By David Bornstein
The Good Word 

Walking with ghosts


November 2, 2018

Our youngest, now midway through his first semester of college, has made a rapid and positive transition to his new life. Friends, classes, study time and party time all seem to have fallen into place. And we find ourselves adjusting as well to our quieter space and a slower pace, and as much as I still don’t like the emptiness, and infinitely prefer his presence to his absence, there is also the inevitability of the situation—the growth into adulthood and separation and individuation we all want for our children. There is no halting time, no looking back.


We are experiencing what many college alums go through if and when their children attend their alma mater, though perhaps we are in a bit more of a minority—the parents of a child who returns to the college they attended 1,000 miles and many distant, unvisited years away.

My wife and I met at the University of Michigan, but in the years since we left Ann Arbor and moved to Orlando (1985) we had visited exactly three times, and all in the first seven years. So when our son showed an interest in Big Blue, and his older brother expressed his desire to see a football game at the Big House, we visited for the first time in nearly 25 years. It felt both cathartic and surprising. Cathartic in the sense of joy I experienced re-encountering old haunts, rekindling old friendships, recalling the adventures (and misadventures), the stimulation and profound emotional leaps I made as I learned how to be myself, how to evaluate and independently make both positive and negative decisions, and how to find and keep love.

I also experienced the strangest sense of brain-opening surprise as synapses sparked and memories I had completely forgotten, places I didn’t know I still knew flashed back into existence: The houses on that street I lived on; That walk to Burns Park with my great dog Clare; That place in the Arb where I sat when I needed to regroup. All had disappeared and now were suddenly alive again.

But what was most amazing to me (and this didn’t occur until Gabriel and I returned by ourselves for student and parent orientation), were the moments when I saw myself as I was at 21 or 22 or 23 years old, with everything so raw and nerves exposed and my life ahead crackling like a bonfire at the onset of fall. I recalled what it felt like to experience so much for the first time, and I hadn’t thought about that in decades. I walked with a ghost of myself—a different self but still me—much younger (and with a big Jewfro on my head), naïve in some ways, unnecessarily cynical in others, but always teetering on the sharp edge of wonder, eyes open to the changing seasons, feeling the intensity of the short-lived affairs, the countless broken hearts and imagined romances, the sounds of the Burton Tower carillon bells calling me back to a moment when everything possible existed all at once.

In some ways I couldn’t have asked for a better college experience for my boy, or more meaning out of nowhere for me. And yet.

Yet it has forced me to ask where else I can find this sort of awakening in my life, this eye-popping rebirth, this renewal of joy and wonder and experience. And I have realized, in some small ways, some incomplete, imperfect, but nonetheless important ways, I can find pieces of that meaning in my Judaism.

When I light a yahrzeit candle I remember not only my parents and sibling who have passed away, but who I was and how I was with them. I reconnect with the all-embracing, protective shield my mother and father placed around me when I was little, the sense that here, at least, I would never doubt love, support, and faith in myself. I recall playing marbles in the living room and swimming in our pool and fishing at my aunt’s house with my brother. When I say the mourner’s kaddish I feel the same. When I celebrate holidays with my children I’m a child once again. And when I wear a yarmulke or tallit, or light candles on Shabbat, or think about my grandfather’s off-key davening and off-kilter jokes, I participate in my past, my childhood, and the past and childhood of near-countless generations.

We are all, as Jews, as human beings, as individuals and as a community, given these opportunities to remember, to connect, to walk with ghosts.

And that’s the good word.

Until next time, feel free to email the Heritage or connect with me at


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