called up to the Chupah at our Chayal Boded’s wedding this past year, it wasn’t as a father or as a friend… it was as the “Dutch Uncle of the chatan”. 

So why is that story relevant tonight?

Netanel, when I think of you – and I think about you more than you will ever know – I feel that same combination of fatherly protectiveness and friendship.   

On the one hand, I want what any father would want for a son:  To shield you and advise you and hug you close while at the same time giving you your wings setting you free on a course towards success. 

But I’m not your father.  Your father was far smarter, far more patient… and understood you far better than I can ever hope to.

I also want for you what any true friend would want:  To see you happy, confident, having fun, to be completely natural and at ease with you, to earn your trust and loyalty… and to offer those things effortlessly in return.

But I’m much too old to play the role of friend to you. 

You are blessed with lots of good friends much closer to your age; friends who can pass endless hours with you, completely immersed in that secret world of looks, gestures, signals, jokes and mind-reading that comes naturally to teenagers… but which is a complete mystery to anyone as old as myself.

And as much as I’d like you to consider me an uncle-figure, you have real aunts and uncles who love you deeply, and deserve to enjoy that special relationship with you without competition.

So I think what’s left for me is that odd title I mentioned:  ‘Dutch Uncle; someone who is always ready to offer firm but kind advice.

And I am far from alone in that role. 

You don’t even have to look beyond this room to see more Dutch Uncles – and Aunts – than you can shake a stick at!   Just the few I can see from where I’m standing are as impressive a list of ‘Dutch Aunts and Uncles’ as anyone could ever want in their life:

You have people like Rav Moshe Aberman, who casually dispenses his Torah knowledge each week in shul as effortlessly and easily as you or I might share a pocket full of candy.  From that first Friday evening more than two years ago when you began saying Kaddish for your father, Rav Aberman quietly stood next to you, helped you find your place and your voice… and made sure you never, for a single moment, felt alone.  You probably didn’t notice it, but months after he was finished with his own Kaddish obligation, Rav Aberman continued to stand with you whenever and wherever necessary.

You have people like Ari Greenspan who helped teach you to daven for the amud, and who, without you noticing, has quietly been placing more and more responsibility on your shoulders and Yonah’s shoulders… to the point where you two are now essentially helping to run the early minyan as assistant Gabbais.

You have people like Johnny Finn, who asks after you constantly and proudly shares stories of your progress and successes with anyone who will listen.  He is a relentless, but quiet force for good in your life who would move heaven and earth to clear even the smallest obstacle from your path.  Don’t let his jokes fool you.  If things ever get tough… Johnny’s the guy you want in your corner.

You have Rav Rosenstark who taught you your Parsha and Haftarah, and learned with you all year towards the Siyum you made tonight…and Rav Lewis, Rav Shrader, and Rav Oren… together with Rav Aberman, these Torah sages comprise a vast ocean of learning and halachic experience so broad and deep that you could test their limits with questions and requests for advice on nearly any topic, and never once glimpse the shores.

I could, and should, go on.  There are so many men and women in this room – and far beyond its walls – who have stood with you, and who will gladly jump to your side at the slightest gesture or signal from you; people who care deeply about what you think and feel… what you experience and want… and who are watching with proud anticipation to catch a glimpse of the man into which you will ultimately develop and grow.

You have your Father, who – you must believe me – will never be far away. I am 100% certain that he is here with us tonight.  And each and every time you are called to the Torah by name, Netanel Ben Rafa’el, your father will be proudly standing beside you.  You couldn’t ask for a better role model.  As long as you remember your father and keep him in your heart, he will be there to comfort you in your setbacks, share in your successes and guide you throughout your life’s journey.   

You have your mother who is one of the strongest, most wonderful and sensible people I know.  Her moral compass always points true north.  She will continue to guide you, and love and nurture you unconditionally.  She is your sure, constant link to the past… and your secure, straight shining path to the future.

You have your extended family that will always be connected to you by the bonds of love, shared memories and blood.  You may not see them as often as you’d like, but take it from someone who also has a lot of family living half a world away; never take those relationships for granted.  They’re as much a part of who you are as the color of your eyes and the shape of your face.   Email, WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime… whatever it takes.  It’s up to you to take care of those relationships and keep them healthy.

And of course you have your friends – really good friends – who would lie down in traffic for you (which, of course, I hope will never actually be necessary). Take good care of those friendships.  In this tiny country of ours you will be connected to them by school, army, and work… through the happiest and saddest of times, for the rest of your lives. 

There’s a reason our politicians call each other Bibi and Boogie and Bougie and Baiga and Moody and dozens of other nicknames.  It’s because Israel is a tiny playground where, through good times and bad, 60 and 70 year olds still call each other by the nicknames they’ve had since gan chovah!

And since I’ve brought it up, it is worth pointing out something you have more experience with than most people your age: bad times.

They say that experience is something you don’t get until right after you need it. 

Netanel, I hate to break it to you, but over the coming years you’re going to fall down and skin your knees – both literally and figuratively – a bunch more times.  That’s an inevitable part of growing up. 

But whenever, and as often as it happens, please try to remember that you will never have to go through any of it alone. 

That’s where we come in…the rest of us… your Dutch Uncles and Aunts.  We will always be here to help smooth your way through the world. Call it protexia… call it connections… call it finding short-cuts.  Call it your own personal ‘plugat si’ur’ (recon unit), walking ahead of you and letting you know what to expect… and rescuing you when you find yourself in a tight spot.

You don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself, Natanel. You don’t have to fall into every single trap that life sets for you.

As luck would have it, looking around this room, we’ve probably made most of those same mistakes already… some of us more than we’d like to admit! 

So feel free to benefit from our life experience, and use us like a map to navigate your way through the minefield of adolescence and life beyond.   

Please rest assured… we, your Dutch Aunts and Uncles will always be here for you day or night; ready with a sympathetic ear if you ever feel like talking. 

And when you are faced with decisions and want to know what we think… we won’t get all judgmental like your friends… or all bossy like a parent. 

Just ask us, we’ll be happy to offer you firm but benevolent advice… to give you enough information to help you make up your own mind.  As Dutch Aunts and Uncles, that’s our job. 

Mazal Tov, Netanel!  I think I speak for everyone when I say we couldn’t possibly be prouder!"

Posted by David Bogner on April 11, 2018 | Permalink

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