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“You don’t have to wear it,” I said. “You can save it…”
But Tech had already put the silver chain around his neck. He squeezed it in his hand and then let it dangle loose.
“It’s just like Grampy’s,” he said.
I repeated myself. “You don’t have to wear it.”
Tech ignored me.
“I love it, and I’m never taking it off.” Tech hesitated. “Starting after camp. Because at camp, this could get lost. Or broken. Otherwise, I’m totally wearing it.”
He went to look in the mirror.
But he wasn’t looking at himself.
He was looking at the gift his grandfather had given him.
“So cool,” he mumbled.
My father has worn his silver piece of Judaica since he was 13-years old. The pendant is battered, and some of the symbols have fallen off. It is even a little dented.
I know when he wears it, my father feels a connection to G-d. And he remembers his parents who gave him the gift when he turned 13-years old.
When Tech was young, he received a miniature Torah from our temple. Covered in blue velvet, it rests in a white box. My husband and I were asked to write our hopes for our child inside the box flap. I penned a few wishes:
May you continue to grow big and strong.
May you continue to learn and find the things that have meaning to you.
May you always be true to yourself and do the things you know are right – even if they are difficult.
May you continue to love being Jewish and honor all our traditions.
May you love always, and remember to put people before things.
I think he’s got it.
Have you ever received a highly symbolic gift? What was it?
My parents took religious school education seriously. I was never allowed to miss a day for any after-school extra-curricular activities like roller skating parties, which always seemed to fall on the same afternoons as Hebrew School. My brother and I were expected to be proficient in Hebrew, and it was a given we would study extensively in preparation for our bar and bat mitzvah services.
The weekend prior to my son’s bar mitzvah, my mother-in-law pulled out some old pictures to show TechSupport. There was a sepia photograph of my father-in-law taken before his bar mitzvah over 60 years ago.
“And there’s your daddy.” My mother-in-law pointed to a photo of Hubby, who was quite the stud in his powder-blue jacket, plaid pants, and wide collar peach shirt à la1977.
That night, I called my father to see if there might be a photo of him somewhere. I’d never seen one, but my grandmother was before her time with the scrapbooking, so I wondered if maybe there was a picture buried in the basement somewhere.
“Well, you know…” my father took a deep breath. “I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you.”
I had no idea what he was going to say.
“I mean, now that you are an adult, you should probably know…”
My mind was spinning. Was he going to tell me that he wasn’t really Jewish?
My father hemmed and hawed and beat around the bush until I shouted into the receiver. “Dad, you’re killing me! Just say it!”
“I never had a bar mitzvah,” my father said quietly.
My brain couldn’t process this new information. It didn’t fit into any information it had been given before. I didn’t know any Jewish men my father’s age that had not had a bar mitzvah. Even men who have fallen out of the faith had stood on the bimah and chanted. Meanwhile, my father is a spiritual person. He follows the laws of the Torah. He is active in his synagogue. He loves Judaism. He loves Israel. He loves celebrating the Jewish holidays. He never had a bar mitzvah?
“What are you talking about?” I stood up from my chair to pace around our family room. “How is that even possible?”
“I grew up pretty poor. Back then people didn’t have parties like they do today, but there were get-togethers.” My father paused, and I imagined him flipping the corner of his crossword puzzle. “My parents and I talked it over, and we decided that I wouldn’t have one. Because, you know, we couldn’t afford a party or anything.”
“But you could have had a bar mitzvah and just not had a party, right?
“I suppose.” My father conceded. “But I didn’t want to embarrass my father.”
I asked why he had waited so long to tell me about not having a bar mitzvah.
I asked him if he had ever wished to have made his bar mitzvah.
I asked him if it was something he wanted to do now, at 74.
TechSupport overheard me giving my father the third degree, and told me to stop.
“Grampy goes to temple all the time.” Tech said. “He is a very honest, very humble and very good man. He lives his life by the Torah. I am pretty sure that G-d is good with him.”
I felt the tears catch in my eyes when my son spoke to me. He was right, and I am sure any rabbi would have offered the same words.
The Bar or Bat Mitzvah isn’t a mandatory rite of passage; by Jewish law, a boy reaches adulthood when he turns 13 and a girl at 12, no ceremony required. Some say the very lack of necessity makes the efforts even more remarkable as concrete, hard-won, and public affirmations of Jewish identity and commitment.
My father became a bar mitzvah without pomp or circumstance. For him, becoming a bar mitzvah was a private experience, a continuation of the covenant between himself and G-d.
Apparently, there are 7 different store-bought cards a boy can receive for a bar mitzvah.
And don’t get me wrong; they are all lovely.
Friends and family wrote wonderful messages to Tech, who insisted on reading each note before looking at the gift.
After a while, we did start to keep a little tally to see which card would be designated the “most popular card to receive on your bar mitzvah day.”
This was the one.
Tech got a lot of those.
There were waaaay more cards for a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah.
Like this one.
Tech received this card from his grandmother.
I don’t think she was trying to be funny.
But it was extremely funny. *smiles*
Hands down, the best card, came from one of my husband’s oldest friends.
Neil is known for his kooky gifts. It’s his thing. He once gave Tech a sushi stapler; the child looked like he had won the lottery. Another time Neil had just returned from a trip overseas and gave our son a black baseball cap that had “Fukuoka” embroidered in white on the back. Wearing it, made Tech feel like he was getting away with swearing when really he was simply advertising a city in Japan located 1,100 kilometers from Tokyo. More recently, Neil brought us an enormous jar of Polish pickles.
