My son just became a man. Thousands of years of cultural, religious and spiritual tradition have led my son to this point. I am close to tears as I even think about it right now.
For the better part of the last year, my son has been learning with a Bar Mitzvah tutor who also happens to be my lawyer (only in L.A.), building on the years of Hebrew and Hebrew studies he has been learning with a lovely modern Orthodox woman who happens to be my lawyer’s cousin.
My FirstBorn has been learning to chant the portion of the Old Testament, which is “his” Torah portion since it is read the same time every year including the time of year he was born, which is now. The Torah is chanted in a specific melody, which is beautiful and complicated. He has a lovely voice, and even though he is not a native Hebrew speaker, he is working so hard at getting all of the pronunciations perfect. I also taught him to chant, as it’s something I was taught when I became a Jewish woman at the ripe old age of 13. The learning stayed with me and I keep it up. I still chant every year during Yom Kippur, and it was thrilling to teach my son these ancient melodies.
My son is, I am told, a “typical” first born. He is very rule-oriented and meticulous. He is also the child of two of the most rule-oriented meticulous adults you’ll ever know, so the kid didn’t even have a chance. That being said, he seems to really be enjoying the learning. He has taken to Talmudic analysis courageously, and he is studying thousands of years of Torah commentary that sometimes makes his head feel like it’s going to explode. A Bar Mitzvah boy is not only chanting words. He is learning to think the way Jewish people think: through dialectical discourse, philosophical treatise, and spiritual mystical profundity.
The preparations for a Bar Mitzvah feel a bit like planning a wedding. Invitations must be sent and decisions made: Who do we invite? What color invitation? What font? And where do people RSVP and to which of us? There are balloons to be discussed and decorations. Maybe even a theme! Everyone needs to wear extra fancy clothes (my girlfriends unanimously decided I was not allowed to wear anything from Target since I wear Target clothes pretty much every day). My son also needed a tallis (prayer shawl) and a set of—wait for it—phylacteries. Yes, phylacteries.
We call them t’fillin. The Torah says to bind the words we are taught “as a sign upon your hand and let them be for frontlets between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” So the second part is why we hang mezuzahs up. The first part was turned into these boxes that traditional men (less so women) wrap on their forehead and arm every morning except on the Sabbath. A t’fillin set is an expensive and significant item for a young man to acquire. This summer, we drove deep into the West Bank in Israel and visited a scribe (sofer) who showed us how they make t’fillin. My son now has his own set, which he has learned to put on the way my Grandfather did daily for my whole life. Powerful stuff, this generational thing.
FirstBorn also wrote a speech, which I admit I helped him with. We took all of his reflections on his learnings (in his words) and I waved my magic child-of-English-teachers wand and weaved it into the story he wants to tell our guests. It includes a synopsis of his Torah portion, his take on Gd’s perfection, and a brief explanation of his questioning of Gd’s existence. When he told me and his father he wasn’t sure if a deity exists, we didn’t flinch. My ex said, “Welcome to the club” and I said, “Take a number.” I think he was worried he wouldn’t “pass the test” if he questioned Gd’s existence. I told him many great thinkers and Rabbis have done the same and that his Jewish identity is not predicated on belief in Gd. It is predicated on a monotheistic acceptance of the yoke of our people under a Force in the Universe greater than he is. This satisfied him greatly.
He has a suit I got on sale at Overstock, and I forgot my DSW coupon when we went to get his little dress shoes, but I’ll get over it. I tried on 1,000 dresses that I ordered online and am sort of happy with what I will be wearing. Because we are religiously minded in a Jewish law kind of way, we won’t be taking pictures on the Sabbath when his Bar Mitzvah is; we will take posed pictures a few days before all dressed up as if it’s the big day. We did the same for my Bat Mitzvah, too. So I’ll for sure have pictures to show you.
The theme is “milk and honey,” which is not much of a theme, I admit it. But that’s what he chose. So. Gold and white balloons. Gold and white programs (we call them “benschers” in Yiddish); these contain his Torah portion as well as the blessings we say after meals when we “bensch” and thank the Force for giving us sustenance and all of our blessings. Centerpieces are clear glass “milk” bottles with gold sand in them and pictures of our family in each one sticking out. Simple. Easy. Low drama.
I’m nervous about everything. I’m nervous about all of the family coming in and hoping they all enjoy the Shabbat meal I am making for them the night before the Bar Mitzvah. Nervous I am going to cry off all of my makeup because seeing my FirstBorn in a suit and tallis chanting is just so unbelievably beautiful to me. His questioning of our faith is beautiful. His voice is beautiful. The fact that my ex and I can do this together (mostly) lovingly is beautiful. (I shouted at him once and immediately apologized.)
This rite of passage is my son’s entrance into manhood. He can be counted in a prayer quorum, a minyan. And he will take on fasting on fasting days with his mama. My boy has grown up. And it’s time to release him into a new phase of his existence.
Here is the blessing his father and I will recite for him on the day. It is a Rabbi’s blessing from the 3rd century for his students. Rabbi Ammi said:
May you live to see your world fulfilled. May your destiny be for worlds still to come, and may you trust in generations past and yet to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition and your words be filled with insight. May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue and your vision be a straight path before you. May your eyes shine with the light of holy words and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your cherished hopes be fulfilled in your lifetime; May you be worthy of life eternal; And may your ideals persist throughout the generations; May your heart be filled with understanding; May your mouth speak wisdom; And may your tongue give expression to song.
May your eyes direct you straight forward; May they shine with the light of Torah; and may your countenance be as radiant as the bright firmament. May your lips speak knowledge and righteousness; And may your feet swiftly take you to places where the words of God are heard.
I’ll report back after the event with all of the juicy details…tune in!