(This article originally appeared in the J-weekly Mixed and Matched column.)
Dear Dawn: My son Joey’s bar mitzvah was scheduled for June of this year and now it can’t happen as planned. Our synagogue is closed. Some of my son’s peers are having a Zoom bar mitzvah on their scheduled date and planning to have a chance to read their Torah portion to the congregation at a later date. I’m not sure how that will work. Everything is so chaotic. I want to go ahead and do the bar mitzvah on Zoom and do something else later. But my son is adamant that he will not feel like it is the real thing if he does it online. He says doing something additional later will be anti-climactic since he will have “already sort of become a bar mitzvah.” He also wants his bar mitzvah to be “just like” his older brother’s with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins present. My husband isn’t Jewish and just wants Joey to be happy. I don’t think my husband is taking this as hard as I am. Also, how can my son become a bar mitzvah over the internet; is that even a real thing? I don’t know what to do. Should I insist on him doing it online on the scheduled date? — Stressed Mom
Dear Stressed: Take a deep breath. Part of what you are going through is the result of the confusion and uncertainty that we are all experiencing daily. The pandemic has tossed all the patterns of our lives out the window.
You have seen your son through his studies, invited family and friends, arranged for the details of the Torah service and the party to follow. Now none of this will happen as planned. Of course you are feeling awful and stressed.
You may be feeling that since your husband isn’t Jewish he isn’t taking this as hard as you are. Another possibility is that he is trying to be calm and steady for you.
Your son’s determination to have a ceremony that feels personally authentic is admirable. His desire to have family and friends around him is a very Jewish perspective. All our lifecycle events are communal. I think your husband’s instinct to support your son’s desire at this time is wise. This is clearly something that Joey is taking seriously.
You ask if a bar mitzvah done online can be a “real thing.” Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means that a child becomes a son or daughter of the commandments. This spiritual responsibility occurs when a child turns 13.
When they wake up on their 13th birthday they are a bar or bat mitzvah. Being called to the Torah is simply an honor that acknowledges this fact. In the same way that an American child can vote the day they become 18, a Jewish child becomes a Jewish adult, responsible to fulfill the mitzvot, when they become 13. (In traditional communities, a girl becomes bat mitzvah at age 12.)
Your son understands that in postponing his bar mitzvah he will have to retain his Torah-reading skills and be prepared to lead the entire service at the synagogue at an unknown date. Kudos to him. Please tell him that I am impressed and delighted by his commitment.
You are now a part of history.
Being a part of history is not always pleasant, but it is significant and important to recognize.
As each week goes by with the shelter-in-place orders, I see families and synagogues coming up with more and more strategies for coping with how to observe Jewish life.
Additionally some folks are adding new rituals to enhance our newly limited practices. Some families are allowed to go into their synagogue, alone, to borrow the shul’s torah scroll. Some extended family members may park outside the house of the celebrant and sing loudly from their cars.
I loved reading in J. about the creativity of the parents of Raizel Mahgel-Friedman, members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul in Berkeley.
Lifecycle events are part of what makes us feel whole.
Ask Joey if there are some special things that he would like to do to acknowledge his new status on his birthday. Maybe he would enjoy taking on a Jewish practice that is new to him as of that date. Mazel tov!