Long-ago bar mitzvah gift has far-reaching meanings

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I was bar mitzvah April 12, 1955 at Congregation Young Israel in New Jersey. Afterward we celebrated at the Clinton Manor with food, food, music, food, whiskey and more food. I don't remember the service. My most vivid memories of my bar mitzvah are of the size of that reception, the abundant food and the gifts. The standing joke was "Don't give me presents, give me cash." And so it was. With one exception, all my gifts were cash, checks and savings bonds.

The one exception came from my second cousin and his wife, Philip and Evelyn Gold. They gave me a book. My parents called it a cheap gift, but I liked it. I only saw the Golds a few times over the next few years. By the time we really connected again, more than 20 years had passed.

That occasion was my son's birth in 1981. In thinking about a name for him, I remembered the Golds. They had two sons, Robert and Nathan. Robert was my age. Nathan, just two years younger, was a brilliant student and humanitarian. He died in a car crash at age 23. So we named our son Nathan. We sent an announcement to the Golds, but didn't say anything specific about Nathan's naming.

Then came the call from the Golds. "Could it be," my cousin Evelyn asked, "that you named your Nathan after our Nathan?"

"Yes," I answered.

"It's a mecheiyeh [blessing]," she cried. "Both of our Nathans were born on the same day — November 7."

I was stunned. I hadn't realized they shared a birthday.

"But we have not heard from you in 20 years," she said. "How did you remember my Natty?"

"I don't know, but I had very good memories of your family."

Since Nathan's birth, I have developed a close relationship with Evelyn and Robert; Philip passed away a few years ago. My Nathan has a special place in their heart. And they have a very special place in ours.

This year Nathan had his bar mitzvah. Evelyn and Robert couldn't come because of their health so we sent them a videotape of the temple service. Then last month, during Pesach, Nathan and I went back East and visited with them and with Robert's son, Neil, who is studying to be a rabbi. We ate and talked for several hours. They so enjoyed seeing Nathan. As we were getting ready to leave, Evelyn asked me again why I had remembered her Nathan.

"When I was bar mitzvah 40 years ago, everyone gave me presents of cash. Except you and Phil. You gave me the Hammond World Atlas. It was a book of maps and pictures. It was about the world, and peoples of the world. It's a book I still own and treasure. That book from you was the little light that kept me connected to Judaism.

"Many people gave me gifts at my bar mitzvah," I told her. "But yours was the only one that lasted."