June 16, 2019

Cyberstalking Akiva and the Kippah Snafu

t’s the day after Yair’s bar mitzvah, the day after the one and only day that’s been on our emotional and organizational calendar for the last few months. For the first time in weeks there isn’t much to do, aside from watching the montage over and over and basking in the unexpectedly intense pride and wonderment of the day before.

So my husband Alex and I decide it’s a good time to cyberstalk.

We are going to find Amanda and Akiva, stars of our very own kippah snafu.

The afternoon before, toward the end of our daylong festivities, one of Yair’s friends pointed out that the silver-embossed black suede kippot we were handing out to our guests said “Wedding of Amanda and Akiva, August 2, 2009.”

Huh.

We had checked the kippot when UPS delivered our order from an online retailer, and ascertained that they had been printed correctly with “Bar Mitzvah of Yair Zvi Fax, Aug. 9, 2009.” But apparently some also celebrated Amanda and Akiva.

It was a small hiccup in an otherwise grandparent-perfect day, so we chose to get a good laugh out of it.

But now, it’s the day after, and we are curious, and we are giddy, and the grandparents and great-grandparents are all hanging out with us at home, so why not have some good cyber-sleuthing family fun?

We find no Amanda and Akiva on onlysimchas.com, so we start Googling various combinations of the words Amanda, Akiva, wedding, marriage and Aug. 2. That’s pretty much all we have to go on, but it’s more than, say, “Wedding of David and Rachel.”

It takes a few tries before we hit a Bed, Bath & Beyond registry for Akiva Zablocki and Amanda Jaffe. Our search just got easier.

We check Facebook, and there are several Amanda Jaffes, and an “Akiva Zablocki U ARE MY SUPERHERO!” fan page. There is a sketch of a young man with an eye patch, and the profile reads: “He is a legend, a pirate and an inspiration.” The page invites us to read more details on Akiva’s blog.

So we do.

Akiva was born in the United States and grew up in Jerusalem. He served three years in the Israeli army, then moved back to the States and attended Columbia University, where he was elected senior class president. He was leading a Birthright trip to Israel in 2005, the summer before senior year, when he started seeing double.

An MRI found a tumor in his brainstem, which he soon found out was growing quickly and which doctors back in New York said they would be unable to remove.

While Akiva’s doctors told him radiation was the only option, and not a promising one, he and his family found a doctor in Arizona who said the risks were considerable, but he would operate. Akiva’s other doctors told him the Arizona doctor was a cowboy. They told him not to do it.

Akiva did it.

He woke up from the surgery without feeling in half his body and paralyzed on the right side of his face. But after months of therapy, he not only regained feeling in his body and relearned to walk and swallow and bake brownies, he also returned to Columbia. His senior year stretched over two years, and he graduated and finished his tenure as class president. In that final year he also worked up the courage to ask out Amanda, whom he had been eyeing for years.

That summer he led another Birthright trip, where he climbed Masada once again.

And here we run into him, three years later, at his wedding.

I contact Akiva on Facebook, telling him we have his kippot.

He responds: “If you still have the kippahs, I would love to get them from you somehow, since we ran out at the wedding and neither ourselves or our family were able to snag any.”

I tell him I will gladly send the remaining kippot with my sister-in-law, who lives in New York (we later find out she lives two buildings over from them).

And I add, “While we were cyberstalking you to figure out who you were (mostly on a lark), we saw your blog and read about your incredible, inspiring story. We feel cosmically privileged to be accidentally connected with your simcha … My son, Yair, was so taken with your story he would like to contribute some of his bar mitzvah money to the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation in your honor.”

Akiva responds: “Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for your kind wishes. It has been an extraordinary journey these past few years, and I am thankful that I get to live ‘happily ever after’ now with Amanda. Please thank Yair for his generous gift to CBTF. I am glad I was able to inspire him and wish him all the best.”

Oh, and, by the way, he asks, how exactly did we find them?

And, I ask myself, why did we find them?

We always knew the bar mitzvah would be a day of connections. When Yair led prayers and chanted his Torah portion, his link to his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather — who stood on the bimah with him leading parts of the service — was so tangible that you could almost see a chain stretching back from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Ukraine to Sinai.

On the bar mitzvah day, that chain, that web of our heritage pulled together everyone in our lives into a tight circle around us. And it also pulled in Amanda and Akiva, people we didn’t yet know but soon would, thanks to a mixed-up kippot order and Google and Facebook.

I called Akiva recently to find out what he’s been up to for the last few years.

Aside from marrying Amanda, he graduated with a master’s from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. He had been planning to go into finances, but after his experience decided to enter a field where he could help connect patients with the best possible care. He now works as a health care consultant. The right side of his face is still paralyzed, and he wears an eyepatch because he sees double.

He takes his responsibility as a survivor seriously, sharing his story whenever he can and sitting on the board of the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, where he heads up the organization’s young professionals division.

Yair went online to make his donation to the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, to a page Akiva had set up to raise money for the organization’s Big Apple Circus, where patients get a private audience at the circus and the proceeds go to research.

In the comments section, Yair wrote:

“In honor of your wedding kippahs we received for my bar mitzvah in L.A.”

Akiva wrote back, thanking Yair for his support.

“I am really glad that you found me and that we made this connection. If there is ever anything I can do for you guys just let me know.”

I think he already has.

To read Akiva’s blog, visit