The Bar Mitzvah Boy – On “A Hopeful Sign”

Photo by Fotik, all rights reserved.

This week I want to share with you my latest post on the e-zine “A Hopeful Sign.”  If you don’t know it, the site is truly beautiful, with posts from across the globe written by an interesting and dedicated group of people who think positively.  I have been writing for them and receiving their posts daily for about 18 months now, and every day I am awed by the incredible photography, hopeful messages, and fascinating ideas the writers share.

This piece is about Bailey’s bar mitzvah, and the way it connected us all to the past while allowing us to glimpse the future.  I look forward to hearing your comments.

Here’s the link to the site: http://ahopefulsign.com/making_a_difference/the-bar-mitzvah-boy

Please click the link, but if you would really prefer, the text is here:

I didn’t know that poised, confident young man who stood before the congregation leading the service.  He bore a strong resemblance to my 13-year-old son, but surely my child wasn’t as talented and engaging as this boy – or was he?

Strangely enough it was indeed my child up there.  Bailey, age thirteen, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah.  Literally translated, it means “son of the commandments” and it’s the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony that recognizes a boy’s entrance into adulthood in the eyes of world Jewry.  It generally involves leading a service and reading from the Torah, all in Hebrew.  So this is something for which Bailey had been studying for months.

The unusual part of Bailey’s bar mitzvah, however, is that he is doing it twice.  The first one was in August in the U.S. with our entire family, and the second one is in October with our Tokyo community.  It was important to Bailey to have this celebration with his extended family, all of whom are in the U.S., but also with his own friends, at his own synagogue, with the rabbi who had been teaching him for the past three years, even though that place was halfway across the globe. So while I kept on him to study, he was largely self-motivated, wanting to please his grandparents in the U.S. and his beloved rabbi in Tokyo, even if that meant learning two different services.

One of the beauties of Judaism is that the readings from the Torah are cyclical and proscribed.  I feel very comfortable knowing that every Jew around the world is reading the same section of the Torah on any given Saturday.  But given that parameter, it meant that Bailey would have to learn a different portion for the October bar mitzvah than the August one.  And still, he never batted an eyelash.

On this special day, Bailey carried with him, on his person, proof of his heritage.  He was wearing my grandfather’s mezuzah, a casing containing a special prayer, around his neck; he wore my other grandfather’s watch.  He wore my husband’s grandfather’s tie-tack, and as the icing on the cake, he wore his grandfather’s tallis, or prayer shawl, which his grandfather’s grandfather had worn to his bar mitzvah.  Bailey had a piece of ceremonial regalia from his great-great-grandfather.

Only moments before starting the service, Bailey had dragged me away from the gathering crowd to a private room where no one could see us.  “I can’t do it,” he said, and started to cry.  My first reaction, which thankfully I didn’t show, was panic.  Luckily rationality took over and I just held him and let him cry for a moment.  Any mother would tell you that sometimes all a kid needs is a good hug, not words or even treats.  Just a hug.  “It’s a lot of pressure,” I told him, hoping to validate his feelings.  “Do you want to do a quick run-through right this second?”

Bailey nodded and dried his eyes while I snuck out and retrieved his study materials.  We had a quick, ten-minute, last-second rehearsal right there.  When he was through, he stood up and looked straight at me.  He looked so dapper, that boy of mine.  He wore his first full-on suit, a blue striped shirt and a snazzy tie.  The shoes, straight from Nordstrom’s, tied the whole outfit together.

I searched his eyes as he looked at me. “You’re okay,” I said to him and he nodded.  I repeated it.  “You are okay.”

This boy, this baby of my heart, as I used to call him when he was little, stood up in front of 120 of our closest friends and family members and performed like a champ. No one would know that he had had a little meltdown only moments prior.  He sang with a rich, strong tone and spoke clearly without a waver to his voice.  He delivered his d’var Torah, a word of Torah that explained what he read and his interpretations of it, without missing a beat. He bantered lightly with the rabbi, and hugged his grandparents when they went up to share the sweet moment with him.

