I cry at bar mitzvahs

There is nothing like a lifecycle event to open my heart. Combined with the penetrating power of song and prayer, these moments make me so feel so vulnerable, so very aware of our humanity, of life’s fragility.

Since we moved to Hannaton in late 2010, I’ve been present for six bar or bat mitzvahs, five brises or baby namings. I’ve cried at all of them. Sometimes I’ve cried, too, at Shabbat services during the mishaberach prayer for the ill or during a minyan enabling one of my neighbors to say the mourner’s kaddish. Seven have lost a parent since I’ve lived here.

This past weekend — as our oldest child became a bar mitzvah in the synagogue on Kibbutz Hannaton — it was our family’s turn to be at the center of the community’s attention. My body still reverberates the joy that filled every inch of it on Saturday, as our friends and family welcomed my son into symbolic “adulthood.” At some later date, I might share my reflections on the immense gratitude I feel in response to the volunteer efforts of our friends and extended family so we could simply be present for this occasion. It was a gift like no other.

For family and friends who were not able to attend, and for readers of this blog, below is the dvar torah (a reflection on the weekly chapters of Torah read this past Shabbat) I offered to the community on Friday night in advance of the bar mitzvah. The torah portion, the beginning of Shemot, should be familiar even to non-Jews as it’s the story that is the basis for the film, The Ten Commandments.

I welcome your own reflections in the comments.


 

If Moshe had a bar mitzvah, I wonder what language he would have given the dvar torah in?

We learn in the parsha this week, that Moshe was a Hebrew by birth and in his early years, as he is nursed by his mother, is part of his Hebrew family’s household. Presumably, he learns their language, their traditions; becomes accustomed to them. But — though, we don’t know when exactly — Moshe leaves his early home and grows up in the royal palace, among Egyptian family, and Egyptian friends.

It could be, if Moshe had to give a dvar torah in young adulthood, he might have preferred to speak in his Egyptian language.  This was a revelation to me, and a comfort. That Moshe — one of our greatest heroes — was also a person who lived between two languages, two identities.

We also know Moshe questioned his ability to speak in front of a crowd, to be able to move the people God intended him to move.  He says to God in chapter 4:

“God, I am not a man of words … for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

Maybe that difficulty with speech had something to do with his living between languages.

Recently, inside an old cardboard box, I found the dvar torah from my own bat mitzvah  There it was, my speech, typed up and printed out on 1980s IBM printer paper, marked up first in red by the rabbi and then in blue in my mom’s cursive handwriting.

I read the speech. The words didn’t sound like they came from me. They were the rabbi’s words, and my mother’s. But not mine, not really.

I wondered then, reading my speech from 1987: Do we even have our own words at 13?

Of course we do. Except everyone is trying their hardest to make us say everything else but what we really want to say. They’re trying to shape our words in the same way they’re trying to shape us. In the hopes we’ll grow into smart, kind, loving, good people.

They — our often well-meaning parents, teachers, rabbis — might say to our face, “We love you just the way you are.” But then they act — we act — in a way so counter to this statement. We monitor and evaluate our children’s behavior, we narrate and judge their choices, we edit their words.

I wasn’t very good at speeches when I was 13. Probably because I hadn’t yet found the courage to speak in my real voice, with my choice of words. Since then, I’ve discovered the thrill of sharing my own words with others. Of writing what I think, of investigating my beliefs, of challenging people, of learning others feel the way I do or don’t.

A few weeks ago, however, when I started thinking about writing this speech in honor of Tobey’s bar mitzvah, I got nervous. I found myself asking, What am I going to speak about? What language should I speak in? Would only half the room really be listening if I spoke in English? Would I embarrass Tobey if I spoke in Hebrew? Would I sound like an idiot talking about Torah? Who am I to talk about Torah? Is that really me?

The questions, I realized, were not unlike those of a young person becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

 

*  *  *

 

There’s a movie I used to love as a kid called Freaky Friday. For those of you who don’t know the movie, it’s about a teenage girl and her mother who one morning magically switch places for a few days. As a kid, I loved this movie for the reason most kids love this movie: Wouldn’t it be awesome to get to be a grownup for a day? To switch bodies with my mom and get to be the one to make all the decisions? To CHOOSE the way my day goes, the way my life goes? When to wake up? What to wear? Whether or not to even get out of bed in the morning?

The irony — all of us grownups realize — is that being an adult is a lot harder than a child imagines it is.

But what’s also true — and what grownups often forget — is that being a child is a lot harder than we adults remember.

Being 13 is hard. You’re straddling adulthood and childhood. And you’re not sure, not really, in which direction you’d prefer to travel. Back to fourth grade, when homework was easier and friends were kinder. Or forward, where there is more freedom, but also more responsibility, confusion, and uncertainty.

