Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bar Mitzvah

In a few hours my baby will become a man. Well, at least in the eyes of the Jewish community he will and today that's enough for me.

The Ancients were so right when they chose 13 as the threshold year. I saw it seven years ago with Harry. At 13 something really does shift. A seriousness, a bit more of an awareness of the weight of the world comes over them. Today marks that passage, the beginning of a shift out of the innocence of childhood.

(I must admit, I saw this happen with Ben much earlier, whether because of his nature or because of his life experience. He had decided, at 11, not to go through the Bar Mitzvah process and we supported that, feeling he'd already had his own rite of passage. But all that's another story for another day. Today is Toby's story.)

Toby has worked incredibly hard for this day. I remember several months ago when he and I first sat down at the computer to listen to his parsha, his Torah portion, chanted in Hebrew by the computer voice of "Trope Trainer." (And here's a plug for Trope Trainer: amazing way to learn your parsha! Five stars!) I read along with the musical notation and the Hebrew as the computer voice sang, "Vay'hi mi ma hora..." in its robotic twang. Toby's eyes got bigger and bigger. I remember thinking, "Oh gawd. This is huge. This is HUGE." I wondered if we'd started this process too early. "Why didn't we wait, give him more time? Is he ready for this?"

This is a rite of passage and since the beginning of my people's history, or at least early on, it was marked by this event: a boy of 13 standing at the front of his community, reading from the holy scrolls telling his people's story, leading them in the Sabbath prayers before God, learning and then carrying on the tradition of his father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and going forth to be a responsible part of that community, that tribe. (In recent times girls have been given the opportunity to also hold that place, and that's called Bat Mitzvah.)

Today Toby will lead our Shabbat service, give the sermon based on the week's Torah portion (the same section being read by Jews in every synagogue on the planet), and read that portion from the Torah. This last part, is no doubt the hardest, as the Torah must be chanted, in a particular melody, and it is written in Hebrew with no vowels and no punctuation.

Toby has been working on the entire process for years, but specifically with tutoring and daily practice for months. That day we sat and listened to the computer program chanting his part to us, we both woke up. This is BIG. This is going to take hard work. I think we both gulped.

But he did it. He worked so hard, harder than he's ever worked on anything. He never complained, well rarely, anyways. I didn't have to cajole or bribe him. This was his work to do. And he came to it willingly with determination.

A month ago he was ready. He knew all the prayers, had his sermon down, and could chant his Torah portion perfectly.

"You could have your Bar Mitzvah tomorrow!" I told him.

"I'm not emotionally prepared," he said to me.

For days this week he's had trouble sleeping. Was so nervous he couldn't eat. He put my hand on his chest yesterday after he woke up to feel his pounding heart. Last night at Friday night services (in which he was to chant only two prayers) he told me he thought he was going to faint. But once he stepped onto the stage (called the bimah in Hebrew) and started to sing the first words in Hebrew, I could see he had confidence. I could see he was emotionally prepared.

And last night at 10 pm he came upstairs to say goodnight, happy, content, and so very calm. It was wonderful to see him back in himself again. And knowing he would have a good night's sleep, I was able to have one, too.

Today isn't just his big day, I might add. It's also a big day for each of us in our family. For me and Mark it's a love fest. Friends and family are coming from afar to witness this event. It is a rite of passage in an age when that has mostly been lost in our culture. For many of our friends this is their first time attending a Bar Mitzvah and they are excited to be there. Tribal rituals are fascinating, and moving, and so important. I feel so lucky that my tribe still has them.

For the grandmas (and aunts and uncles and cousins), there's, as they say in Yiddish: nachus, or kvelling, or good ole soul-stirring pride and joy. For the big brothers there's a certain awe in their little brother. He's big now. He's catching up.

It's truly an event as big or even bigger than a wedding, in some ways. Not just because there's a religious service and then a big party (actually two parties!), presents, and cake, and singing and dancing. It's big because it's about something that Mark and I created together: our family. When we got married, it was a blissful, amazing day, full of our best friends and family, speeches, hugs, dancing. But when Harry had his Bar Mitzvah over six years ago it was so much bigger. It was the friend pool we had grown as a couple and a family. Our family was bigger. Our community was bigger. Today it's even more so, because we're that much farther along in our lives together.

I almost forgot to mention that one thing making this day significant is that I will be officiating, as the cantorial soloist, or spiritual musical leader, at Toby's service. It's something I've done many times over the past year as our synagogue searched for a new "official" cantor. It's something I've really enjoyed doing. But, since we have a new cantor now, I hadn't planned to lead Toby's Bar Mitzvah. And then a few months ago he told me he wanted me to do it.

I declined. "But Cantor David has such a beautiful voice and he's so nice!"

"You have a beautiful voice, Mom," he told me. Did I mention how sweet this boy is?

"But, it's his job!" I protested.

"Why would you do it for other kids and not for me?" he asked, getting to the heart of the matter.

And a week later I was on the bimah (filling in for Cantor David who couldn't officiate at that Bat Mitzvah because his wife had just had a baby) and I looked at Toby sitting with his class and thought, "Yeah, why would I do this for another child and not for my own son?"

"Okay, I'll do it," I told him later that day. And he beamed.

So, today is our show. My youngest son's and mine. It'll really mostly be us up on the bimah, chanting, singing and marking a rite of passage in view of all our loved ones.

Here's to a blessed day!


Kathleen said...

Such a beautiful post. An exciting passage indeed for you all. Sending smiles, peace and tons of love your way today Susie. love you oxo

bodegalee said...

Such a beautiful post and such a beautiful ceremony. I have only been to a few Bar Mitzvahs, but as an adult, a parent.... witnessing a child I hold in such high esteem, make this passage into adult-hood, was incredibly touching! Toby was remarkable and I was captivated. And not just by him but the entire ceremony.. his loving family, his beautiful and talented mom who has way more talent than I ever knew (Susie.. wow.. what a voice!)! It was truly a special day (one that continues tonight and wishing we could be there). Alex and I are feeling so very fortunate that we were able to share in this time with you. Thanks for including us!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post Susie. You're so right about tradition and rites of passage. It's wonderful to see that there are people who still value and practice them. I'm very happy for Toby (and you!). God bless you all :))