At times like these, it’s hard to recognize the sometimes-surly child who makes an appearance at the breakfast table each morning, or the scatterbrained kid who can never find all of the elements of a homework assignment at one time.  But it is moments like these that give us hope.  It is moments like these that connect us to the past, yet I could see a glimpse of the man my son has the potential to become.  In an increasingly cynical world where religion sometimes takes a backseat to other, more modern activities, watching a child take his place next to his ancestors as a young man proud of his heritage and ready to take on all of the rights and responsibilities thereof, is like receiving a gift of a vision of the future.

After the service, there was dinner and dancing, and Bailey danced like a brick wall had been lifted from his shoulders, as well he should have.  Joy, hope and pride all mixed together to form a twinkle in his eye and he whirled and played.  I have a feeling that I will recognize that twinkle many times in the years to come.  I cannot wait to watch.

This Is Not Your Father’s Math Homework

Tonight I watched my son, Bailey, do his math homework and at first, he did exactly what I expected him to do.  He surveyed the worksheet, got out his graph paper and worked through the one main problem, ultimately creating a graph for the outcome, before reaching a final solution.  It was just like I used to do for my own math homework centuries ago.

That’s where the resemblance ended, however.

Bailey’s next step was to take a video of himself (with his school-required laptop with camera in it) explaining in great detail what his solution was  and how he arrived at it.  The video ended up being approximately 5 minutes long.

After taking the video and saving it on his hard drive, Bailey uploaded it to Google Docs, to the video section.

Next, he made sure to click the little box saying “make the video public on the web with a sign-in required.”  That allowed him to share the video only with those to whom he gives the password.

In Google Docs Bailey is able to retrieve and copy the “embed code” for the video which allows him to embed the video elsewhere.

And lastly, Bailey had to create a blog post on his personal blog, which he has through school.  He calls it his “Bailey-verse.”  He has the blog organized by class – he has to blog now for most of his classes, even for the strings orchestra. Please note that Bailey had to paste the embed code into the HTML section of his blog post and not in the regular creation part of it because then the code would appear, but it wouldn’t link properly to the video on Google Docs.

The finally, he was done with it.

Whew, that bears absolutely no resemblance to the math homework I used to do!  I am proud and confused all at the same time.  Bailey is no different from any of his peers at the American School in Japan; I don’t think he works with any particular facility, but he has just done it enough times that it’s second nature now.  Not every assignment has to be done in this way, but for a significant portion of them per month, he goes through this process.    I could say all sorts of trite things right here about how my children will never know a world without computers, or that he already knows more about software than I do, or even that he has terrible handwriting, but I don’t care because he never needs to write any more.  But you already know all those things; I don’t need to repeat them or elaborate on them.  I could also get morose and wonder if Bailey is really better off with all of these steps or if he just has to do more work than I did in 7th grade.  But is that going to hurt him, even if it’s true?  Most likely not.

How did he learn this stuff, I wanted to know.  He said that the computer people showed them some videos at the start of the year and he has learned other stuff from his fellow students and classmates.  They share knowledge well, it seems.  It this knowledge-based economy now, the ability and willingness to share what you know is a commodity.

Right now I’m going to just enjoy my little glimpse into what seems to be a very bright future indeed.  Go tell your kid to do his math homework and see what you find out.

A Baby No Longer

This is a photo of the Baby of my Heart, as I have always called Bailey, at age one, nearly twelve years ago.  He loved boxes and would squeal with delight if he saw the UPS guy in our driveway.  It never mattered what the boxes contained; the boxes were the fun part.  As you can see, most often Bailey himself ended up in the box.

