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A real mensch

Famed young adult author walks hours across London to surprise bar mitzvah boy

Responding to an appreciative tweet from Mossy Simonson’s father, award-winning poet Kwame Alexander shows up on family’s doorstep with signed books and best wishes for the big day

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Poet and author Kwame Alexander surprises bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson at his home in London, January 17, 2021. (Raymond Simonson)
    Poet and author Kwame Alexander surprises bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson at his home in London, January 17, 2021. (Raymond Simonson)
  • Kwame Alexander (Portia Wiggins Photography)
    Kwame Alexander (Portia Wiggins Photography)
  • Signed book given by author Kwame Alexander to bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson, London, January 17, 2021 (Raymond Simonson)
    Signed book given by author Kwame Alexander to bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson, London, January 17, 2021 (Raymond Simonson)
  • Signed books gifted by author Kwame Alexander to bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson, London, January 17, 2021 (Raymond Simonson)
    Signed books gifted by author Kwame Alexander to bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson, London, January 17, 2021 (Raymond Simonson)

London 8th grader Mossy Simonson recently got a surprise bar mitzvah gift he’ll never forget. On January 17, famed American author Kwame Alexander unexpectedly showed up at his door to personally wish him “mazel tov.”

It was a happy, socially-distance ambush planned by Alexander in response to a tweet by Mossy’s father Raymond Simonson about the impact Alexander’s books have had on Mossy.

Dear @kwamealexander– my son is a white British Jewish 12yr old Londoner. I wanted to tell you how much your books[…]have touched + moved him[…]The characters couldn’t be further from his life + experiences, yet he identifies so strongly. We’re preparing for his Bar Mitzvah end Jan + he’s just asked if he can include a reading from ‘Rebound’ in his service,” Simonson messaged.

“I just happened to see Raymond’s tweet and was moved by it, and I try to surprise readers when I can. During the COVID lockdown I’ve been walking for exercise, so I made Mossy’s house my destination that day and walked the seven miles to get there,” Alexander told The Times of Israel.

Posted by Kwame Alexander on Sunday, January 17, 2021

Mossy and his family had no idea that Alexander had been living in London for the last couple of years.

“I was shocked and lost for words. I was so confused… It was just so unexpected. I assumed he lived in America. It was so nice that he walked two hours just for one person out of the millions who have read his books,” Mossy said.

Alexander, who writes mainly poetry, is the bestselling author of 32 books. He has focused on children’s and young adult literature since 2010, and won the 2015 Newbery medal for his middle-grade novel in verse, “The Crossover.”

It was that book that turned Mossy, a footballer and reader, onto Alexander’s writing. He liked the author’s poetic style, which he said was “cool” and made it easier to understand the book.

‘The Crossover’ (graphic novel adaptation) by Kwame Alexander (Andersen Press Ltd)

“In 7th grade we had a thing where we could take a book home from the library and keep it. After reading all the blurbs, I thought ‘The Crossover’  would be interesting. I read it and really like it. And then this Hanukkah my parents gave me ‘Rebound,’ which is the follow-up, and also some other ones by Kwame,” Mossy said.

Alexander, also an educator, poet in residence at National Public Radio (NPR) and literacy advocate, said he loves surprising kids. It’s not only for the joy it brings them, but also for the way it fuels his own efforts to “change the world one word at a time.”

“We were all kind of struggling in lockdown and feeling a bit tired. The whole house was lifted by one act of kindness by a stranger who feels like a friend now,” Mossy’s dad said.

According to Simonson, who is CEO of London’s JW3 Jewish community center, Alexander’s books have been an excellent resource this past year, in which social justice has been in the headlines.

“When there was this outpouring after George Floyd, we talked about it with our kids. We kind of realized almost all their books are written by white authors, and almost all of the characters are white. It threw us a bit, and that’s why we encouraged them to read more varied literature,” Simonson said.

‘Rebound’ by Kwame Alexander Kwame Alexander (Andersen Press Ltd)

For Mossy, who cares about social justice issues like racial equality and nutritional insecurity (he is raising money for JW3’s food bank as his bar mitzvah project), books such as ‘The Crossover” and “Rebound” are valuable.

“They’re about teenagers, so they are relevant to my age. The characters are Black people. Right now there’s the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important to read these kind of books to get a perspective on these boys and how they live their lives,” he said.  

Alexander, who believes works of literature should be both “mirrors and windows” for readers, is not at all surprised by the universal appeal of his books.

“The fact that Mossy likes my books reaffirms what I have always known, namely that kids aren’t the problem. They get it. Books don’t segregate themselves, adults do,” he said.

“Of course Mossy connected to the characters in ‘The Crossover.’ Like him, they are kids who love, laugh, think and have families,” he said.

The Simonson family (which also includes mom Helene, an NHS psychiatric nurse,  and 9-year-old Libby) planned months ago that Mossy’s January 30 bar mitzvah would be online, regardless of the state of the coronavirus pandemic. It would have been legally possible to stream the service via Zoom from an empty sanctuary at the Finchley Reform Synagogue in North London. However, the decision was made to do it from home to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Poet and author Kwame Alexander surprises bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson at his home in London, January 17, 2021. (Raymond Simonson)

“We will have a Torah here on a big dining table in our kitchen, and Mossy will read his portion and give his d’var Torah [speech] as some 120 households Zoom in, and even more watch via Facebook,” Simonson said.

Mossy’s reading of a selection from Alexander’s “Rebound” will take place as part of an online Havdallah celebration that evening marking the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week. The Simonsons prepared and delivered Havdallah packages containing braided candles (made by Libby), wine, grape juice, spices, and celebratory treats to local friends and family who will join in by Zoom. The packages also include a booklet with the various blessings and readings for the ceremony.

“When my parents asked me to choose something to include, I wanted to find a quote about doing something with your life and being the best version of you and not trying to be anyone who you are not. I remembered a quote like that from ‘Rebound'” Mossy said.

Signed book given by author Kwame Alexander to bar mitzvah boy Mossy Simonson, London, January 17, 2021 (Raymond Simonson)

On his visit, Alexander showed up with a gift of three autographed books for Mossy. Simonson repeatedly told him that he is a real mensch for what he did.

“I had no idea what a mensch was,” Alexander told The Times of Israel.

“I had to ask my Jewish agent what the word meant. She said it was the opposite of a putz,” he said.

Did he know what that meant?

“Of course. I’ve watched Seinfeld,” Alexander said.

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