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.
Ever been surprised by your child’s wisdom?
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