He has always been a talker, this boy of mine.  He talks through his feelings and ideas, and can give you the play-by-play of every baseball, basketball or soccer game in which he has ever played and scored.  This past week when he was away with a grade-seven trip to Izu, south of Tokyo, the house was wildly quiet.  He has also always been an independent and curious person, eager to explore the world and what it has to offer.  He never went through an attachment phase and he has never minded leaving my side to go to school, to a sleepover, or even sleep-away camp.  He is always happy to come home and holds on tight when he’s here, but leaving is not an issue.

So last night, after the three days away with very little sleeping, he went to bed early.  By 2:30am he was in my room, waking me up.  “I feel funny, Mom,” he said.  Well, it’s really to be expected, I explained.  Just as his body is changing through puberty, so is his brain.  Part of the issue was that when they were away near the beach, they were required to shake out their shoes lest there be a caterpillar in them – the biting type of bugs, and he was concerned that one might have gotten into his stuff that he brought home.  His bag, when he brought it into the house and opened it, exploded in a mass of wet and stink! I assured him that we had already thrown his entire bag into the laundry and there was not a bug in sight.  But then he went into the particulars of the social nuances of the week he had spent.  There was one kid on the trip who was a bully and no one liked him any better on the trip than they did at school.  There was one boy on the trip who is “different” – on the autism spectrum – and Bailey tried his best to include him with varying degrees of success.  He talked to and played card games with girls for the first time.  He was concerned that some of the teasing that occurred on the trip would be carried over back into school.  He feels glad that he has a lot of friends spread out over various social “groups” at school, but gets frustrated that the groups, which he is experiencing for the first time, exist at all.  He keeps asking why everyone can’t just sit together – why does he have to choose which group to sit with at lunch every day?

All of those questions and that information came out in the hour between 2:30 and 3:30am last night.  I didn’t say much – just listened and gave a few minor suggestions. Finally, as his talking slowed, I told him to just go to sleep.  Just stay there and go to sleep.  As he fell asleep and I stroked his hair, I assured him that he was normal. I told him I appreciated that he wanted to talk to me and that I would never say no to a conversation.  If he wanted me in the middle of the night, he should always come to get me – or his dad.  I did assure him that we are good for talking in the middle of the day, also, and at other times when we’re normally supposed to be awake.

The baby in the box is definitively out of the box and out in the real world these days.  In just three months he will be a teenager and I feel like we’re just at the start of the all the changes that are on the horizon.  It is going to be a wild ride, I am certain.  But I do realize that if I can get Bailey to keep talking to me, then we’re most likely going to get through it just fine.  I admire the young man he is becoming as much as I adored that little boy in the box.   Here  we go.

Suzuki Violin Concert – A Benefit for Tohoku that Personifies Japan

On Tuesday, my daughter participated in a Suzuki Association of Japan concert to benefit the Tohoku region.  The whole thing was done with typical Japanese style and organization, and it was a wonderful experience (mostly) that we won’t soon forget.

Forget for a moment that Sydney is 9, and I burst with pride with whatever she does. (No photos allowed in and around the hall, by the way, so no pics of her this time)  She’s my kid – I’m a typical parent. It took guts to be one of only 3 white kids in a group of about 200 kids in her group.  Sydney is accustomed to such situations, though, and my amazement didn’t cause her to even blink twice.  But that’s not my point.

Rehearsals for this major undertaking began in late February, on a Sunday.  Marc took Sydney to a hall in Ikebukuro, about an hour from our house, for a 1-hour rehearsal with the group and the conductors.  I took her again two Sundays later and again last Tuesday, but to a closer hall in Okubo, only 30 minutes on the train.  The first hall, where Marc took her, was normal sized and could accommodate the crowd, but the place I went with Sydney was too small, in a basement, airless, and hot.  There were no seats for either kids or parents.  In addition, Okubo is Korea-town, which is wildly popular right now.  The swarms of people in the streets and crowding the sidewalks caused us to walk with a straight-armed shuffle.  We probably could have lifted our feet and been swept by the group, that’s how crowded it was on a sunny Sunday and a National holiday Tuesday.  Needless to say, not a great experience on the rehearsal thing.  Luckily, Sydney is speaking enough Japanese these days to understand enough of what the conductor was telling her, so she was able to follow the expectations of the group, making it less painful for her than me, watching her amid the other 100 or so Tiger Moms poised to jump at the smallest sign of stress.

