It's a thing good I've had thirteen years to prepare for what's coming: I will be the beaming Christian mommy of a bar mitzvah boy this May 26th.
While my teen-to-be is memorizing his Torah portion, I'm gathering bar mitzvah tips from any Jewish mom I can stop on the street. I've been to only two bar mitzvahs in my life, so I don't have much experience.
Still, I have set some goals: I want the bar mitzvah ceremony to be memorable, meaningful, imbued with gratitude and love. I want the whole day to be authentically ours, as well as in keeping with what millions of Jews have done before us. I want to bring myself, as a supportive non-Jewish parent, to the table...or to the Torah, proud of my son and his Jewish heritage. I want to show that Jewish-Christian intermarriage won't complete what Hitler started, and that, at our house at least, faith breeds faith, and love is all that matters.
For Jews, the bar/bat mitzvah ritual signals childhood's end and the beginning of a boy or girl's religious maturity and ability to perform mitzvoth (the obligations of Judaism). When the child is "called to the Torah" at age thirteen to lead a Saturday morning religious service, the Jewish community celebrates its continuation and survival. By leading the service and reading from the Torah in Hebrew, Jewish children are welcomed into adulthood, and the entire tribe is reminded of its own commitments--to justice, peace, and repairing the world. Writes Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin in the greatest of all bar/bat mitzvah guides, Putting God on the Guest List: "When Jews act admirably, their lives serve as living testaments for God. More than anything else, that is the goal of bar and bat mitzvah, and that is the goal for all Jewish life."
Or, as a lesser sage, Justin Timberlake, puts it, "What goes around, comes around." Indeed, I am feeling the wheel of life turn. While I happily drip English sealing wax on the backs of bar mitzvah invitation envelopes (feeling as prim and non-Jewish as Jane Austen), my mind is cast back to when I volunteered to raise our yet-unborn children in my husband-to-be's faith. Though I knew the decision to have kids who went to Hebrew school instead of church would confuse my old-fashioned Presbyterian parents, I felt that the world could not, should not, lose any more of its radiant Jewish people. I had, in earlier times, been uplifted and healed by Jewish friends and therapists, and I was so grateful for this--and so in love with my husband Steve to boot--that rearing kids who might not feel what I feel about Jesus seemed an acceptable agreement. In truth, I actually didn't (and still don't) see the two religious traditions as all that different. And despite opinions to the contrary, I know it's not true that only Christians "get saved." How ridiculous.
From the Jewish side, however, I could be seen as a rather large problem, since Jewish identity—by tradition and Jewish law—is passed down to children through the mother. But conversion to Judaism never seemed a reasonable option for me. As much as I love the Jewish faith, my fidelity to Christianity is only deepening with time. It’s fine when an unaffiliated parent converts to a faith that strengthens the family. In my case, that wouldn’t have worked well for anybody.
In the months preceding our marriage in 1991, my husband and I met with a mixed Jewish-Christian couples group to discuss issues of a two-faith household. Towards the end of that six-week process, our group leader strongly advised that if we ever had children, it was best to raise them in one faith or the other, not both. "Don't get into this thing where you let the children choose," she said. While others may disagree, what she said about "children needing to know who they are" rang true to me.
When I became pregnant with our first son in 1993, my husband and I again sat down with the brilliant rabbi who married us-- Harold White, the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University (a Jesuit institution) in Washington, D.C. At that meeting we learned about a loophole in the matrilineal rule: our boy would be officially Jewish—without my conversion—if Steve immersed the baby three times in the waters of a ritual Mikvah pool (the Jewish form of baptism) in Rabbi White’s presence. We did this when our son could manage the dunking—at around five months. (Happily, he flailed his naked arms and sputtered much less than I thought he would.)
As I pondered how raising Jewish kids in theory would translate into action, I told my husband, "If we're going to do this, then let's really do it."
At first, he seemed unsure of what I meant. "Judaism is a home-based religion," he told me. "You don't have to go to temple that much."
"Okay," I responded. "Let's incorporate it into our home." We learned that the Sh'ma—"Hear, O Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is One"—was the appropriate prayer for bedtime, and we sang it nightly in Hebrew to both our boys.
For the next 12 years, our household seemed much like any other American household, save for the fact Mom went to temple with the family and church by herself. We used what in other contexts might be seen as a fracture to our best advantage. We lit Sabbath candles and attended synagogue, but also decorated a Christmas tree every December, and sometimes had Easter egg hunts.
