Monday, August 26, 2013

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Dear Seth, 

As I sit here, I'm struggling to grasp that this is really happening. For all of my life, I've brushed off the thought of you leaving because I never wanted to confront the reality of you actually having to. Whenever a sibling has left the house, I knew it would be okay because I would have you there with me. But now I'm lost. I feel like I'm drowning. And I don't know how to resurface. 

I really don't know what to say right now. I've never had to do something this hard. You've always been the one who's put me in my place when need be. You've always been the one who's made me smile when I'm frustrated. You've always been the one who's made me feel confident, safe, and never alone. 

Throughout all of the trials of our childhood, you were right there next to me. We faced everything together. We formed the same friendships. We share the same memories. We tell the same stories. For us, there will never be a goodbye. I know you will be in my life until the day I die. 

Though you may not have noticed, you have served as my role model for the past seventeen years. 

One of the most important things that you've imparted on me is that it's okay to be comfortable with emotional expression. After years of observation, I began to realize that you approached emotions far differently than we were taught to. You were never one to suppress your emotions, despite the fact that we were raised to do so. When you were sad, you'd make it known. When you were happy, you'd make it known. When you were mad, you'd make it very well known. I remember when I called you a name one too many times and you punched me in the eye. Suffice it to say that your comfort with emotional expression, be it physical or verbal, left a very strong, and sometimes visible, impression on me. 

Seven Goldsteins. That's far more than the world is fit to handle. Though each and every one of us shares an unbreakable bond, it's no secret that you, me, and Avi have always been the trio. We've spent the majority of our lives together. The stories we share are endless. From the late night talks, to the sneaking out, to the trifectas, to the inexplicably ridiculous things we've done, we've always had a relationship of optimal closeness. I would go to both of you for anything, because I know that you'll be there for me, no matter what. But with all due respect to Avi, you and I have always shared a bond of superior closeness. We're a mere fifteen months apart. You've been in the grade above me for my entire life. We took baths together. We shared a room together (well, until my late night power-ranger playing pushed you to the brink of insanity and you tragically moved out). We rode bikes together. We consoled each other when things were bad in the house. We hit each other. We hated each other. We loved each other. I somewhat feel as if you have lived my life, and I have lived yours. We've gone through our ups and our downs, but I never once doubted that you were there for me. 

Something that I've always admired about you is your ability to walk into a room of one hundred people, and walk out with ninety eight new friends. I've always strived to emulate your outgoing nature. I have never once seen you doubt yourself, nor have I seen you too afraid to generate a conversation with a complete stranger. You have this charm about you that captures the heart of every person you meet. It's that same charm that ensures me that, no matter how well you do in school, one day you will end up far more successful than anyone else I know. You are indubitably the most likable person I have ever known. 

I have to thank you for something. You've always challenged me to be the best Gabriel Goldstein I could be. When we were younger, we played basketball together. I remember you pinching my nipples, forcing me to smile when I would get down on myself or frustrated. You've always pointed out when I'm being irrational. You've always told me to straighten up and cool down. Of the multitude of factors that have motivated me to get my frustration and anger under control, your influence was one of the most integral. Considering you're the epitome of "level headed," it was easy to just act according to your example. 

Another admirable character trait of yours is your ability to always be free-spirited and jovial. Very rarely have I seen little things break your spirit, or throw your day off. You have this attitude where the world is in your hands, and you are the ever-clever king. Having you around, both in the home and at school, has added a much needed element of excitement to my life. Whether it be singing and dancing in the car ride home from school, saying ridiculous things in ridiculous voices, going on spontaneous adventures, or just hilarious, though immature flashes of insanity, we've always managed to have a great time together. While I was doing school work and obsessing over attaining perfection, you were going to sleep before sunset. Now, it's quite clear to me that we aren't entirely similar, and that will likely never be who I am, but I do wish I could take it easy and just not care about some things like you do. 

You're short. I'm relatively tall. You're bulky. I'm slim. You're perpetually lighthearted. I'm often serious. You're immeasurably outgoing. I have to exert effort to make friends. You dislike sports. I love them. School isn't really your thing. School is very much my thing. What I am getting at here is that we are essentially opposites. We share different interests, different hobbies, and different strengths. Yet, despite all of the reasons in the world to not be so close, we've managed to become what we are: inseparable. I understand that many siblings can characterize their relationships as just that, but I'm not so sure they deserve to as much as we do. So many hardships and low points in our lives have molded us together more-so than most other siblings. Despite our dissimilarities, we have managed to warm up nicely to each other. That's a testament to just how important family is to both of us. It wouldn't matter to me if you were green, mentally handicapped, and animalistic, I would still take a bullet for you. You're the one who's been right there with me through every life experience. You're the one I've always turned to. You're the one I look up to.