And it is indeed the Tiger Mother concept that intrigued me the most about all this.  Living here in Japan, I come into contact with it peripherally sometimes, but every now and then it hits me smack in the face.  There were real rules and regulations for this thing that the mommies were expected to acknowledge and follow.  First of all, we were told we had to attend all 3 rehearsals or not go to the concert.  Then we were given a little tag for Sydney to wear, showing her group number on it.  We had to fill out the back.  I got my own tag, as Sydney’s mother, to accompany her to rehearsals.  We were warned 3 times to make sure we had safety pins with us for the tags.  Clearly, as evidenced by the lack of fathers in sight, it was the mommies who were dealing with this.  Well, that and I kept hearing the Japanese word for “mother” from the conductor’s mouth as she explained everything.

Then there was a form to put into the violin case, lest it get lost.  It didn’t just have a name and address on it, but also the teacher’s name.  There was a form to buy the DVD, because of course there is no filming or even photography at Suntory Hall.  Sydney had to wear a white blouse, black bottoms and black shoes with preferably white socks.  We were to arrive at Suntory Hall at precisely 11:20, having both fed and pottied our children.  These rules were told to me in perfect Japanese, of which I understood little, and then repeated in multiple forms, given to me multiple times, and then finally translated for me by our teacher.  The regimentation of everything, and the strict rules, not to mention the strict adherence to those rules, sometimes makes me, a Westerner, a little batty.  But I’ve been doing it long enough that I have learned to roll with it, and do my best.

All that being said, the concert itself was majestic.  There were cellists and flutists as well.  There were beautiful ensemble pieces played by what amounted to a string orchestra.  All of the pieces – and it was a two-hour concert – were played by children between the ages of 3 and 18.  None had yet graduated from high school, and each piece was played with the love and care of a master.  And being Suzuki children, there was not a single piece of sheet music in sight.  While Suzuki kids can read music after the first few years, they play by ear, always memorizing their pieces. These were remarkable children.

The most moving part of the concert was when they brought out eight children who had traveled to Tokyo from their home in Sendai, an area badly affected by the earthquake and Tsunami.  The children spoke of their homes and their violin playing – and their hope for the future.  They were happy to be in Tokyo and playing at Suntory Hall, the Carnegie Hall of Tokyo.

The entire afternoon – and between the rehearsals and concert itself, it was a whole day, pretty much – was a very Japanese experience.  It was organized, regimented, proscribed, somewhat annoying, and in the end, just lovely.

Parenting and Writing

There are definitely days when I feel sorry for my kids.  Having a writer for a mother cannot be easy.  At ages 9 and 12, they have not yet discovered all the places where their lives are exposed for the world to see and on which to make comment.  Not only do I keep a regular blog on which they appear often, but I write monthly for “A Hopeful Sign” which is more of an e-zine devoted to messages of hope, optimism and beauty and they’re often the focus of the stories.  I have written about Bailey in a magazine called Asian Jewish Life and I had a two-page spread a few years ago about both kids and my observations about their Montessori classrooms in the official magazine of the International Montessori Association, Today’s Child.  Sometimes little blurbs about them appear in my academic writing since I test out so many of my pedagogical theories on them first.  When I give speeches, I tell anecdotes about them, and in my classrooms, all of my students invariably know a lot about what the kids are doing.  Admittedly I used them as entree for lessons.

