Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bar mitzvah

Many events over the past two years could have warranted a blog entry: the World Cup, the death of l’Abbé Pierre, Marcel Marceau or Saddam Hussein, Nicolas Sarkozy’s election and subsequent escapades, the release of the iPhone, the Arche de Zoé affair, the most recent round of strikes, or France’s newest anti-smoking laws, which ban the practice in all public buildings, including bars and restaurants. S. and I are looking forward with glee to telling restaurant owners that it is now a pleasure to dine out.

But I had decided that the next time I wrote, the subject would be personal, not political. That subject has come: B.’s bar mitzvah and our subsequent trip to Israel.

For those readers who might not know what a bar mitzvah is, suffice it to say that it’s a rite of passage for 13-year-olds in the Jewish religion. The bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) reads a passage from the Torah (the Pentateuch) and/or the Haftarah (a selection from the Prophets), and is recognized as an adult member of the Jewish community, responsible for all of his/her subsequent actions. This is usually followed by much rejoicing.

In our case, it was joyful, but it was also an emotional bar mitzvah, in particular because there was a big downside to the event. B.’s grandmother A. passed away at the end of July after a four-year battle with cancer, less than five months before B.’s big day. I remembered her involvement in the planning of our wedding and thought back on all the years I knew her since then. What a treat it would have been for her to see her elder grandson become a young man. We missed her softness, her savoir-vivre, her wisdom and most of all, her presence.

Also, our synagogue had been through an upheaval over the previous year. Our president fell ill and died rather suddenly just about a year ago. She had devoted her life to our congregation, but with her gone, the factions were laid bare. The rabbi, who had inspired B. and other bar mitzvah “candidates” to devote themselves to study, found himself in profound disagreement with many prominent members of the congregation and resigned in September.

Now, you don’t replace a “liberal”, i.e. conservative/reform rabbi in France at the drop of a kippa. If you wanted to count the total number of such rabbis in France on your fingers, you wouldn’t run out of fingers. All the others are orthodox. So since September we have had to call upon a rabbi who also officiates at another “liberal” synagogue 500 kms away in Toulouse. Luckily, our shared rabbi was to be in Lyon on December 15.

Rather than lose interest and drift away, B. was dedicated and determined to go through with this. After all, he had already invested several years in Hebrew school and 12-15 months in bar mitzvah preparation. So was I, for B. had asked me to read (i.e. chant) the Haftarah and I had already invested three months in that! In fact, the whole family felt involved in a common endeavor.

Not only did B. read from the Torah, he also led most of the service on Friday evening and on Saturday morning. In this respect, he did more than many bar mitzvah boys in orthodox synagogues. He sang in Hebrew and read in French and English, all with remarkable fluency, as if he had been doing it for years. Oh yes, he had been (see above). Then there was his sermon, his commentary on the week’s Torah portion (“Vayigash”), focusing on the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers when they come to see him in Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. At first, the idea of preparing this sermon terrified B. He did not know where to start. Especially as there had developed within the congregation a sort of arms race. In the preceding months, it seemed that each successive bar/bat mitzvah tried to equal if not surpass his/her predecessor in terms of intellectual prowess. If one cited Rashi, the next would cite Maimonides, and so forth. B. did not feel up to this. In the end, with coaching from a teacher at the synagogue, he described, in his own words, what the Torah portion meant for him, relating it to his own life.

He also thanked the people in his life who had helped him in his achievement. Then he had a very emotional moment. He was thanking his grandfather for driving him to and from his bar mitzvah lessons, even though his grandmother was very sick at the time. Suddenly the tears welled up in his eyes, his throat knotted and he couldn’t continue. It was a pregnant moment, and everyone waited. Then he reached down somewhere and brought up the courage to go on.

I could go on for many screens praising my son, but I’ll stop now. I’ll just add that all the emotions so close to the surface must have touched other people too, because several of our guests told us how moved they were, how beautiful it all was. Perhaps they were also thinking of that particularly emotional moment.

With A.’s passing so heavy on our hearts, we had no real desire to make a big party, but we wanted B. to enjoy a celebration of some kind. So the next day we had a lunch, primarily for our closest family members, and a week later, we took off on a two-week trip to Israel. But that will be the subject of a future post.



At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Que d'émotions en lisant ce récit. Tu as raison d'être fier de B. Il fut remarquable.

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merci Steve d'avoir repris ta plume, j'adore ton style!

At 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very beautiful. From the heart rather than the ego - quite a developed young man.

At 8:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surprise : je comprends l'anglais – pardon l'américain – avec toi !
Feras-tu un article pour Kol haYona ?

At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'était très intéressant en tant que catholique d'accompagner B. dans son passage à la vie d'adulte dans votre synagogue.On vous sent très unis et très proche, la famille est une vraie force chez vous c'est beau à voir, un bel exemple pour nous Tous à suivre ! Danie B.


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