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.

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.

Writing Derailed

As I struggle to get my ducks in a row vis a vis my life and my time, I realize that there are things that I’m not going to be able to stop, and not going to be able to ignore.  Chief among these is my commitment to my children.  My son Bailey is ten and my daughter Sydney is seven, and they are great kids.  (Will someone please remind me that I’ve said this when Sydney leaves the light on in the bathroom or Bailey forgets to bring his homework to school?)  On most days they’re easygoing and as they’re getting older, they’re less and less demanding.  Somehow when they were ages three and seven, I managed to write a dissertation, so writing now ought to be a piece of cake in comparison.

Yet somehow, it’s not.

When they were littler, I would put them to bed at 7 or 7:30pm and they would miraculously stay there all night, leaving me a few hours of writing time.  I had a doctoral committee breathing down my neck and strict deadlines to meet.  I slept between midnight and 7:00am and it was plenty.

Now that they’re getting older, they stay up later and need help with book reports, problem sheets and the like.  They need to be driven to activities, I have to concentrate when I eat meals with them, and there are endless social events surrounding their friends and their friends’ families.  Their school commands my time (in a loving and interested way) and I’ve been a room mother for two years now.

But the worst and most distracting part of parenting now happens in my brain.  I worry about Sydney’s ability to rattle off her times tables.  I worry about Bailey getting along with some of the kids in his class.  I think about the summer and the long break with our family back in the United States – it’s mostly just the kids and me for ten long weeks – my husband will join us for two and a half of it, but not much.  Thinking it through and planning for that time has taken a lot of my brain power lately.  These are serious issues that take up my time and my energy.  But more than my time, they take up my brain-space.

Today, there was just no room for writing or thinking.  None.

It doesn’t happen often, really.  It’s an occasional bout with life when life wins and knocks me for a loop.  Generally I can compartmentalize the issues so that they fade into the background when I’m writing – whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or academic.  But not every day.

Today I gave myself permission to take a long, hot bath with bath salts, followed by some reading.  This was after a one-hour talk with my mother and another one-hour talk with my best friend.  I was able to relax and clear my mind enough to get to some tasks that needed to get done for my charity work.  I got my son’s glasses repaired.  I wrote this blog posting.  Perhaps tonight when the kids go to bed (not ‘til around 9-ish) I will be able to do some editing on my novel.

The great thing about bad days is that they end.  I will go to bed tonight by 11pm and the day will come to a close.  Tomorrow is a fresh start.  Tomorrow, I will be able to shut off the telephone and concentrate on my writing.  Such is the life of a writer who’s a mother.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.