Monday, November 1, 2010

A Khaki Hat

In October 2009 fifty men had gathered at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut to spend a weekend exploring issues of Jewish masculinity. Sounds like the setup for a joke. There was plenty of humor. There were many other emotions as well. I have participated in so-called “men’s work” since 1991 when I attended my first Gathering of Men hosted by the poet Robert Bly. Jewish Men’s Work may not be so very different from non-sectarian Men’s Work. That’s really a topic for another essay. The motivation for attending this workshop at this time was simply an opportunity to spend some time with my brother (see my January 27, 2011 post: Tribute to My Brother).

An important feature of these retreats are the breakout sessions called “Mishpacha Groups.” Each of the three days in residence we split off into eight-man sub-groups structured carefully to engender intimate conversations that otherwise would be almost impossible in the larger group. On the final morning the substance of the conversation typically focuses on what each man, based on his experiences of the weekend, commits to go forth and do in his life that will make a difference. When it was my turn my comments included my aspiration to end my long procrastination of studying biblical and prayer book Hebrew.

There I sat, in our intimate circle of brothers, averring (once again) my intention to learn Hebrew. Across from me sat one of the retreat leaders—Yosaif—a man who had attended all of the seventeen previous Jewish Men’s Retreats.  His white bearded face and shaggy mop of white hair was adorned by a khaki hat. Printed in yellow Hebrew letters across the front of the hat were the words Lech L’cha. These are words that God spoke to Abraham—“Get up, and go forth!” These were appropriate words for the getaway day of the retreat, all the more appropriate given that Jews all over the world would be reading that very passage of Torah the ensuing week.

Then, Yosaif took the hat off his head and presented it to me! He said he wanted me to go forth and fulfill this intention. As an incentive he said I should keep this hat until I fulfilled the pledge, and then return it to him. I was stunned to receive this object that clearly had special meaning to Yosaif.  I was amazed that this veteran leader showed such concern for a man who he had only met less than 48 hours earlier. I was honored that he entrusted me in this manner. Sure it was just a hat, but it was also much more than a hat. I put the hat on. I thanked him and accepted his challenge.
...across the front of the hat were the words Lech L’cha.
When I returned home I displayed the hat prominently in my home office letting it be a reminder in the days and months ahead. During those months life happened. Something always seemed to get in the way of initiating my study. The Lech L’cha cap continued to hang tantalizingly above my desk.

It would be unusual, if not absurd, for me to fly from California to the East Coast just for a weekend retreat, so when a high school reunion turned out to be the week before the next annual Jewish Men’s Retreat in October 2010, the opportunity to go back and attend both events was irresistible. That also meant I would have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to personally return the cap to Yosaif. I had never lost sight of the cap, nor my agreement with him that hung before me with as much presence as the cap itself.

As the summer of 2010 waned, one morning during my ritual walking meditation I found the inspiration to contact a local Hebrew tutor and ask to schedule lessons. She was about to go to Israel for a few weeks. We would make arangements upon her return. Then the chaggim interfered. Then it was some other travel or something, etc., etc. We never seemed to connect. As the October retreat loomed I became increasingly insistent that we start the lessons. She kept looking at her full calendar and suggested putting it off. Finally I had to tell her about the hat and my determination to at least get started before I departed for the East Coast. She understood. One day before I flew east we finally began. I was relieved to fulfill my pledge even as I was feeling somewhat daunted by the awesome task that lay ahead--of actually learning Hebrew.

I took off on my trip with great anticipation of the reunion I would have with Yosaif. I entertained various options of how to spring it on him that I had met the challenge and would redeem my pledge by returning his hat. Would I just show up at camp wearing the hat? Would I wait until the final morning as Yosaif had done the year before? All of this became very moot. Several days after I had arrived in New York I woke up in the middle of the night with a start. Earlier, when I had laid out the clothes I would need for the next day, I didn’t recall seeing the cap in my luggage. Oh, no! I had already made a few stops on this trip—staying with a classmate in Westchester before the class reunion, staying out on Long Island for the reunion itself, now at my son’s apartment in the city. Come to think of it, I didn’t remember seeing the cap at all on the trip. Had I left it home or lost it along the way? How could I have done either? I had been so careful to lay it out with my things before packing for my trip. I frantically called home and asked my wife to look in my office. Sure enough there it lay on my desk! How could I have forgotten it? Now what? Did it make sense to FedEx it? If not, how would I explain my unrealized intentions to Yosaif?

Friday afternoon I rode from Manhattan to Falls Village with a friend who had been to many of these retreats. For some reason I felt compelled to tell him the story of the cap. It seemed simple enough to him—of course I should have had the cap FedExed as soon as I knew I had forgotten it. I couldn’t admit that I had been too cheap to do so; although I had also rationalized that putting the cap in the mail when I was moving from place to place would have put it at risk. Regardless, there was nothing I could do about it now but tell Yosaif the story, and mail it to him after returning to California.

We arrived at the retreat center just minutes before Yosaif. When he emerged from his car I greeted him immediately. I asked him if he was ready to hear a story. He politely thanked me for asking, since after his long drive from Philadelphia he was not ready. We would find another time.

The weekend began with a beautiful energetic Kabbalat Shabbat service followed by a great Shabbat dinner and then vigorous drumming and chanting. Saturday morning a few of us who had volunteered to lead the morning service gathered early at breakfast to review our plans for the morning. As I sat there I saw Yosaif walk in remarkably wearing a cap identical to the one he had entrusted to me! How many of these must he have? Does he hand one out every year? Why is he wearing it on Saturday—this is not the “Lech L’cha” day?! I didn’t know what to say. The friend with whom I had shared the story on the drive up, quipped, “Well I guess you don’t have to worry about returning his hat!” He clearly didn’t recognize the symbolic importance to me of this. Yosaif walked past our table and I got his attention. “We’ve got to talk,” I implored him. “Perhaps this afternoon,” he replied.

Later our morning service accomplished the unimaginable—we finished well before the scheduled time for lunch! Yosaif turned to me and suggested we take a walk. I was delighted.

On a cool sunny morning we walked the perimeter of the pond. I began. “Tell me about the cap you wore at breakfast (he had replaced it with a large knitted kippah for the morning service). Yosaif explained that it was designed and created as a keepsake for an earlier men’s retreat. “I guess you must have quite a few of these hats.” Yosaif told be he had 2 or 3 at home. He had given one to a young friend for his bar mitzvah or something. Maybe another somewhere in his house. He wasn’t sure where.

It was now clear to me that Yosaif had forgotten about our transaction. I pressed the point. “You sure you don’t know where the other hat is?” Yosaif hesitated. He started to become perplexed if not agitated; later explaining that he was feeling a bit pressured, that I was apparently coveting his hat. Then I merely blurted out, “I have your hat!” I reminded him of his generosity and thanked him for being the inspiration that brought an end to my prolonged procrastination.

Yosaif was overwhelmed. He profusely expressed his gratitude to me—not for knowing the location of his cap, but for demonstrating that one of his greatest desires had been fulfilled. Yosaif is a motivational coach. He was moved to learn what a difference he had made in helping me achieve my goal.

We continued to walk and revel in the poetry of our exchange. Had I remembered the cap we might not have walked the same path of discovery. We contemplated the subconscious reasons that I might have had for leaving the cap behind. Yosaif commented that as difficult as a first step is, sometimes the second step is even harder. Now I have to continue my study to bring my goal to true fruition. Yosaif chuckled all the way back to the main hall. We embraced as friends. There would be no mailing the cap to him with a false sense of completion. I have much work to do.