So of course, it should have been no surprise when we saw Neil’s card.
Yup. He penned it on a rubber chicken.
It was awesome.
Especially this part:
When I told Neil how awesome it was that he took the time to find a rubber chicken, that he even had the idea to write on it, he waved his hand dismissively.
Like it was no big whoop.
Except it was.
He found a way to make Tech’s bar mitzvah – which was already amazing – even more memorable.
In Judaism, we are taught to be mindful and pay attention to the smallest details because G-d is everywhere and in everything.
Though Neil would shrug and call me meshugganah, I believe that in paying attention to the smallest details, Neil helped remind us even the most seemingly insignificant act can be something that connects us to G-d, to the rest of humanity, even the universe.
The chicken card was a small detail.
It was hilarious.
I know Tech will never forget it.
None of us will.
What little things have people done for you that have stuck with you?
Two years ago, Tech and I found ourselves parked in a part of Rochester that we don’t usually frequent. A voracious reader, there was a particular title he wanted to read and only one library actually had it in all of Rochester. And that library was downtown. He was hell-bent on getting it, and he knew that I would not rush to pay for a copy at the local bookstore.
So we went on a wee road-trip.
After he checked out the book with his library card, I suggested he check out their YA section.
After two minutes, Tech returned with a frown.
“This is the worst library ever,” he declared. “There are no books.”
He dragged me over to the YA area, and it was true; the selection was dismal.
“Where are all the kids’ books?” he asked the librarian sitting nearby.
She looked at Tech and told him honestly that sometimes people checked out books from the library and didn’t return them.
“You mean people steal them?” Tech was outraged.
“Some kids don’t have books at home, so they take them from here.” The librarian explained. “Once our books are gone, we don’t have the resources to replace them. And of course, some books just get lost.”
Tech Support tilted his head, trying to wrap his brain around the concept that not all children have shelves filled with books in their homes, the way he does.
In the car, Tech Support made an announcement.
“I want to collect books and give them to kids so they can have books at home,” he said. “Can I do that for my bar mitzvah?”
“Sure,” I said as I screwed around with the CD player.
“Will you help me?” he demanded. “Seriously?”
I looked at my son’s eyes in the rear view mirror.
Tech has always been a collector. When he was younger, it was coins and LEGOs and Webkinz frogs. Later, he fell in love with mechanical pencils and magnets and rubber bands. He has a green bowl filled with origami stars and shelves filled with all kinds of weird stuff.
When my son gets an idea in his head, there is no stopping him.
I called the contact person. We did a little back and forth, and then it happened: a miracle disguised as an email.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the RocRead program taking place in the Rochester City School District. Children read a book, write an essay on it, and once they hand it in, they get an incentive/prize.
So far, students have read 14,000 books through this program.
The details are being worked out right now – but the preliminary plan for Monday, April 30th is to have an event in the library of one of the schools to announce that every child present will receive a book as part of RocRead – with your son present to distribute books.
How does this sound?
How did it sound?
It sounded like someone took a cup of totally cool and mixed it with three pounds of awesome.
The following Monday, Tech sat in the front seat of my Honda and I drove to school #41 in a car stuffed from floor to ceiling with books which we had sorted by grade level. When we found school #41, Tech borrowed a cart, loaded it up with boxes, and zigzagged his way back into the school.
The principal appeared. She greeted my son with a hug, and we all headed downstairs to the library. The custodian materialized with the cart and told us she would bring everything to the library on the service elevator. While Tech chatted it up with the librarian, the custodian appeared and I scattered books across two long tables until both surfaces were covered.
And then they came. Wearing uniform red shirts and khaki pants, the children sat crisscross-applesauce. The school librarian introduced Tech and asked him to speak to the students. I was certain he was going to freeze up. We had not prepared for that kind of thing. He did not know how to speak in front of…
…but there he was.
Explaining why he had started the book collection.
And when the librarian announced that each student was going to get to take home two books from Tech’s collection, the kids bounced up and down and cheered.
As the kindergarteners walked around the tables, Tech encouraged them to shift the books around and not to only look at the top layer. Once the children made their selections, they returned to their designated areas on the floor and another group came up.
I have to tell you, it was a beautiful sight.
They were all reading!
Or trying to.
Some silently. Some aloud. Some to each other.
The local television crews were there. Tech was interviewed three times, and even though he really wanted to downplay his role, he went along with whatever the people asked him to do.
I always knew that there would come a day that I would look at my son — the person who carries 50% of my DNA — and see him as the person he might become.
On that day, I saw my son as a person who doesn’t just have the potential to do good things, but as a person who is already doing them.
And I was amazed.
Because up until then, I just thought he was the boy who forgot his coat in his locker.
The kid who left his water bottle at fencing practice.
The dude who still needed to be reminded to brush his teeth.
But on that day, I saw my son as other people see him.
I realized that he likes to help other people.
And not because I told him to help people.
But because he really likes to.
On that day, I thought about the way he used to put together his elaborate LEGO sets, and I realized his tenaciousness was all about creating a person who would sets his sights on a goal and then surpass that goal.
My son is not finished.
Just today he asked, “What should I do next?”
I shrugged, confident he will figure it out.
Because that’s what he does.
This year, my son reminded me that individuals can repair the world.
I almost forgot.
How do your children inspire you? Have you ever done a community service project with your family? If so, what kinds of things have you found the most rewarding?