So I don’t know if you heard, but we had a bar mitzvah around these parts.
AND IT WAS AWESOME.
From beginning to end, including even the bits that went slightly awry and/or agley, because of course, as we all know, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, and the question is only how it’ll be handled, AND IT WAS ALL AWESOME.
And, yes, Timmy the ThinkGeek monkey actually attended.
He was going to go in (and stay in!) my purse, but as I am a person with an uncontrollable anthropomorphization impulse, I worried about him. So I took him out and placed him on the girl’s seat — and as she is a nine year old person and an anthropomorphizer, she included him in everything! He sang, he bowed at all the right times, and at the very end, he was perched on the back of a pew — and the rabbi asked, with a smile in her voice, just before her final blessing: “Who’s guest is Jewish Curious George?”
The timeline (typed out mainly so that I can revisit the glow for a minute or two):
- Thursday morning, 8/16/12 – Attend morning prayers, boy reads from Torah and thus officially (and kind of nicely sneakily) becomes bar mitzvah while almost no one is watching. Official photographs taken.
- Thursday evening – Eleven Israeli relatives (the boy’s grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins) arrive, hang out, eat the first meal I’ve been able to prepare for all of them in my own home in 14 years, hang out some more.
- Friday during the day – The Israelis + the kids and the husband go downtown; I do final errands (one of which was to fix a thing gone agley – and it worked out!) and wind up writing (unplanned) for Open Zion (a post you should totally read, if only to marvel at the fact that on the literal eve of my son’s bar mitzvah, I managed to write).
- Friday evening – Friday night services at shul, during which the boy did us all proud, and after which: Big fancy family dinner out.
- Saturday morning and afternoon – THE MAIN EVENT. Services (two and a half hours long!) at shul, at which the boy absolutely wowed the crowd, both with his skills at prayer-leading-Torah-reading-Haftarah-chanting and his speech, and everything was warm and wonderful and I felt just bathed in love and joy. The very best moment (other than all the ones in which the boy was being The Best Thing Ever) was when a friend whispered “You all look so happy!” Then luncheon in the shul’s stained-glass-window-lined social hall (a luncheon I hear was good! I didn’t really taste any of it. Like you do), and I gave a speech which, though I cried through the whole thing, I kept breathing (no mean feat for me) and thus was able to say every single word (and apparently I made a bunch of other moms cry, too, so: Score!).
- Saturday evening: WhirlyBall! (And laser tag! And video games! And pizza! And cake!) ‘TWAS TEH AWESOME!!1! Oh my goodness, those kids had so much fun, as did the handful of adults who tagged along and whooooooooo!!!
- Sunday: Brunch at Chicago’s premier spot for Swedish pancakes, Ann Sathers, followed by a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, and then a dinner of luncheon-left-overs at our house.
- Monday: Nothing (well, the four of us talked and giggled and took a walk and made S’mores in the backyard. But other than that).
- Tuesday: The Israelis + my three went museum-ing as I made faux-Thanksgiving, complete with roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish and cornbread (and pumpkin pie!), because I’ll never get to invite the Israelis to Thanksgiving! My family joined us, and everyone sat around and talked late into the evening and it was exactly as big family events should always be.
- Wednesday: First day of school. The Israelis came by in the afternoon for coffee and cake and goodbyes, and then went to the airport.
- Thursday: I made my usual bi-weekly Open Zion deadline. And collapsed on the couch.
I would be remiss if I did not make a big point of pointing out that while I may have been In Charge of all of the above? The husband was an absolutely stellar First Officer, and aside from anything else, had he not kept washing all those dishes (and bear in mind that we keep kosher, so he was also switching from milk to meat and back again all the time) the entire jig would have been up.
After the jump, [UPDATE: figuring that most people who wanted to read this and see the pictures have done so, I've now removed the pictures after the jump, because kids' faces can be seen in them (not all of them my own kids, even), and it honestly just makes me a little nervous to slap my kids' faces up on the 'net, given my day job] you’ll find the text of the boy’s speech (d’var Torah) – because he’s a mensch, and I’m just so proud – but first!
Pictures of the single best present the boy got (and which, btw, he presented to me as “the best gift I got”): A fully functional, The Fault in Our Stars-inspired wallet made out of duct-tape
by one of his school friends (oops! Chosen by one of his school friends. Note correction, and how you can buy one for yourself ['cause you totes should] here).
TFIOS was written by John Green, author, Vlogbrother, host of Crash Course, and Nerdfighter extraordinaire, and the last line in the boy’s d’var Torah was a shout-out to Nerdfighters everywhere (and yes, in case you know what the hell I’m talking about and are wondering, he had his DFTBA bracelet on the whole time).
