06 October 2010

Children of the Commandments

To my intense relief, William’s bar mitzvah ceremony
did not in any way resemble
that in the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man.
Pictured: Aaron Wolff as young Danny Gopnik

Today I am a man who has attended a bar mitzvah ceremony. It’s a bit late for me to be doing this for the first time, but when I was a boy, my Jewish friends didn’t invite me to their b’nai mitzvah. Whether because they didn’t think I’d be interested or because they didn’t really like me much (always a distinct possibility), I can’t say; surely no one could predict that I would become “an honorary Jew,” as my surrogate mother, Madeline Gilford, put it. Perhaps I required her blessing before I qualified to do so, but it was only as an adult that I entered a synagogue for a bat mitzvah, a few years ago.

That ceremony celebrated a friend who, as an adult, was called to read the Torah. In that case, I was so moved by the personal significance of the ceremony that some of its broader implications eluded me. After all, when a woman makes a conscious and committed choice to delve more deeply into the faith of her ancestors, it’s kind of a big deal. We’re in the 21st century, and no one is forcing her to uphold traditions from millennia long past; she already identified culturally as Jewish. But the ancient faith is modern and real to her, and unlike many a 13-year-old, she decided for herself to embrace it more fully.

Watching a more conventional celebration this weekend, including Sabbath services and a truly brilliant party the next day, for a boy the usual age, I was able to focus a little better on what this rite of passage may mean to other people — certainly on what it means to me.

Few things on earth seemed more unjust, when I was a boy, than that a handful of my classmates should be able to call themselves grownup simply because they’d passed their thirteenth birthday. Childhood seemed a form of slavery in those days; that another child should be emancipated was intolerable. Compounding the injustice was the celebration surrounding the rite, because it seemed (pretty accurately, I think) nearly comparable to a wedding feast. There was no equivalent in the Methodist faith in which I was brought up, and I resented the party, the gifts, and above all, the recognition my friends received. I can admit that now.

As I grew older, I came to understand better what it meant to become a bar mitzvah. It is a taking on of responsibility (which has never been my favorite pastime, and so maybe my friends did deserve a little extra credit for doing something I would not), but my vestigial Christian worldview misperceived this as a burden — a cross to bear. Watching and listening this weekend (enlightened by a Reform service that was almost too accessible), I understood the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood as something entirely different.

In music, especially, the rite proclaims its optimism and joy. As the celebrant chants, his lines are ascendant, rising to heaven, finishing in a higher place (literally) than where they started. I was reminded of a professor at Brown, who observed somewhat smugly that Judaism is the rare faith in which the emphasis is on what happens while we’re still alive. Of course, no Jew would argue that it’s easy to be a Jew, but the rewards of the faith are found within the faith, tied up with the hardships, yes, but also making clear why the suffering isn’t the main idea. And so we hit that higher note, brighter than those that came before.

Then on Sunday, the dancing began. We hoisted William* on a chair and danced the hora around him. This in itself is pretty great, like hitting a winning home run and being paraded on your teammates’ shoulders, and William appeared to enjoy the experience thoroughly. But then I stepped back to look at who was dancing: William’s brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, and grandparents: the living proof of the strength of the tradition of this faith. Small wonder that their friends, like me, joined in.

This wasn’t the first time that I’d shared such a milestone with this family. The wedding of William’s parents was one of the most joyous nights of my life (an historic blizzard notwithstanding), and his brother’s bris brought me to tears — not because of the cut but because of the continuity — when I heard his parents’ Hebrew names among the ancient prayers. I’m proud and grateful to have been included in these occasions, and while I may never fully take on the adult responsibilities of this or any faith, I thank all of my friends for making me a better (honorary) Jew.

*NOTE: It’s true: through sheer, unintended accident, the young man is my namesake. He sings opera, too.


Michael Leddy said...

Great, thoughtful post, Bill. And the first sentence is such a treat.

late blooming mom said...

Lovely post. But to truly fulfill your duties as an honorary Jew, you need to talk about what food you ate at the party.

Anonymous said...

As an "honorary Jew," you have managed to capture the essence of this rite of passage beautifully. My son will be making his Bar Mitzvah in two weeks, and amidst all the planning of the details associated with this event, I thank you for reminding me what this is truly all about.

William V. Madison said...

Thank you all. And Late-Blooming Mom -- oy, what didn't we eat? Reclining was necessary afterward.