Bris Speech for Akiva Max Galena - Father’s Day 2014
Happy Father’s Day!
I wanted to thank everyone for being here, Rabbis, family, friends, co-workers, we are honored to be here to celebrate our son, Akiva Max/ Baruch Akiva, becoming an official member of the Jewish People.
Like all Jewish events in history, the bris starts with a severe dose of pain…and ends of course with a severe dose of food.
Welcome to the tribe.
Weirdly, I was in the bathroom before the bris and guy standing next to me asks if I am from Philadelphia. I said yes…but he doesn’t look familiar.. “From Lower Merion Synagogue?” he says. I said… yeh? who is this? “Is Rabbi Goldberg still the mohel.there?” I said, yes how did you know?
Well, he always cuts on a slant and you happen to be peeing on my shoe!
Figure I’d start with a joke. How often do you get the chance to make a Mohel joke?
I want to speak just briefly on the origins of our son’s name. As we all know, there is so much in a name, the arizal says ‘Shaim’ the hebrew word for ‘name’ means, “there”, “the place”- the destination - a name hopes to not just encapsulate what we call him, but what we hope he aspires to. Our hopes, and prayers, for the future. Einstein, Speilberg, Sandy Koufax were on our list, but too much pressure.
But there is another side to this, because Jews name often name children after those who came before us. Remembering our relatives, the bubbies, zaides, the pop-pops, the nanas, from our past. Those who are no longer with us, but here in spirit, but who worked, sacrificed and gave everything, to get us to this point. It’s their personalities, and there certainly were a lot of personalities, character traits, what we hope our little man will inherit.
So a name connects the past, but also connects to the future. What was vs. what will be.
The hebrew word for Soul, Neshama, has within it the two letters, shin, mem - Shaim - spelling name. In other words, The Soul of a person and the name are somehow inextricably linked.
So first with the hebrew “Baruch” - we are naming after Hindy’s illustrious, famous grandfather, Rabbi Baruch Aaron Poupko. The famous rabbi from Pittsburgh who aside from being a master orator and visionary, an academic and scholar, whose leadership helped shape much of modern American Orthodoxy - he actually, funny enough, is responsible for getting Heinz Ketchup to become kosher. So he has affected your life without you knowing it.
He was dedicated to showing that Judaism can not only survive but thrive in America.
But one of the things I am in awe of is his work on Soviet Jewry.
As a kid we would go to rally after rally in Philadelphia and Washington DC, and for me this was the first time I personally felt the idea of Jewish Peoplehood, of Jewish identity, the fire, the fight for freedom, Jewish unity - regardless of religious level or background. Singing and hearing “We are leaving Mother Russia” still chokes me up.
Little did I know in the late 70s Rabbi Baruch Aaron from this little steel town was one of the originators of this fight. He himself was born and fled from Russia and craved nothing more than the feeling of American freedom for his brethren. He made trips to Russia, to shuls, when it wasn’t popular, and frankly, extremely dangerous. That chutzpah, that insatiable ability to say what needs to be said, to inspire, is what I want for my son. Rav Baruch spent his life making sure others knew what to care about and what to fight for. This Baruch, this blessing, is what I want to bestow on him.
It’s no wonder why our Hindy is so special. She too fights, and has the uncanny ability to unlock things, especially for me. She takes on BDS, Iran, my laundry, all while working tirelessly on making this baby, a reality that has taken over 2 years of work - all because Hindy would not take no for an answer. She like her parents and grandparents, like all Poupkos, somehow light the spark on topics and issues you didnt even know you cared about until hearing them speak about them. What a yichus. What a bracha.
I, above all, am blessed to be beside her.
The second person we named after is my Grandfather, my mother’s dad, Max Lourie, who we just called Pop Pop.
If you ever meet anymore above the age of 45 from Bayonne, NJ mention the name Max Lourie to them, and just watch their eyes light up. Sure his title for 40 years was ‘high school math teacher’ at Bayonne High School but he twilighted as the JCC Youth Group Director, tennis coach, teen tour advisor, and world traveler. He also had the ability to unlock - for him it was through unmatched gratitude and kindness.
Pop Pop Max had a certain grace, a certain warmth and a smile - a dignity towards all people - young and old. No matter how small the deed he’d thank every waiter, bus driver, he embodied gratitude and admiration to others, -” derech eretz kadma l’torah”… Before you can be wise, you need to be kind. It’s as Pop-pop would put it, the 101 prerequisite course.
