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.

 

 

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True Story

I asked you your name

Shahar

because I knew the only way to repay you
would be to write you a poem —

that there would be no handing over of cash,
no exchange of phone numbers for future use.
I knew I could never collapse in your arms there
and weep as I might have had we been alone
or had you been an inch taller or wider.

Could not even touch your shoulder tenderly
to let you know that I know
that you

Shahar

are the human in humanity.

Your black knitted cap, a tad too wide for your delicate skull
may be what stopped you from continuing along the dirt road
when you saw me waving my arms from the highway above.

Your black knitted cap was certainly what stopped me
from wrapping my arms around your 54 kilos when you finally
succeeded in screwing on the spare.

I asked you your name before we parted

Shahar

because I knew then what I know now
which is that all there was between us is all
there ever will be, that once you changed
my tire and afterwards I asked you your name.

Nibs give you magical powers, and other lies I told under the influence of candy

If I had written this article on the 25 best candy bars of all time, I probably would have replaced Caramello with Rolos, and left out anything with coconut. But to be fair Rolos isn’t a bar, which is probably why the author chose Caramello in the first place.

My first reaction to seeing the post in my Twitter feed was impulsive:

“Hey, it’s Halloween season! Who can I get to ship me some candy corn to Israel?”

My second reaction, after I read the article was:

“Man, it sucks that my kids have nut allergies. I really miss Butterfingers. More than I miss Reese’s and way more than I miss Snickers.”

But then something about seeing all these old friends — candy bars I haven’t touched in years — caused me to delve deeper.

In particular, the nougat-filled Charleston Chew shined a light into the subterranean caverns of my memory.

I remembered a better chew.

The Goldenberg’s Original Peanut Chew.

peanut chew

It was my favorite 5 cent purchase at the synagogue gift shop each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon when I was in elementary school.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were for Hebrew school, and for candy treats I could buy on my own. 4 pm was prime traffic time for the glass-enclosed gift shop at the end of a long hallway peppered with synagogue administrative offices. We lined up one behind the other inside the narrow non-room that was the gift shop, carefully avoiding the stained glass menorahs and brass kiddush cups sitting a top plexiglass shelves.

There was no regular, lovable character serving us at the register. No Candy Man. No Nat from the Peach Pit to welcome us. Just a retired old lady who walked over once or twice a week from the Windsor Towers to make a few bucks selling Judaica and sweets.

They didn’t sell regular candy at the gift shop, not that I can remember at least.

No Milky Ways or Hershey Bars or KitKats. The kind of treats you’d beg your mom for while waiting in line to pay for groceries at Pathmark.

No, the offerings at the gift shop were always obscure — come to think of it, either they were cheaper wholesale so the synagogue could make a higher margin of profit; or maybe back then, only B grade candy got a kosher certification.

Only old ladies dead and gone know for sure.

When I wasn’t buying 5 cent mini Peanut Chews, I was splurging on stick candy —

©Copyright 2010 Lewis Chocolate & Candies All Rights Reserved

©Copyright 2010 Lewis Chocolate & Candies All Rights Reserved

Rootbeer was my favorite.

I also sucked on Necco wafers, Junior Mints, Broke my teeth on Mary Janes.

Something I never bought, but my little brother always did was Nibs. I was never a licorice fan. I’d eat a red Twizzlers if you gave it to me for free, but I wasn’t going to spend my penny candy money on licorice.

Nibs were (are) tiny bite-sized cherry flavored licorice candies that were packaged in a semi see-through pink plastic bag.

One morning, as my brother and I were waiting for the bus at the corner of our street, he pulled out a half-eaten bag of Nibs from the bottom of his backpack.

“What are those?” asked Pretty, the Indian girl who lived down the street from us.

My brother and I looked at each other quickly. Pretty was not only burdened with the enormous weight of being named Pretty, but she was also gullible.

We had played a few harmless tricks on her before — told her we could make the pictures on our — ahem  Freezy Freaky — gloves disappear using only our breath.

Earlier in the year, I easily convinced her my hair was really a wig, by moving my bangs back and forth slowly with my hand pressed hard against my forehead. She never bothered to ask why I had to wear a wig. She simply … believed.

Our tricks never really hurt Pretty — in fact, I’d say they added wonder and delight to her early mornings. But, as a mother, I know the tricks we played on Pretty would not be antics I’d want my kids caught doing to other children today. You live, you learn, and (hopefully) you realize that just because something makes you laugh, doesn’t mean it’s funny.

When my brother pulled out the Nibs that morning — a synagogue gift shop purchase and therefore an unusual and rare confectionery find for our non-Jewish schoolmates — we jumped on the opportunity to delight Pretty …and yes, test how far we could go,

“What are those?” asked Pretty.

“They’re magical candies,” I answered. “When you eat them, you can read people’s minds.”

“Not true!” Pretty exclaimed. She wasn’t stupid … just a bit of a sucker, if you’ll excuse the candy metaphor.

“Yes, true,” said my brother, passing me a “how are we going to pull this off” look.

“Listen,” I told Pretty. “I know it sounds weird, and maybe it doesn’t work for everyone, but yesterday when we were eating these, we totally read each other’s minds.”

“Really?” she said, looking back to my brother for confirmation.

My brother and I both casually nodded our heads.

“We didn’t believe it either, but after eating just one, suddenly I knew he was lying about a secret room he found playing Adventure.” I said, pointing to my brother. “He didn’t find it.”

My brother glared at me. This was a real argument we had the night before. We both had been searching for weeks for the elusive gray dot our cousin Greg had told us about.

“Wow. Can I try one?” Pretty asked.

My brother looked at me, uncertain of what would come next.

“You can,” I said, “but not now. It’s not good to do it right before school.”

“Why not?” asked Pretty.

“It’ll be too loud in your head — all those thoughts — you’ll get a headache.” I had read way too many young adult novels featuring characters with ESP.

Pretty considered this for a second and then said, “You’re probably right. It’s not a good idea. I’ll wait til after school.”

By the end of the day, however, after the bus dropped us off again at the corner, my little brother had already eaten the remaining Nibs. Conveniently, there were none left for Pretty to try.

And frankly, I don’t remember if she simply dropped the matter or if I came up with a reason why we never brought Nibs to the bus stop again.

But I do wonder where Pretty is now — and whether or not she ever truly believed our stories, or if she was, indeed the smartest one of us all, by approaching a remarkable claim with curiosity, instead of cynicism. Choosing to believe first, understand later.

A poem about Israel

For my 15-minute Friday exercise, I jotted down some thoughts I had while celebrating/not-celebrating the Jewish High Holidays in Israel this year.

The poem I produced out of this exercise may be found here on The Times of Israel  and is a culmination of both my confusion and my devotion; of my acceptance and my denial. It is an admission of judgment — of myself, as well as others. And it is a declaration of hope.

Or maybe it’s just a poem.

A whim. A wish.  An exercise. A prayer.

Amen.