I’d argue, too, that this splitting of identities is accentuated for a 13 year old living in two languages, two cultures.  English at home but Hebrew at school or on the soccer field. You often might find yourself asking, Tobey, as I often do, who am I? Am I the me in my own mind? Or am I the me out loud? And is there any way to blend the two?

What I want to say to you Tobey is that life is like Freaky Friday. There are days — like in the beginning of the movie — when you wish you were in the body of somebody else. And there are days — after all the madness that ensues — when you realize just how good it is to be you.

And usually we spend more of our time wondering what it might be like to be someone else instead of getting to know better and loving the person we are right now. This is not something that gets much easier in adulthood, but my wish for you this year Tobey and onwards is for a greater awareness of your true you right now.

Who was Moshe really on any given day? What propelled him that day in the fields to strike down the Egyptian? Who was he in the moment he did? Was he a Jew protecting his own? Or a compassionate Egyptian with a general care for humanity?  And what frightened Moshe afterwards? Was it only the idea of getting caught or was it the guilt of hurting someone who was a member of his own community?  Of one of his communities?

Moshe, if you think about it, was both an insider and an outsider wherever he went. There came a time when he had to decide, however, which of his identities was stronger, and that happens to us too, sometimes.

Tobey: I wish for you …to know who you are… and to love who you are. I wish for you self-compassion on the days when you question who you are (and there will be days when you question who you are). I wish for you the wisdom to distinguish between what others want for you and what you want for yourself. Not just in the short-term, but in the long-term. And so I wish for you also patience.

I wish for you a peaceful, quiet place for those times when you need to consider your choices and I wish for you the courage to choose to be YOU in the face of self-doubt or criticism.

You’ve shown us since you were a little boy that you have the makings of a leader. Being a leader is not always easy, though, as you’ve seen both at home and outside of it. I want you to hear today — in front of everybody who loves you  — that Dad and I are proud of you. We trust you and we believe in you.

There is light inside of you that shines so brightly, Tobey. We see it most clearly when you’re playing rough with your brother and sister. We can hear it, even, when you’re laughing with your buddies upstairs.

May your life continue to be filled with that light and may you continue to shine it upon others. Our lives are fuller with you in them.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

There’s no proof

For a new project I’m working on, I’ve been trying to dig up visual evidence of my memories of the Echelon Mall:

A vintage postcard of the Echelon Mall in front of Strawbridge & Clothier

A vintage postcard of the Echelon Mall in front of Strawbridge & Clothier

A place in which I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours trolling trying on silver hanging earrings, drinking bananaberry smoothies, and most of all, hunting for cute boys from neighboring towns.

My memories of the mall prior to adolescence are mostly of Strawbridge & Clothier, a Philadelphia-based department store that anchored the shopping mall when I was a child. My mind’s eye, when I think of those earlier days, is always at waist-level: watching and waiting by the Clinique counter for my mother to exchange lipsticks, watching and waiting next to the cash register while my mother returned an unopened pack of panty hose, watching and waiting inside a clothing rack with my brother until my mother finished browsing the winter coats.

Needless to say, as was the fate of many suburban malls, there is not much that remains of the Echelon Mall of my youth. From what I’ve heard, the Voorhees Town Center complex that exists on the property now is not a bad addition to the retail neighborhood, but it doesn’t serve as the community gathering place and youth social hub the mall was on Fridays and Saturdays when I was a kid and teen.

The Echelon Mall is gone.

It’s not only gone. It’s gone gone, and I’ll tell you why.

There are hardly any pictures.

I’ve searched the internet using a variety of search strings and there are only a handful of photographs to be found. One page of Google results identified the one above, another vintage postcard showing the same scene from a previous decade, a blurry shot of the “e” tower at the entrance on Laurel Road, and a sad-old-man version of the billboard that used to promote Halloween masks on sale at Spencer’s or the Easter Bunny’s impending arrival.

Why the dearth of photographs?

Well, it’s obvious when you think about it: No one had any need to take pictures inside the shopping mall. They were busy shopping. Or eating. Or looking at cute boys. It’s not that we weren’t taking selfies back then; we were. I have tons of photo strips of me and my friends, me and my siblings, me and my boyfriends. I have close-up, nostril gazing snapshots from camp, from the Jersey shore, from concerts. Narcissism wasn’t invented by Apple.

And yet, in almost a dozen saved photo albums and worn envelopes of doubles, there is no glimpse of the food court, nothing from Sam Goody’s, nothing from Woolworth’s or B. Dalton or Accessory Place, not even from outside General Cinema waiting by the street’s edge for my dad to pull up and take us home.