When people ask me who my best friends are, I always include you. For some reason, that surprises them. They ponder how my best friend could also be my brother. They often tell me how cute it is that I  said that. But I've never understood that. How is that at all cute? It's simply true. We don't have the typical little brother-big brother relationship. We are separated only by age. We feel mutually comfortable asking each other for help. We've shared great times, sad times, bad times, and euphoric times. We've always been there for each other. We've always been mere feet away. So, what is cute about that? Nothing. If I were to describe our friendship in one word, I would use "improbable." It's not often that you find brothers who get along so well - who share the same friends so smoothly. You hated the fact that I was friends with "your" friends in Junior High. But, as time went on, "your" friends became our friends. You always looked out for me during the very delicate first years of high school. You made sure to reach out to me, include me, and make sure I felt comfortable. Some of the greatest times I've ever had in school were the times we met up in the halls during class by chance. We would sit in the bathroom and mess around. Things were so simple. I feel now that I took our last year for granted. Contrary to my final year with Eli, I do have regrets in this relationship. I regret not having spent more time with you. I regret not having asked you to hang out on a regular basis. I regret not having spent my final months nagging the hell out of you until you had no choice but to be my friend.

We woke up for school one morning last year. You walked into my room and coaxed me into going back to sleep. After you told me that we'd sleep for just a few more hours, you proceeded to crawl into bed next to me. Some may find our snuggle-filled morning strange. But I think that story perfectly characterizes our relationship. We're weird. We're controversial. We're awesome. And we're really, really close. I regret not having you over for more sleepovers this past year.

Today has been so strange.

I keep waiting for you to open the door and come upstairs.

I've checked your room many times since you left. I walk in, look around, realize the depressing nothingness, choke down tears, and walk out.

Driving in your car is even a struggle.

I tried to play basketball to ease my sadness. When that didn't work, I decided to eat my pain away. I'm not going to endorse that as an appropriate coping mechanism, but it did certainly help me.

This year is going to be inexplicably strange. If we're being honest, I'm not scared; I'm terrified. I don't know what to expect without you here. I don't know who I will turn to when I need help. I don't know who to annoy when I'm bored. I don't know who to look to for guidance. I don't know if I'm ready to accept that this is how it will be from now on.

Stepping away from my pity party, I'd like to commend you. I'd like to inform you of how proud of you I am. Through everything that we've done together, you've always excelled. You've not only pushed yourself to succeed in every walk of life, but you've pushed those around you to succeed as well. You are the epitome of selfless. You have all of the characteristics of a model soldier. You are about to embark on a journey that few have the fortune of experiencing. You're about to do the most admirable thing there is. To leave your home, your family, your girlfriend, and Honey to pursue a life of superior meaning - that is something to admire. I am so proud of the person you have become. You've stared obstacles in the face, conquered them, and even ended up in Sports Illustrated.

I've always been good with words, but I don't think I will ever be able to convey how much I love you. How proud of you I truly am. How much I will miss you. You have been my role model for my entire life. And though you are moving far away, you will continue to serve as my hero. You haven't left for nothing - you've left to protect the homeland of your people. You've left to join forces with your siblings in an effort to ensure that our homeland remains our eternal homeland. You've left to do something I can only dream of doing myself.

So here is to the car rides home, the late nights spent talking, the projectile vomit, the conquering of obstacles, the baseball days, the basketball brawls, the failed cooking lessons, the bathroom hangouts, and all of the other unforgettable memories we've made together in these past seventeen years.

I'll find the strength to resurface. I'll adjust to a life without you, despite my not wanting to. But I will never forget the amazing times we've spent together. I will never stop loving you to the end of the world and back.

Thank you for helping to make me the person I am. You will always be in my heart, my mind, and my prayers. Stay safe and come home soon.

I love you.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Come StandWithUs

As I walked into the Beit Midrash for Mincha, I felt as if it was just a normal day. I was heading to my seat when I felt my phone vibrate. When I pulled it out and checked who was calling, I was taken aback by the fact that it was my brother Avi. I thought it was odd that he was calling in the middle of the week. At the time, he was finishing special forces training for his IDF unit, Orev Givati. It was uncommon for him or any soldier at that stage to make phone calls during the week. Though his calling stopped me in my tracks, I quickly picked up, expecting the same old lighthearted conversation. Looking back, that expectation was beyond naive.