It is my choice to self-disclose in a public way.  Bailey and Sydney, however, have not made this choice – their public mother has made it for them.  Actually, at this point they still like it somewhat.  They feel famous.  I haven’t yet mentioned to them that the venues in which I publish aren’t quite national news and that their fame has a  limited  readership.

Oh, there are a lot of things I don’t discuss, including the kids’ schools, friends, doctors’ appointments – those are strictly tabo0.  As they move into teenage-hood, I imagine the list of “don’ts” will increase by their demand.  I have already heard, “Mom, are you going to write about this?”  I wasn’t sure of the mood or motivation of the question.

But for now, the kids are my best fodder.  They interest me, and it is a challenge and a goal to make their escapades and adventures interesting to potential readers.  As a writer, I’m always looking into real life for interesting ideas in both fiction and non-fiction.  Of course my family is my first go-to for material.  And hopefully, thirty years from now, after years of very expensive therapy, both of my children will be able to talk easily, if not disparagingly, about their mother the writer.

Nobody loves you like I do, Kid.

I Have A Daughter, Too!

Sydney and I had a ball getting her ready for the father-daughter dinner dance this year!

I write so often about Bailey and his issues and antics, that I have woefully neglected my daughter, Sydney, who is just as interesting as her brother, but in a wholly different way.  Since Bailey is away at camp for much of the month, I have had the singular experience of one-on-one time with Sydney.  What I’ve discovered is that she is a really neat kid in her own right.

Sydney is a bundle of contradictions.  In one moment she’s a princess, and in the next moment, she’s scoring a goal on the soccer field.  She likes to cook and bake, but she loves riding her bike just as much.  Some days she wants to sit in my lap and be my baby, and some days she wants to be left to her own independent devices. Sydney is nine years old, and these types of activities are supposed to happen concurrently; she is supposed to be exploring what she likes and what she’s good at.

Recently, I have noticed that she has a particular skill in processing information.  She takes in what I (or anyone for that matter) tells her, thinks about it and then is able to regurgitate what was said with her own brand of understanding.  She can articulate feelings and ideas easily, and she is always aware of the emotions of the people around her.

Of course she can drive me crazy in twenty seconds or less with her constant chatter and utter insistence on being in control of every situation (I wonder where she gets that from…) but that’s the mother-daughter relationship talking.  In the past two weeks, we’ve taken a road-trip, eaten dinner with various

Sydney and her very favorite activity: EATING!

friends, spent time in many places where there were only adults and no one for her to play with, and done many other things that required extreme flexibility.  She has handled all of it with grace and charm.

I’m sure as time goes on, I will be able to tell some more specific stories that illustrate her personality and the particular daughter-based issues that she and I have, but for now, I’ve just been enjoying her and want to share that with you.

Kids and Art

Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Picture Fund, 37.375. Photograph ©2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A rainy Saturday in the city calls for a bit of creativity on the part of the parents.  Luckily in a dynamic place like Tokyo, it’s not all that difficult.

What we decided on was the National Art Center, Tokyo because they have a Renoir exhibit that is only here for a few more weeks.  Both Marc and I are

huge fans of Impressionist art.  It felt really crazy to be looking at European art in the middle of an Asian capital, but the paintings were so beautifully hung with such obvious care to their order and organization.  The explanations were clear and interesting – and many of them were in English.  It was more English than I’ve seen at an exhibit in Japan ever.

The kids were great.  They read the explanations; they enjoyed the paintings; and they were interested in the section of the exhibit where the curators had taken both x-rays and infrared photos of the paintings so they could study their structure and composition and color.

At first they did not want to go but Marc and I were persistent.  We took them out to dim sum for lunch and asked them to behave themselves so that we could all enjoy the exhibit.  We made them part of the decision to go see the paintings.  And of course, there was a tiny bit of bribery involved.  We all love dim sum on a Saturday for lunch.

Even with all that, I’m still so pleased with the way the kids behaved and how they handled themselves.  It was a wonderful way to spend a rainy Saturday.