The boy’s d’var Torah:
Have you ever been called a nickname? I have, like most people. If you have, you know that as you get older, your nicknames undergo a process of evolution: first, they are simply basic one-size-fits-all names. They’re often insults, such as stupid or ugly. As you get older, they begin to get more personal, maybe based off of an embarrassing situation, or bad habit. On the other hand, you also start to receive more positive nicknames from your friends. But even as the effectiveness and intent of these words change, one thing stays the same. They attempt to capture you, in your entirety, and translate you into a single event or facet- make you one-dimensional. My d’var Torah will look at that concept in a minute.
My Parashah is Re’eh. God starts by saying- I’m paraphrasing- I am giving you a blessing and a curse- a blessing if you do what I command, a curse if you don’t. First of all, destroy all of the places that other nations used to worship their gods. To worship your God, bring all of your sacrifices to one spot that I pick out. If you are simply hungry, you can eat where you want. Remember, you cannot eat any blood. When you settle in the lands of nations you have defeated, don’t even ask about their gods. If someone tells you to worship another god, even a prophet or someone close to you, kill him. (PAUSE, look up) You can only eat land animals with split hooves that chew their own cud. For water animals, you can eat anything with fins and scales. You may eat many types of birds, but not those that the Torah prohibits. You also can’t eat any winged swarming creatures or anything that has died a natural death. Finally, you cannot boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (PAUSE) Every year, sacrifice a tenth of your crops along with the first born of your herds and flocks in the place God has chosen. (PAUSE) During the month of Aviv, you will slaughter the Passover sacrifice in the place God chose. You will not eat any bread for seven days, to remind you of your exodus from Egypt. Then, after seven weeks, you will celebrate the Feast of Weeks. After gathering your crops, you will hold the Feast of Booths for seven days, and you will be joyous. So, three times a year, for Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, all males will give a sacrifice to God.
As you can see, my Torah portion covers many important topics, like the rules of kashrut and making sacrifices. There is one line, however, that I would really like to focus on. Chapter 13, Verse 1 says: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add nor take away from it.” I found this line surprising at first, because of course you shouldn’t take away from what God commands you to do, but not adding to it? And if that’s the case, should we only do things explicitly stated in the Torah? Does that mean we shouldn’t follow rules like not eating any meat with any dairy? Like I pointed out, the Torah only says not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. What about not wearing kippot, or even celebrating the sacred ritual of Havdallah because it’s not specified in the Torah? And if that’s the case, should we even use things like computers? Microwaves? I’ll leave those questions for you to decide.
I started looking at commentaries to see what they had to say about the topic. Rashi makes a very interesting point, when he looks at Genesis, 3:3, in the story of Adam and Eve, still in the garden of Eden. The serpent asks Eve if God said that they cannot eat from any tree in the garden, and she says: “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat, but of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said: Do not eat from it, and do not touch it, or you will die.” Rashi points out that God only prohibited Adam and Eve from eating fruit from the tree. Touching it had no consequence, and however small, Eve’s addition was inappropriate. She lost God’s true intention, and almost made it look like she wasn’t truly listening. Therefore, Rashi says, by adding to God’s commandment, she ended up taking away from its effectiveness.
So, what do nicknames have to do with Adam and Eve? Well, God is saying that you should not change what He is giving you. At first this sounds perfectly reasonable and entirely unquestionable. God gave you something that He made, you shouldn’t change it. Right? There is a prayer at the beginning of our service each day that talks about Shlemut- wholeness. “The soul that You, my God, have given me is pure.” Why mess with success?
Then, however, I started thinking on different terms. First of all, I’m not exactly Mr. Popularfeld McPopularstein. But more importantly, I go to middle school, where name-calling runs rampant. Nerd, dork, geek… a lot of you probably know what I’m talking about.
And this is where I drew a parallel. God granted us our religion, and then asked us not to alter it. In the same way, by calling me a nerd, people are saying, “I have decided what you are, and you cannot do anything to change it.” In Exodus 4:10, Moses, I mean, come on, MOSES, does this exact thing to himself. He tells God not to pick him to lead the Israelites, saying he is slow of speech. God replies, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I?” Moses had already decided who he was, what he could do. He was limiting himself, taking away from his shlemut, his wholeness.
People make this immovable judgment of you in two ways- externally and internally. Externally, just like Moses was saying to God that he was unfit, people are “selling” their label of you, verbally branding you. They’re essentially telling the world, “LOOK WHO THIS PERSON IS!!!” They might do this to show off, or to humiliate you.
Internally, it may not even be conscious. To quote Will Rogers, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The way that people understand things is through experience, so internal judgment is for the sake of understanding you better. They may see you do something, and forever think that the event showcases your personality, even if it was a rare occurrence. The upside of this is you understand the person better. The downside is sometimes you mistakenly jump to conclusions. This happens both positively and negatively- they may see you make a fool of yourself and forever consider you an idiot, or they might see you hit a single home run and decide that you’re a prodigy.