Israel was in the midst of Operation Pillar of Defense, and tensions were at their peak. Troops were lined up at the border of Gaza, fully equipped and prepared to enter into an all-out land war with the Hamas-controlled Palestinians. Though I was attentively following the unfolding events at the time, I still somehow failed to register that Avi’s calling me was more than just odd. It was alarming.

I picked up his call expecting to have a quick conversation consisting of pleasantries and brotherly banter. I expected to hang up happy. But the conversation we had left me stupefied, almost speechless. Avi told me that he, too, was on the border preparing to enter Gaza. He went on to explain that the army was collecting soldiers’ phones to protect itself from militant hackers. He concluded the conversation by telling me that it was quite possibly the last one we would have for a long time. Overcome with emotions, I struggled to fight off tears as we said our goodbyes.

I’m not one who often connects to prayer. But that day was different. After our phone call, I felt more helpless than I ever had before in my life. My brother was preparing to risk his life for his country - our country. And there I was in a Beit Midrash in Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t give my body to my country. I felt I had nothing to offer. So I turned to God. As I called out to God for guidance, I felt tears streaming down my face. They made their way down my cheek and dripped onto the Siddur in my hands. The moment they splashed onto the words of Shema Koleinu, I had an epiphany. I came to the realization that I wasn’t entirely helpless.

That day motivated me to take a step back and evaluate my love for Israel. I began to think that my calling it “home” wasn’t entirely just. After all, my fellow Jews, my brother included, were risking their lives to protect our homeland. But what was I doing? Nothing.

I felt it was my duty to take it upon myself to fight the intellectual aspect of Israel’s war. I came to the decision to pursue an opportunity that would allow me not to defend my country physically, but intellectually; to defend it from anti-Israel sentiment here, in America.

Over the course of Junior year, I formed a close relationship with an employee for one of the largest, most well known Israel advocacy organizations in America: StandWithUs. When she first suggested that I pursue an internship with the acclaimed organization, I figured it would be a nice, polishing touch to my college resume. However, after feeling that helpless, I decided to pursue the internship for what I view as all of the right reasons. After that phone call, my pursuit was motivated by something far deeper than accolades. I pursued, and eventually attained, the internship because I wanted - no, because I needed to do whatever I could to defend the country I so passionately proclaim as “home.”

As part of my internship requirements, I am expected to fly to California twice a year for a conference with my fellow interns. At the first conference of the year, I was blown away by how professional and effective the StandWithUs employees were. They conducted various presentations, highlighting positive aspects of Israel, arming us with information to use when trying to win over the hearts of those who are entirely uneducated regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What I found to be most beneficial was a presentation entitled “Israel 101.” The presentation gave a very clear and concise overview of the history of the Middle East conflict. Following that presentation, I felt many personal misconceptions regarding the conflict had been resolved. Additionally, the StandWithUs team presented an array of common anti-Israel arguments, and gave us the ammunition to formulate and deliver our own counterarguments. Not only did the StandWithUs team educate us about Israel, but they imparted the tools and techniques necessary to combat anti-Israel sentiment.

While talking to the CEO of this phenomenal non-profit organization, Roz Rothstein, I was in awe at the fact that what had become such a large and influential organization was born a mere twelve years ago in the living room of a Los Angeles home. Fed up with American Jewry’s passiveness during the Second Intifada, Rothstein and her husband took it upon themselves to create an organization that would educate Americans about Israel, hoping that it would inspire even a few American Jews to act in Israel’s defense. One couple’s living room vision has grown into one of the most prominent Israel advocacy organizations in the world, with offices in London, America, and Israel. As StandWithUs grew, Rothstein’s influence reached a charitable organization called the MZ Foundation. With the MZ Foundation’s generosity and passion for Israel, it partnered with StandWithUs to create a program that recruited and trained high school students, preparing them for the often hostile anti-Israel sentiments they were to meet on college campuses. I was lucky enough to reap the benefits of Rothstein’s vision and the MZ Foundation’s passion-driven generosity.

