Three months after my wife lost her 39-year-old son to a tragic accident, a family member gave her a special gift – a custom-made chain necklace with a gold star. Embedded in the star was an off-center diamond. John, her son, “was a star,” the family member told her. That was many months ago, and my wife wears that necklace to this day.

That gift got me thinking about a necklace I received from my stepfather when I was a teenager growing up in Las Vegas. He was a musician, a very funny guy and a Jew. Not an observant Jew, but what I would call a cultural Jew. He spoke Yiddish, cooked latkes with applesauce and sour cream and wore a mezuzah around his neck. For my 16th birthday he presented me with a gold, custom-made chai necklace.

“Chai” is the Hebrew symbol for the number 18, and a cultural-religious symbol for “life.”

At the time, my summer job was lifeguarding at Caesars Palace Hotel. When Jewish pool guests spotted this obvious “goy boy” wearing a chai necklace, they would stop me and interrogate me. Did I know what I was wearing? Did I know what it meant? I proudly told them I did. I wore that necklace for several years. Then, in college, I took it off one day and put it away. Not for any good reason. I guess I just got tired of wearing it.

Now, 45 years later, I was thinking about that necklace. Maybe it was the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. Maybe it was John’s untimely death. Maybe it was the necklace gift that meant so much to my wife. For whatever reason, I decided to wear it again. Perhaps just to celebrate life over death. In a way, to start over.

Putting the necklace around my neck brought a flood of memories. When I lived in Vegas, in the ’60s and ’70s, the city was only about 200,000 people, far from the 1.5 million souls who reside there now. The town (as we called it) had a triumvirate power structure – Jews dominated the entertainment business, Mormons provided most of the professional services and gangsters ran the hotel casinos. You grew up fast in Vegas, and you developed a superficial sophistication that crumbled when you experienced a real American city, like Chicago or Boston or New York.

It seems humans are hardwired to seek meaning in their lives. Homo sapiens are not only tool makers, we are symbol creators. We attach special meaning to all kinds of objects, strange and common, natural and manmade, precious and junk: jewelry, buildings, gravestones, trees, mountains, planets – even our cars and clothing. This odd collection of things, imbued with deeper meanings by our symbolic nature, somehow has the power to comfort and console us.

Wearing my chai necklace made me feel better, in solidarity with my stepfather’s tribe and at peace with my deceased stepson.

There’s a famous Jewish toast: “L’Chaim!”

It means: “To life!” Symbolically starting over.

filed under: