My defining moments came in 1994 and 1999, when each of my sons celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah. The tradition of the Bar Mitzvah celebration is that it is the day when a boy becomes a man. At age 13, that was not exactly true for either of them, but for me, it was the first time I saw each boy as an independent, self-sustaining, accomplished, brave, confident human being. Without question, these were the two happiest days of my life.
I did not go to Hebrew school as a girl, even though I wanted to. It was expensive and my parents sent only my brother, not my sister or me. My brother did have a Bar Mitzvah celebration. As I got older, I found a way to go to some Hebrew high school classes for free, but the ship had sailed. I never learned Hebrew, and when I went to overnight camp sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, my friends had to teach me the required prayers phonetically. I was very sad about that.
For that reason, I really wanted my children to go to Hebrew school, so they would know those prayers by heart, as I always wished I did at every service I attended. Although my marriage was interfaith, my then-husband was very supportive of my wishes and so the children went: Sunday mornings and one afternoon a week for about 5 years each. They HATED it, really hated it. But they went.
The service during which a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah is held on Saturday morning. In the audience are people who have been invited to the party that follows the service, so that means family members, the parents’ friends, and the Bar Mitzvah boy’s friends – kids his age, from school or camp or the neighborhood. The boy of the hour has to chant Hebrew and sing various prayers all by himself, in front of everyone. And he’s 13, with an unpredictable puberty-inflected voice. Oy!
Leading up to this momentous day, there are months of intense practice with the rabbi and the cantor (he’s the guy who sings at Jewish services). The Hebrew the boys read is written on the Torah, an ancient document that is even harder to read than regular Hebrew. Essentially, the kid has to memorize the whole service, which is almost 2 hours long. Since I didn’t know Hebrew, I couldn’t even help them!
I think it’s clear that this is some amazing feat for anyone to accomplish, much less a new teenager. On top of everything else, they are expected to perform a mitzvah, which is a combination of a commandment and a good deed, so as not to lose sight of the meaning of the occasion and remember that’s it’s more than a party where you get a lot of presents. I loved the concept, as my children were not naturally socially generous or compassionate, and I thought it was a good opportunity to learn. One son tutored children at his former elementary school while his school was on spring break. The other son adopted a shelter dog.
On the day of the service, my sons were dressed in suits and ties. That alone was enough to reduce me to tears. When each boy stood up on the altar and began to chant Hebrew, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. I knew they had studied and rehearsed, but I had never seen either of them in action. It was really impressive.
So why was it a defining moment? It was the first time I really got it that they could do something amazing on their own, with no help from me, with no queries of “Mom? Where’s the torah?” or “Mom? What do I do next?” They could do this thing that I had no clue how to do. It was solid evidence of each boy’s separate independent life and each boy’s own accomplishment.
Not to sugarcoat things, they were each extremely anxious prior to the Big Day – so much so that I offered to cancel the whole deal several times. It wasn’t worth it to see either of my sons have a meltdown. I think that by being given that out, they realized how hard they had worked and were able to acknowledge that they wanted to complete the effort.
This was a test of character: the ability to do something that wasn’t fun, over a long period of time, and stand up before the world to perform a religious service in a difficult language. How do our children learn to push through difficult tasks? How do they come to understand the concept of deferred gratification? I still ponder this all the time, but on each of those Bar Mitzvah days, I saw that my kids had learned those life lessons.
And finally, when it was done, they felt pride. My pride was off the charts, but so was my sense of wonder. They really did it, all by themselves.