DEAR Danny, I received your letter of thanks to me, ``My very esteemed uncle David,'' for the book I sent you on your birthday. This is the first full-page letter you have ever written me, and it gave me great happiness.
You are very welcome for the book, Danny. There is an old rabbinical saying: ``Three possessions should you prize: a field, a friend, and a book.'' I would only add, not necessarily in that order. Sometimes a book comes first. Sometimes a book, when you are lonely, can even be a friend. A best friend.
I was not always so enlightened about books. When I was a very small boy, Danny, I lived in a house where there were many bookcases filled to overflowing with books. One day I noticed, for the first time, something that books in bookcases have always done, and always will do - they turn their backs on you! And you know what I thought? I thought that they were mad at me, the books; that somehow I had offended them. It took me several hours of solemn yet hopeful thinking to realize that I was imagining the whole thing. Books didn't have feelings, like people. They were the keepers of our feelings and thoughts, and bookcases were where we protected them.
Officially, since your mama and I are sister and brother, I am your uncle, and I am very proud of this distinction. It is the first time for me, and it gives me that feeling that I am part of something important and beautiful; something that can only get better and better. I could almost imagine a statue of myself looking famously pleased. But I note that your middle name is David, and so I think of myself not only as your uncle but as your fellow sharer of the name. It makes me feel even closer to you.
So, you are 12 years old, Danny, almost Bar Mitzvah already. I will say of 12 what my grandfather once said of 13, that it is ``a sweet hilltop of an age. Everywhere you look, no matter how far, is life, and it all belongs to you.''
When I was your age - and this was when your mama was just a little girl - we lived with our parents in an old wood-frame house that we loved very much. Even on dark days it seemed to glow with a cheerful light, as if from sheer character. Your mama and I liked to walk around and around it, running our fingers along the wood. We were fortunate neither of us ever got a single splinter. Your mama talked to the house as if it were one of her dolls. I sang songs to the skittery bugs that lived in the cracks of the wood. At night, when there was a fire in the fireplace, the smoke puffed out of the chimney in the shape of the soft felt hats that the Hasidim in our neighborhood wore. These hats drifted up and up and up, toward the stars. In my dreams I saw stars with Hasidic hats on.
Across the street was a field - remember the rabbinical saying? - where your mama and I used to play. When it rained, the field, mostly dirt, went all pitted with drops and then turned muddy. We used to wade in the mud in our bare feet, pretending we were enjoying ourselves at a fancy seashore. After the rain there were puddles to crouch down and look at. Your mama loved the ones that shined like the affectionate eyes of a beloved dog. I loved the ones that caught light and danced with it. Your mama loved stillness, and I loved motion.
Every Sabbath we would have a nice supper with our parents at a table lit with candles. Once a guest ate with us, an old scholar who wandered from the study house of one synagogue to another. He sat across the table from your mama and me, a tiny man in worn garments, and between nibbles silently read to himself from a book that was one of many he carried with him on his wanderings. His beard, long silver, swept back and forth across its pages, like a little broom keeping them clean and clear. He was a man whose books had become his voice, and whose silence his prayer.
After supper he went and lay down on the sofa in the living room, just as if he were a regular member of our family, our lives, and fell asleep. But for his beard he would have looked like a child taking a nap. The simplicity, modesty, and humbleness of the man sent a soft glow into every corner.
When he awoke after just a little while, your mama and I were allowed to escort him to the room that had been prepared for him. As we said good night, he did an astonishing, a luminous, thing. He gently put one hand on your mama's head, and one hand on mine, and gave us each a silent blessing, like none we had ever received before.
To this day I can feel his blessing in my hair, his expression of the love he felt for a child. It is written, and it is true, that in everyone is something precious, which is in no one else. I think, with his blessing, this man wanted to encourage what was hidden in your mama and in me, what I alone possessed and what she alone possessed. May you receive your own special blessing, Danny.
Please give my love to your mama and papa and yourself. And when you read your book and books, think sometimes of your uncle and fellow David, and be glad for the joy you have given his life.