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In Celebration of Ben -  A Generation of Dreamers

Like all parents, it is impossible to erase the indelible memory of when I beheld the birth of my children. When my first son Ben was born, 20 years ago today, he was a wonder. His entire body was pinkish-white and like a pearl. Swaddled tightly in the hospital blanket, he looked at us with an expression that, impossibly, seemed like one of recognition. At that moment, I was overcome with love for my boy and dreams for the future. A child at that age still has a world of possibility.

Amazingly, his face was a replica of mine from the same age, which seemed like nature’s way of connecting father to child. “Ben is you,” Valerie told me yesterday morning as we were in the car, on our way to visit Ben at college for his birthday.

Our children have a way of breaking our hearts with pain and joy. One day, when Ben was six months old, I was putting him into his seat in the back of the car. Suddenly, I made a funny face to amuse him, and he started to break out in a riotous giggle. It was a belly laugh of pure delight. Every time I made that face, he burst out again into that same outburst of unrestrained glee. Other parents know what I’m talking about—that baby laugh we wish that we could preserve forever.

Ben was able to walk and talk at about 10 months—no kidding. In nursery school, he was the kid who always raised his hand first to answer the teacher’s question. He had a way of guaranteeing this; he simply shot his arm in the air even before the sentence was out of the teacher’s mouth. He would form an answer no matter what the subject was to be.

One day when Ben was in first grade, I arrived at school to pick him up early for a doctor’s appointment. While I was waiting in the office for him to arrive, I was approached by a teacher whom I didn’t know. She asked whom I was picking up, and I said, “Ben.”

“Ben!” she cried. “I know Ben! Everybody knows Ben!” How had he made such an impression in that short a time?

As Ben was on best terms with everyone he met, my mother was convinced from the start that Ben would grow up to be a diplomat or, failing that, a hotel concierge.

From fourth grade through high school, Ben performed in local children’s theater. He never seemed nervous or awed, and he never forgot a line. And he was funny. He was Charlie Brown, Shrek, and (in a housedress and curlers) Edna Turnblad from “Hairspray”. When he simply made his initial entrance as the innkeeper Thenardier in “Les Miserables”, the audience exploded in applause. We’re a small family, so it wasn’t just us.

Political awareness? Check. Ben had all the presidents memorized by the time he was six, he volunteered for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, he was protesting for minority rights before “Black Lives Matter”, and he was an early supporter of Bernie Sanders. Ben has always been dreaming of a just world.

Not all was perfect. In fourth grade, the kids turned mean and made it a difficult year for Ben. Middle school was tough (when isn’t it?), at least in sixth grade. Ben found his niche in grades seven and eight, and then in high school. Through those years, his mom and I had the same complaint—“We never see you work hard. Imagine how you would do in school if you really pushed yourself!” He still did fine. His high school GPA was over 91%, and he passed two college courses and three AP exams. He got accepted at BInghamton University.

He insisted on not matriculating right away, in favor of taking a gap year program in Israel. Valerie and I had multiple concerns about this, including the cost, the security situation in Israel and the idea of Ben being so far from us for the better part of a year. But when Ben wants something, he is persistent. He earned his share of the money by working in his uncle’s restaurant for the summer, rather than at his beloved camp. He negotiated a payment plan for the gap year. And when all was said and done, he experienced a time he will never forget, living on his own outside of Tel Aviv with a group of young Americans and Brits, and working after school with young Israelis.

In December of his gap year, Ben made a surprise announcement. He was applying to McGill University in Montreal. There were several factors behind that decision, but the 2016 election was the final determining factor. Living for a time in a more functioning democracy seemed more palatable to Ben’s sensibility. That is why Valerie and I are spending his birthday weekend here in frigid Montreal rather than frigid Binghamton. Last night, we got to see him on stage again, in a McGill production of Gilbert and Sulllivan’s “Iolanthe”. Ben took a non-speaking chorus role and created a specific character; his expression on stage, and afterward, was pure delight.

“Ben is you,” Valerie said to me, but that’s not quite right. As parents, we hope that our children perfect us, that they improve on and take on the best aspects of both sides of the family. That’s what Ben represents. He has my political and historical interests and the ability to absorb a broad range of knowledge quickly and deeply. From Valerie, Ben has great affability, sociability, and a fondness for community and identity. Like both of us, he has a progressive mindset, an appreciation of the world and love for travel.

As a Jewish Studies/Theater dual major, Ben dreams of studying the Jewish diaspora, of building a community of progressive Zionist young Jews, of working in a museum, of traveling the world, of working with people. He dreams of a world in which people’s rights are protected and they can speak their minds. He dreams of performing in and living in a world that respects and honors performing arts.

Ben’s dreams may be unique to him, but in dreaming he is not alone. The ability to hope and dream—without fear or condition—should be the birthright of all young men and women, particularly Ben’s generation of pre-millennials.

As a parent, I can post pictures from my son’s life and not be worried about the implications for him and his family. I can express hope for my child’s future that is not limited because of where any of us was born. We can speak freely and travel openly across borders. I know that I speak for Ben in dreaming that all parents will have this opportunity in the not too distant future.

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