After that phone call with Avi, I knew it was my responsibility to do whatever I could for my country. I also knew that I needed an outlet. With the help of StandWithUs, I now have the opportunity to change the way Memphians, both Jews and gentiles alike, feel about our eternal homeland. With a fiery passion for the truth, backed by an organization’s devotion to Israel advocacy, I feel as though the sky's the limit in terms of what is possible for this coming year. We owe it to the millions of soldiers that risk their lives for God’s land - our land - every day. We owe it to Avi Goldstein, Avi Thomas, Aharon Cooper, and all of the other Memphians who have so valiantly left the comfort and convenience of their homes to pursue a life of far more difficulty, yet far superior meaning. So please, come and StandWithUs.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

To My Brother

Dear Eli,

I remember chasing you around the school field when we were little kids. I forgot exactly what you'd done, but I think you wronged my brother in some way. But look how far we've come.

I remember playing basketball in your mini basketball court. I remember our biker gang. I remember the day you got your license; we all felt like the world was at our fingertips. I remember the end of tenth grade when we all marveled at the fact that we had just one year left together. I remember crying in a passionate embrace at Camp Chi. I remember graduation night, a night where sorrow turned to euphoria. I remember consoling myself, calming my worries by noting that we still had the summer left to spend together.

And I'll always remember the night I had to say goodbye.

I've said goodbye to people before. I've cried when walking away. But I've never felt quite like this. You see, this isn't just the end of our time together - it's the end of a generation. It's the end of me walking into your house to mess with you. It's the end of us changing clothes. It's the end of an era.

Man, we've done some unspeakable things. I mean, things so ridiculous and wrong that it makes me cringe to think about them. No matter what we've done together these past few years, we've always managed to have a great time. When we would all get together to hang out, I was fully confident that I would spend my night laughing my guts out. High school is sort of confusing. Whenever I think about leaving, I'm somewhat conflicted. As much as I want to move on with my life, I don't know if I'm ready to leave behind all of the amazing memories. When I recount all of the unforgettable nights I've had in high school thus far, the same people are there. You, me, Asher, Seth, and Bryan. The crew. The gang. The boys. But now we're all moving on, we're going our separate ways. And while I'm so happy for you, for all of y'all, I can't help but wish that it didn't have to be this way. I've never felt as strong of a bond as I feel with all of you guys.

I keep thinking about how strange it will be to see your car in the street without you as the driver. I can't really wrap my head around the fact that when I break into your house through your window, you won't be there anymore. No more making fun of your inexplicably small ears. No more going out for "ice cream." No more unforgettable nights.

The one bright spot I'm able to see tonight is that I don't regret anything from this past year. In your final year, we got closer. We often shifted from the childish conversations and mustered up the seriousness to talk about substantive things. We did new things, stupid things, boring things, and pointless things. We took full advantage of the remaining time we had left. And for that, I am infinitely grateful.

It's funny looking back at that day I chased you around the field. Because if someone wronged you now, I would chase them around a school field. Because you see, you've become my brother.

You've become my family.

People often tell me how far I've come despite having a difficult childhood. I've never really known how to respond. But I've always known what to think. I think about you. I think about your family. You've had it far worse than I have. And somehow you've overcome the seemingly endless obstacles in your life. Not only have you conquered everything that's been thrown at you, but you've grown into a wonderful young man. So when people tell me how amazing my overcoming the obstacles has been, I always feel they should be telling you just that. You've become a role model - somebody I consistently strive to emulate. You've become a loyal, caring, and considerate young man. I've watched you set an amazing (though not perfect) example for Simcha and Rena. And I'm always touched by how proud your mother is of you. What I've overcome pales in comparison to what you've conquered. I am merely someone who has made the best out of a bad situation. You are a true role model.

When I say that I'd do anything for you, that's not an empty statement. I really, really would. I know that few people will come along in life and show you what loyalty really means. I know that you, all of y'all, are blessings.

So saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I tried to fight back the tears, but some things are stronger than human will. As I drove away, I looked at your car - your old, beat up, crappy car. I thought about all of the amazing nights that have started in that car. I realized that, though you're leaving and an era is coming to a close, the memories we've made together will never be forgotten.

I know you're headed places. I can already see the success that you are bound to attain. Just know that throughout the next stage of your life, I will be there for you just as you've always been there for me. And trust me, you're not getting rid of me.

You will be the best man at my wedding. You will come to my first son's Bris. You will remain my brother for the rest of my life.

As I prepare to go to sleep, I'm comforted by the fact that our goodbye was perfect. The last words I'll utter to you face to face in quite some time could not have been more fitting.

"I love you."

I really do. You are my brother now and forever.