“We’re moving to New Jersey.” As a 16-year-old who’d lived his whole life in the same house within a supportive and close-knit Jewish community in Rhode Island, this did not come as a welcome announcement. All of my parents’ friends were also my friends’ parents and I was equally at home with at least half a dozen families who felt like relatives. Sounds pretty idyllic, no? Leaving the cozy confines of our shtetl-like community to start my junior year of high school in an entirely new environment? A little less idyllic.
As we got settled in New Jersey, my parents began the process of shopping for a shul and finding a community for themselves. Every Friday night was spent hosting or attending a Shabbat dinner to meet new people and build relationships. My parents’ peer group mostly had children who were already either away at college (as my brother was) or living their adult lives elsewhere. It didn’t take long for me to grow tired of the weekly dog-and-pony show without fellow teenagers to interact with. Then one Shabbat evening, my parents invited a new couple over for dinner. I immediately took a liking to the husband, a man named Jimmy, who was funny, interesting and a great storyteller. Perhaps most importantly, he took an interest in me and my story in a way few other adults had.
I then made a new rule about my parents’ barnstorming tour through the Metrowest New Jersey Jewish community. They were welcome to continue their efforts to meet new people and establish friendships, but my future participation in the dinners came with a precondition: “No Jimmy, no David.” My parents would inform me of an upcoming meal and I’d reply by asking if Jimmy would be there. If the answer was no, I’d simply state, “You know the rules; no Jimmy, no David.” My parents acquiesced, taking pity on me for frequently being the only child at these gatherings, despite the limiting nature of this request. Had it not been for a quickly blossoming friendship, I suppose I would have seldom been with my parents for Shabbat and holiday meals during our first year in New Jersey.
Most shul communities have the good fortune of having at least one “Jimmy” in their midst. A mensch’s mensch. The shul walking, day school and shul development committee chairing, delicious challah baking, self-deprecating gem. These folks tend to be the glue of their respective kehillot and everyone who counts themselves lucky enough to be part of their mishpacha feels blessed.
Jimmy welcomed my family with open arms and gave me an unlikely friendship during a difficult time. In the subsequent years, I’m confident that I was the only one in my college peer group who sought out a parents’ friend during winter break to bake challah and go to the movies with, and that says much more about Jimmy than it does about me. I’m tremendously grateful for our relationship.
It came as no surprise when I learned many years later that my experience with Jimmy was not unique to me. Fast forward about 25 years. Now living in the Boston area with my wife and kids, I was at a Shavuot lunch at a friend’s house where two of the men in attendance had married into the same New Jersey community. We started swapping stories about our initial interactions with the shared community members and I, of course, told the infamous “no Jimmy, no David” story. Both men nodded along in understanding and agreement and informed me that they too had taken an immediate liking to Jimmy and appreciated his warmth and good humor.
Jimmy turned 80 last month and his children solicited submissions to a memory book they compiled as a gift with notes from his friends and family. When my parents mentioned this to me, I immediately flashed back to my transformative experience from almost 30 years ago and felt compelled to ask if I could participate and submit an entry.
I’m 44 years old now. Math was never my strong suit but, according to my calculations, Jimmy was about 52 when we first met. That gives me eight more years to become cool enough for teenagers to willingly be interested in spending time with me. Based on my interactions with my pre-teen sons and their friends, this seems like a lofty goal. Even if that particular goal is unattainable, aspiring to emulate Jimmy more as I age will always be a worthwhile pursuit.
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