Come third grade, our eldest was attending Hebrew school four hours a week on two separate days, a routine that seemed grueling sometimes, but necessary, since learning Hebrew takes time. As bar mitzvah prep, he currently studies privately with the synagogue's cantor, and sits still for another two hours of Jewish studies class. He has dropped other extracurricular activities for this.
Yes, there were times when I disliked the commute to Hebrew school, and yes, my son sometimes protested the whole way. Occasionally, I even felt that the pressure of turning the boys into Jews was too much, since as a non-Jew I was the one doing all the driving to Hebrew school, getting more face time with Hebrew school teachers, working Purim fairs, and more. My husband had given them early Jewish homeschooling.
When it was time to teach them Hebrew, a language he hadn't studied since his own bar mitzvah, he gracefully phased out.
But as we get closer to the bar mitzvah, I see that all the effort was well worth it: Something rare and beautiful has been engendered in the hearts of both my children by their Jewish studies. I like it that Jewish children seem commanded from the cradle to be excellent students, outstanding citizens, leaders in whatever field they choose to pursue, spiritually guided by the scriptures of the Tanakh, or Old Testament. Our temple, like many others, also requires bar and bat mitzvah kids to perform service projects as part of their mitzvoth. In the predominantly Protestant Chicago suburb where I grew up, there was no such coming-of-age ritual (we didn’t have confirmations). There was no service project, no moment of leadership, and a lot of the kids, boys especially, seemed to be riding a druggy, downward spiral.
My husband has bad memories of the flamboyant bar mitzvah parties affluent Jewish families gave their kids back in the 1970s, and still throw—with even greater abandon—now. I am free of these images. But my attraction to things festive and theatrical has led to the only conflict we’ve weathered as we plan our son’s bar mitzvah and celebration. Here it is: I feel it would be tremendously meaningful for two Jewish folk/Klezmer musicians (on violin and mandolin) to accompany the synagogue's pianist at the bar mitzvah service and ensuing Kiddush (snack after the service). The expense of this seems immaterial. My husband is turned off by this idea, fearing that it will mirror the ostentatious quality of those travesties of his Long Island childhood. "This is not a wedding," he reminded me. "It's just supposed to be the normal Saturday service." But I love Jewish folk music intensely. I am moved by its sincerity. It opens the heart. So is wanting it at the service obnoxious? Is it Christian of me to desire it? (That J.S. Bach was such a showman!) My husband loves folk music too, but seems a trifle embarrassed by the extra jolt we’re apt to get. So while I’m excited about the prospect, I am now a little self-conscious. Am I bringing too much Martha Stewart to the service, and not enough shtetl?
Beyond the musicians, I really don’t feel there’s any need for me to inject myself into the bar mitzvah’s content. This is not my day, after all. It’s my son’s! But when we heard of the Asian father of a bar mitzvah boy who ordered Thai silk yarmulkes to represent his side of the family at the ceremony, Steve worried I wasn’t including myself enough.
But something has occurred that will beautifully unite our mixed-faith family before the assembled congregation: Our son’s Torah portion, which will be studied in every Jewish temple in the world that week, contains one of the greatest prayers in all monotheism. My son will read Numbers 6: 24-26, the famous closing benediction uttered not only by rabbis everywhere, but also by my own childhood Presbyterian minister after every single Sunday service. The passage gives me as many goosebumps today as it did when I was a child.
The Lord bless you
and keep you
The Lord make His face
to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up His
countenance upon you
and give you Peace.
"So I can say in my bar mitzvah speech that this prayer is part of my mom’s tradition as well as my dad’s," our son said over pizza recently, quick to intuit what I was thinking.
Yes. We share the same heavenly source. He becomes a better Jew as I draw closer to my Christian faith. We can contain it all.
And when the doors of the temple ark open before our son, when he chants his passage from the hand-inscribed scroll, I know he will be beautiful, and of course, I will be kvelling. I’ll cry! The little baby who once needed me for everything doesn’t need me as much. My involvement from here on will not lessen, but it will change. As a teen, he’s going to yell and slam some doors, but if we’re alert and can take it all in this May 26, we can build on the memory of how it felt to stand before the Torah scrolls, bridging two faiths. We’ll never forget just how much light there was up there to absorb.
Strange, isn't it? If I'd had Christian kids, I would have longed for them to have what my Jewish son is soon to experience. I feel blessed beyond measure.