I have taught and tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students for twenty-two years. I have pushed and pulled, kvelled and kvetched, cajoled and bribed;, stood on my head to inspire kids to study. I have calmed down nervous parents, mediated among toxically angry members of shattered families, cracked up rabbis and kids with laughter in order to help hundreds of kids and three classes of adults achieve their goals. I’ve danced with Ted Danson at a celebration; and I’ve called Ralph Lauren to the Torah (along with his rascally brothers, who all threw candy at each other afterwards). Once I even sang a re-worded, rowdy Motown hit on the bimah in my black robe (back in the days of black robes) as a reward for a special-needs student’s achievement. I did all of this before having children, while having children and after having children. Dozens of parents told me, “You’ll see when it’s your turn!”
But no, I chose to disbelieve. My own kids would be ecstatic to have me as their tutor and cantor as we shared our joy from between the bosoms of my own fulltime workplace congregation. I would be nothing but happy and excited and prepared and calm and über-hostessy, caftan-hearted towards all incoming family and friends; of course, everyone we knew would be there. I would be nothing like these nervous parents who practically expected the synagogue walls to fall down in all directions upon the first note of the morning song opening the service. The extra soul of mine that we all grow for Shabbat would alternatively float to the treetops and come swooping down among the congregation to kiss us all rapturously. My nuclear bundle…spouse and kids… would be a light unto the nations as we beamed from the bimah with our joy.
I would be nothing like those other parents, particularly the ones who seemed to wish their hubris on me with their “You’ll see!” sentiments. It’d all be brilliant…But as my friend Warren used to say… Wrong-o dong-o, mongo face!
The Bar Mitzvah of my eldest takes place tomorrow afternoon. He’s ready. Me, I’m not so sure. All the right steps are in place, but my monkey mind is dancing up and down those steps to the tune of an off-speed Gershwin song on mono-speaker. I’m not ready for this. There won’t be enough food. It’s too early. He’s only thirteen (oh, yeah, right…He’s already thirteen?!?!?) There is no fulltime pulpit, no nuclear bundle… barely a bundle by which I can afford the celebration. Half of my former spouse’s and my scattered families are either too sick, too insolvent, too dead or too busy (June busts out all over with life changes for many) to travel.
I can’t give my kid enough. I’m giving my kid too much. I want to be his Yoda but in reality I am his Obiwon Vader (Mader?), his newest reason for nagging, and unlike my other students, he can’t simply get rid of me by getting into someone else’s car and going home. And, as President Obama’s mother once said during her daily 4am wakups of the future POTUS to bone up on his American studies before sending him to school each morning in Indonesia, “This is no picnic for me either, mister!”
My son Harry is the best Hebrew student I ever had. Bar none. He could navigate Torah since second grade; he can read “Cat in the Hat” in Hebrew with all the right Seussian cadences; I never had to drill and repeat rules or exceptions of grammar, pronunciation into him; it was gonna be a breeze to get him ready. Yeah, right. He rebels during study sessions by clenching his jaw when he reads so I can’t make out what he’s saying. His ADHD, which sometimes kicks in to his advantage, often doesn’t in this case. He wilts under pressure. He refuses to study out loud because he doesn’t want to hear himself or have me hear him. He’s also the first kid to actually argue with me … loudly and unremittingly …. on the bimah while practicing reading from the Sefer Torah. “But it’s a vav!” Nu?? How many roles does a ‘vav’ take on, and which ones are you choosing to ignore right now?
Last night Harry and I had our final tech run in the synagogue. It was shorter than we’d planned because we got to the temple too late for it to stay open for as long as I’d imagined in my over-extended, hyper-organized but just-under-thought-out-enough management of life this particular week. That turned out to be a blessing because of Harry’s short attention span. We started and stopped at strategic spots; got through all of Torah and Haftarah and a couple of other high-priority junctures and we left feeling that all will be will up there in bimah-land on Saturday. Next stop: meeting my ex and his BFF (the best man at our wedding) for dinner. And you know what? We all had a lot of fun. There was laughing, food-funning, x-boxing, napping on somebody else’s hotel bed (that would be me) and I realized how much luckier we are than a lot of families with married parents in them. Even in the worst of time, we have never wavered in mutual goals for Harry and his sister. Best of all, the worst is over.
I can’t afford a bouncy-house, a food truck or a photo booth at our celebration. But Harry’s dad and I can give 47 people a nice brunch, throw miniature candy bars (Reese’s and Kit-Kats, Harry’s and Miriam’s favorites) on top of the tables as both decoration and dessert, and hire a DJ who can play the top of the pops so people will dance. Harry eschewed a basket of personalized kippot. He did not want to dance to “Hava Nagila” or be lifted on a chair. None of us adore “coke and pepsi” or other games, or to give out plastic favors. But we’ll have three living grandparents present out of five; a dozen or so classmates; my best local friends and almost a dozen lifelong ones including two sisterfriends, traveling many miles to be with us. We’ll have my ninety-five year-old mother, who never thought she’d see this day, but sorry and ha-ha to you, Mom…. she did and she’s thriving and I thank God every day that she’s going to be an active part of the weekend by taking an aliyah and wrapping Harry in his first tallit (Prayer shawl).
Uppermost: we have Harry. He’s nervous, but he’s talking about it, although in his typical Jedi Vulcan style he’s playing it close. He knows his stuff. And once you know your stuff, your stuff does not forsake you, even under the fudge factor of on-the-bimah pressure with half a hundred people listening. Harry will take breaths away in his first pair of dress shoes with his black suit with the black button-down shirt and the black-and-purple striped tie… he has a fashion eye; clothes love him and he would look spectacular even in burlap. He may get attention with his sartorial sense and baritone voice (again, what?!?!), but he will keep it with his dignity and slightly self-effacing leadership, with a d’var Torah on truth-telling that shows the realistic picture of the work in progress that is Harry.
And that’s where we’ve really succeeded. B’nai Mitzvah isn’t an end to childhood. That went out after the middle ages and people getting married at fifteen. Bar and Bat Mitzvah are milestones, and at their best they prepare you for the other milestones and challenges that will inevitably follow. This week Harry gets to take stock in the self-awareness of how far he has come, and how far he would like to go from here. It’s a truly holy moment. Not only did I learn from my favorite student (so far), but everyone who is present will as well.
Now I’ve told YOU so. Shabbat Shalom.