He always carried a handkerchief around because he carried his heart on his sleeve, and inevitably like my mom, has no problem telling their life stories to complete strangers. He lost his dad very early, and his mom couldn’t afford to take care of her 4 kids so they sent him away. To feel alone, to feel unwanted, unappreciated, Pop Pop’s life was spent making sure no one else felt like that. Zeh Klal Gadol batorah. This is the greatest principal of Judiasm.
As Rabbi Poupko always says at the seder in the name of his Pop, we were once slaves, foreigners, unwanted, and our whole job of the seder is to be mindful of this and make space for others at our table, in this world.
Pop Pop also loved sports and math more than anything. I recall my mom saying Pop-Pop leaving something in a safety deposit box for us to have when we were older. I remember thinking this is going to be amazing - what is it? Are we rich? When we finally got it, it was the scorecard he took in 1927 when he was at the ball game when Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run. Numbers & Baseball. This was his most prized possession. All for his grandkids.
He’d write letters to the NY Times Sports section weekly thanking them for their Sports of the Times and then debating every point all at once. We’d watch sports together on his TV with the sound off or just a radio on, because if you were at the game, no one would be talking, you could just take in the experience of a ballgame.
I am so glad he got to meet Hindy so she could see first hand what a righteous person was. My second baruch, blessing to my son, is he takes just 1/60th of the Max Lourie you are named after, and wear it proudly on your sleeve.
The final name is not connected to an ancestor but somehow captured much of our feelings, emotions that hindy and I have today, Akiva.
For for those who don’t know Rabbi Akiva he basically is the perfect Jewish Super Hero. Starting with humble beginnings, a shepard who gets inspired at age 40, through sheer hard work, he became invincible - the master teacher and leader of the Jewish People, whose wisdom was only matched by his kindness and mercy for others - as he famously said the most important rule of the Torah is Love your brother as you would love yourself. And Rabbi Akiba only started when he was 40 years old.
My own father would compare himself to Rabbi Akiba because he started running at age 40. When he’d ask me to run - I would always say, but dad, I’m like 20 years until Im 40.
But as many know, Rabbi Akiva lived through tragedy, with disaster, with failure, with loss.
The gemara tells us the story of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva who went to Jerusalem, after it’s destruction. When they saw the holy city Jerusalem in ruins, the temple gone, they all started crying; but somehow Rabbi Akiva started laughing. They asked “Why are you laughing?” literally foxes coming out of holy of holies stood - how are you not crying?”
And Rabbi Akiva said I laugh because there actually two prophecies, 1) that Jerusalem will be destroyed, but there is another from Zechariah 2) That young and old women and children will one day fill the streets of Jerusalem. It will be rebuilt. But I was worried as long as the first prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that the second prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that I see the destruction has been fulfilled, it is certain that the rebuilding will be fulfilled as well.
Rabbi Akiva focused, in the midst of ultimate tragedy,on the ultimate future, on the rebuilding. The resilience to move forward.
With these words the gemara ends so poetically - they all replied to him: “Akiva Nechamtanu, Akiva Nechamtanu”, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us”
Like Rabbi Akiva, we’ve realized, this isn’t the end of the movie, but just the The next chapter, or the sequel.
So for our Akiva, I know you are in alittle pain now, but we want you to know your big sister Ayelet will always be looking out for you. She has given us and everyone here a life affirming strength and now you have provided the ultimate comfort of knowing that our prayers, that everyone’s prayers, were not left unanswered.
”Akiva Nechamtanu, Akiva Nechamtanu”
On behalf of Hindy and myself, I just want to thank everyone for being with us, now and for the past few years. You kept us standing. Our families, Poupkos, Fishers, Smiths, Joffees and Galenas for being amazing these past 2-3 weeks. You have been Non Stop.
Rabbi & Mindy Poupko for driving in last night to be here. Arna for driving here last month.
And to Hindy: Quoting Rabbi Akiva who said about his wife: “Everything I am and everything my students are, is because of you”
And special thanks to the NIH, who told us to give them 5-10 years to find the genetic mutation, and finding it in less than 2 - for making our dreams come true.
What father’s day gift. Hashem has truly blessed us.