Maybe in a shoebox somewhere there is someone posing for a Polaroid with Santa in front of JC Penneys. And maybe in another there’s an out-of-focus 4 x 6 matte of a Girl Scouts crafts sale or a Gymnastics Academy performance.

I don’t have any of those pictures, though. I don’t have a single shot of the Echelon Mall.

I can’t tell you yet what it is I long for when I long for the Echelon Mall.  In its heyday, the place was a poor man’s Cherry Hill Mall which was a poor man’s King of Prussia. When I shake myself from my nostalgic slumber, I remember even how skanky it was when I was a teen, how sketchy. Guys with cigarettes outnumbered the skater dudes. And their girlfriends with sky high super-sprayed bangs were to be avoided at all costs. In fact, I don’t remember the bathrooms at the Echelon Mall. I think I was afraid of them and the older girls fixing their hair there or the rapists of the many Echelon Mall urban legends. Most likely, though, my bladder was just a lot stronger then than it is now.

I don’t know what it is I long for when I mourn the Echelon Mall. But I’m searching.

I think it has something to do with pictures. With my need for proof.

Witchful thinking

Even though I can’t situate them on a timeline, these are details I have assembled:

1. I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond after I read the Meg mystery books, but before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

2. Before any book, my parents rented for me Escape from Witch Mountain on betamax from the video rental store on Haddonfield-Berlin road.

3. I tried to check out a book once on witchcraft from the Camden County library, but there were none to borrow. No how-to, no expose, no empty slot on the shelf, no card inside a drawer marked Wa – Wi.

4. Once, I was a witch for Halloween. It was the year my parents threw me a Halloween party. This year may have been 1980. It was a popular year for the witch because Maddie Schwartz arrived wearing the same molded mask and plastic yellow trash-bag apron tied around her neck. For the record, when I picture the witch’s face mask, warts and all, it looks less like a woman and more like a man. This is, at least partly, due to a photograph of my father wearing my witch’s mask, and the girls at the party laughing.

5. In the same living room in which my mother set up a folding table to hold the cheese curls and the candy corn at the Halloween party, there was a love seat behind which I hid every year during the holiday broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. I crouched down behind the love seat as the Wicked Witch of the West screamed at me from atop an abandoned cabin in a forest.

6. I wanted, when I was a girl, to meet a real witch, but a nice one. Not so nice like Glenda, more like Samantha, nice, but naughty.

7. Once, I sat in the attic bedroom of my camp friend Hope and, for the first time, met another girl who also secretly wanted to be a witch, or more specifically, wanted to practice witchcraft.

8. The Craft came out a few years too late, but I still watched it.  A few years too late, Willow and Tara made implied love during the Buffy musical, but I still watched that, too.

9. When I still lived in New Jersey, I interviewed a witch for a local newspaper called Patch.com. She called herself a Wiccan and though I may have even asked her at the time, “Why Wiccan and not witch?” I could not explain to you now the difference. I met her at the store she owned in Montclair called Mystic Spirit. At the end of the interview, asthmatic from the incense, I left both longing to be and thankful I was not a Wiccan.

10. There is not one how-to book of spells in my collection, even though once I bought a how-to book of spells from Urban Outfitters and gave it to my friend Susan for her birthday. It might have been Karin I gave the book to. It was someone, a woman who was my friend when I lived in New York, a woman who was my friend with a birthday in June.

Is it witchcraft when you a fold a piece of paper, and then fold it again, and then write numbers on the folds and wishes beneath them?

Is it witchcraft when you settle in at night and chant for health and wealth and love and ease?

Is it witchcraft when you listen to prayers sung in harmony in the hopes you will be transported out and above your self so you may have a better view of your life? A better understanding of what it is to be you?

I watch a clip on YouTube. Tia is still beautiful and Tony is still creepy, and I still, in a way, want to be a witch. And I still in a way, am frightened by the possibility I already am one.

“Come to think of it,” says Tony to his sister Tia before he begins to play the harmonica that will make the marionettes dance. “You can do a lot of things I can’t. Like working locks, and the way you can talk to me without moving your mouth.

Maybe it’s because you’re a girl.”

Maybe.

The Speed of Summer

This has been the summer of slow: of washing the morning’s dishes; scraping and sweeping up Cocoa Pebbles off the ceramic kitchen tiles; straightening the throw pillows on the couch again; hanging pool towels on the line. There have been days when I wanted to scream, when I wished for salvation in the form of a plane ticket to Philadelphia paid for by my mother. There have been days I’ve feebly attempted to convince my 12 year old to wake up before 11 so we can spend a morning off the kibbutz doing “something,” but he’s never acquiesced and I’ve never pushed it.

It is August now, and we’ve done nothing, he and I. It is August, and we’re closer now to the end of the summer than the beginning.

Read more of this post at The Times of Israel.