Aaron walked into our lives on the day of my next-to-youngest son’s bar mitzvah. The services and the Kiddush reception were over; I was cleaning up, shoving plates of half-eaten cakes I’d baked myself into garbage bags, when he turned up on the arm of Shimon, one of our guests. “We can’t have Aaron for lunch. Maybe you could,” Shimon said.
“Sure,” I answered. I’d never hosted Aaron before, but it felt right. Hosting guests, especially challenging ones, was an old Jewish tradition and a mitzvah. Lots of my neighbors did it all the time: Shimon, of course, and also Jenny, who served meals to Eda, a chronically depressed woman who didn’t seem to bathe. At least Aaron was nattily dressed and clean.
I didn’t know Aaron, but I’d seen him and I knew his story. It was every parent’s worst nightmare. Thirty years ago, Aaron was born healthy. At age 3 he grew a brain tumor. The doctor removed it and saved his life, but after that he was different, out of sync. He never married, never had children, never held a paying job. He lived at home like a child, which in some ways he was.
The Jewish mystics say that people like Aaron are elevated souls, too holy for our grim and dirty world. With Aaron the holiness was evident. As soon as he sat down at our table, he began to sing, in his rich baritone voice, not pop songs or hip-hop, but the Sabbath zmiros, the exquisite Sabbath-table hymns of praise, penned by the Jewish poets of medieval Spain.
I loved the zmiros, but my family didn’t always sing them. That week, however, the bar mitzvah Sabbath, I wanted everyone around the table to sing con brio. Now, Aaron had arrived to answer my prayers. When he sang, everyone joined him. How could we not?
Aaron brought us another gift, too. As the 10th man at the table — in Jewish law, Aaron is a man — we were able to recite a special version of the bentshing, the grace after meals.
After that, Aaron became our guest. He never called or emailed or texted to announce his arrival. Nor did we contact him. He just came.
Sometimes he brought news — not current events or celebrity gossip or even sports scores. Aaron never watched TV, never listened to the radio, never surfed the Internet. Aaron’s big news was that he received a new keychain for his collection: He wore at least two dozen, some with Magen Davids, others with menorahs or mezuzahs attached. They dangled from his belt like a huge ball.
Another “news” item was a d’var Torah. Aaron’s divrei Torah were the kinds of things that kids learn in kindergarten, but when he repeated them his light-blue eyes shone like pale sapphires, and his sallow face lit up with a broad grin.