You might be wondering what God telling us not to edit the Torah has to do with labeling or name-calling. God’s command tells us about shlemut – wholeness, and our need to take in the whole of His teaching. What would happen if we decided that Judaism was only about honoring your father and mother? It’s a good commandment, but what would happen to the prohibition against murder or theft? When we label someone, if it is with a good or “nice” label, we cease to see the shlemut – the wholeness – of who they are. We don’t see that the computer nerd or geek also plays soccer or likes acting. Whether you label someone internally or externally, the result is that you have taken away from all that they are.
The most important difference is that we choose to be Jewish, but we don’t choose what we get called. (pause) But, in a way, we do. I have a reputation for being smart, so by watching Dr. Who and doing Algebra, it becomes more likely that I’ll be called a nerd or geek. If you play a lot of sports, it’s more likely you’ll be called a jock. If you have a bad habit, a good habit, a funny face, practically anything, people use that. The fact is, people always have names for you, but you at least have some input as to which ones they use.
Becoming a bar mitzvah has been a great experience, one that taught me a lot. It has meant a lot to me, on many different levels. Physically, it taught me something about responsibility. I am, without a doubt, lazy. Yes, I realize that I just labeled myself, but it’s TRUE! I promise! Or, at least, I’m more lazy than I should be. Anyways, having to practice my Torah and Haftarah, along with writing this, my d’var Torah, on a regular schedule leading up to today, showed me how much work pays off.
On a mental level, I found something shocking. When I stepped back, and saw how much was put into my bar mitzvah, reading from the Torah almost seemed… unimportant. On the side. It was then that I was forced to realize how all of this work was for ME. Like I said before, I generally shy away from responsibility, sometimes out of laziness, but sometimes from fear of messing up. Getting up on this stage, singing in a foreign language, and reading from the holy scroll is teaching me how putting yourself out there can be scary, but fun.
And finally, on an emotional level, I found my bar mitzvah to be kind of a roller coaster. I’ve had a lot of fun, but I’ve also come to realize that to come of age, you have to leave things behind. The older you get, the more forks there are in the road, and the easier it is to get hung up about the choices you make. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve hated myself for them. What I want to do through my bar mitzvah is leave those mistakes behind. Forget my baggage.
I’ve also learned a lot from my bar mitzvah project. My project comes in two parts. The first is an organization called “This Star Won’t Go Out”. This organization helps financially support families who have a child with cancer. I introduced it to my parents, and they agreed to match my donation. Together, we donated $234, which happens to be 13 x חי. This Star Won’t Go Out really has done some wonderful things – you’ll find information about what they do, and donation jars on your table at Kiddush. Any and all donations are very much appreciated.
The second part of my project was working at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry. The Pantry is a wonderful place where, once a month, families can come to get food to help support themselves during tough times. There are various stations set up, where clients can choose which foods they want. Because I’m younger, my job was being a valet. That means that I helped people get their groceries up the stairs and into their cars in the summer heat. (PAUSE) It was not easy.
This experience taught me so many things. The first was the real definition of manual labor. What I did tired me out. It was then that I really understood what the term “working poor” meant. Some people do physical work eight hours a day, every day of the week, just to make ends meet, and it’s barely enough. For some of those people, it’s not enough, and they still have to go the pantry. Compared to that, what I did was nothing.
While I was working there, I also saw just how much racial inequality still exists today. It was painful to see that the massive majority of the clients were minority members. It showed me that our America is still plagued by many of the issues we’ve had since our creation. Me, my Hebrew School class, and my entire generation may not be able to fix it, but it our job to make it better.
However, the people of color I saw at the pantry taught me something even more valuable. You have no idea how many times I saw someone share their car with someone else because they didn’t have one, or come back after they took care of their groceries to help someone else. It was like everyone knew everyone else. And the most surprising thing was how many of them seemed happy, or at least not sad. Many were very nice and willing to talk. One woman, when I told her about my bar mitzvah, seemed ecstatic about it and wished me the best of luck. My bar mitzvah project taught me, more than anything else, that love, friendship and support exist everywhere, even at the darkest of times.
Speaking of love, friendship and support, I have many people to thank. Primarily, I’d like to thank my parents, who have been more loving, kind and astonishingly wonderful in every way not just recently, but for thirteen years. I would also like to thank the Rabbi for working so hard with me on my d’var Torah, molding it from a hot mess into what it is now, and the Cantor for putting up with my inconsistent practice and mispronounced tropes, without both of whom this day would not have happened the way it did. I want to thank my Hebrew School class from the bottom of my heart, for being my friends, confidants and family for as long as I can remember. Finally, I want to thank you, the congregation, for coming and sharing this special day with me.
Labeling can diminish us, from the outside and from within. It can make us feel small, or maybe too big. Moses went from being too afraid to lead his people because of a speech impediment to becoming one of the greatest orators of all time. So don’t let yourself or others form you, don’t let anything stop you, and most importantly, don’t forget to be awesome. Thank you all for coming.