Never thought I’d say it but I miss the bar mitzvah circuit. I miss that three-year stretch of our lives where it seemed we were living the Jewish version of the old movie, If it’s Tuesday This Must be Belgium. Yes, during those years I began to pine for my home shul instead of spending each Shabbat somewhere else. Yes, there was plenty of angst over whether our kids would master their learning in time. And yes, there was much consternation over those manners-deficient invitees who thought RSVP only referred to the invitation itself — “Really Sweet; Very Pretty.” But those three years, as we witnessed our own children and those of our friends ascend the bima and take their places as b’nei mitzvah — sons and daughters of the Commandment — were some of the most moving of my life.
There was the bar mitzvah watching our friends’ son, born with spina bifida, whisper his portion. Bent over the Torah, which had been placed upon a special table accessible to his wheelchair, Dan recited each word. The entire congregation held its collective breath as he worked through his portion lest we miss a word. Tears fell unheeded; to blink them away meant missing a moment of this miracle.
There was the simcha of the blizzard that knocked out all the timed lights, the heating system and the preheated stoves ready for kiddush. In coats and gloves the davening went on. There was the bat mitzvah that took place mere weeks before three grandparents lost their lives — one to a stroke and two in the downing of Egypt Air 990. The photographer’s proofs were the last photos my friends would have of their parents.
Nearly each week I could count on having a good cry. There was something about seeing these young people master their portions, something about hearing their parents declare so publicly their love and pride that never failed to move me. (Full disclosure — I also tear up at Hallmark commercials.) When else do we have such moments to validate our beliefs, express our gratitude, and impress upon our children what most matters to us? As families scatter to the four corners of the country and beyond, bar and bat mitzvah weekends bring families together early enough in their history that many grandparents and even great grandparents are in attendance. Come weddings this is not always the case. Each week I felt that I was witnessing a miracle, witnessing a rite of passage wrenched from the hearts and lives of six million. Each simcha was a validation, the embodiment of am Yisroel chai.
I miss hearing my son’s voice crack as he struggled with his trup and the wonder I felt as I listened while my daughter practiced her part. I don’t miss the uncertainty of wondering if they would be ready or the silly anxiety over place cards and menus, but I do miss that blur of dancing and celebrating. There was a lot of joy packed into those years.
Of course, God willing, there are weddings to come. But weddings are different. I knew planning our children’s simchas what an advantage it was not to have to consult another family’s preferences or share the guest list. In those years there was little bittersweet beyond their growing up and the slipping away of their childhood. There was no loss. Sunday night of my son’s bar mitzvah weekend I could still tuck him into bed; I still held a primary place in his life. The night of his wedding well, let’s not go there. My presence in his life will shift as it should, as it must. There will be great joy and I also know, from watching my friends’ sons marry, that joy will be alloyed with heart-piercing relinquishing.
Someone once asked if I could relive any time in my life when would it be. “The weekend of my daughter’s bat mitzvah,” I answered without hesitation. It was a
weekend that I thought would never happen. Our daughter was so shy as a youngster that she would literally hid behind my skirts when spoken to by anyone but immediate family. It was hard, if not well nigh impossible, to imagine her delivering a d’var Torah before the entire congregation and I was fully prepared to tell her she didn’t have to if she felt she couldn’t.
But she could and she did. Emma’s voice was strong; she didn’t miss a beat. She taught us from her portion and the lesson reached all the way to those in the back rows. Her accomplishment was all the more stunning because of the courage it took to do what did not in any way come naturally or comfortably. The bar mitzvah years taught me never to let fear for my children lead me to underestimate their capabilities.
Just last week an invitation to my cousin’s son’s bar mitzvah arrived. I’ve RSVP’d well in advance of the requested date, dutifully filling in our entree preferences. My clothes are mentally packed and I’m hoping for clear driving weather. I’ve got my dancing shoes and a party dress that still fits. I’ve also got a small packet of tissues. Haven’t had a good cry in quite a while.
© Debra Darvick 2001. Reprinted with permission of the author. Make Mine Old fashioned originally appeared on the Jewish Family and Life website, JFLmedia.com. Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered from www.debradarvick.com or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.