First came the bill.
Andy left the envelope, with the warning “Brace Yourself” scrawled next to our address, sandwiched between the meatball hero and the wilting salad in my lunch bag. Inside, a form letter from the temple treasurer outlined the fees associated with our son’s bar mitzvah, which had not yet been scheduled, nor indeed agreed upon, for Erez was not yet 12 when the letter came in February and we, his parents, were not yet clear about what—if anything—the ceremony should be. Actually, “not yet clear” is putting it too mildly. We were at loggerheads.
Unaware of our conflict, and hoping that the letter would assist us “in planning for the upcoming simcha,” the treasurer enumerated some of the financial responsibilities we would be taking on if Erez became a son of the commandment (the usual translation of bar mitzvah) during fiscal year 2006-2007. Including private lessons with the rabbi, additional Hebrew school training and the “Bar/Bat Mitzvah Hospitality Package” consisting of kiddush for the congregation and flowers for the bimah, the total came to $1,500. It wasn’t the figure, though, that Andy had felt I might want to brace myself for; $1,500 is not especially high. At the synagogue where I grew up and became a bar mitzvah in suburban Philadelphia, the going rate for manhood is something like $2,000.
But the synagogue fee was merely an hors d’oeuvre. It did not include what has in many cases replaced the rite itself as the main course of the “simcha”: the party. We have attended bar mitzvah celebrations that must have cost $20,000, and heard of some much fancier. We have looked in awe upon the elaborate catering, the deafening entertainment, the photo booths and dance motivators and chopped-liver sculptures of the boy and his family. I almost said the bride and his family; indeed, sometime during the 34 years since I was called to the Torah (and accepted Cross pen-and-pencil sets and Israel Bonds at a self-consciously dignified dairy luncheon with peonies), bar mitzvahs have come to entail the kind of ostentation that used to be reserved for sweet sixteens or, before that, weddings. It seems that the age at which a person merits such Lucullan excess has plummeted in inverse proportion as the age at which anyone might possibly be considered mature has risen. Soon there will be billion-dollar brises, and no adults to engender them.
Even if we no longer expect a 13-year-old to shoulder the adult responsibilities associated with the original ritual—indeed, if we barely expect him to brush his teeth unreminded, let alone end his schooling or understand his relationship to God—he is apparently old enough to prompt a yearlong, ruinously expensive trauma. At first, when Erez’s bar mitzvah was still hypothetical, it seemed easy to avoid the problem by focusing on what we wouldn’t do instead of what we would. We knew, for instance, that we would not be offering our son and his friends the opportunity to enjoy the entertainment offered at one Florida bat mitzvah we’d heard about: a Plexiglas booth equipped with high-power fans blowing paper money. (Guests were invited to spend a minute inside, ignoring the uncomfortable imagery while grabbing as much cash as they could.) If anything, it would be us in the booth, with the fans not blowing but sucking.
But the money was just a convenient cover story for our anxiety. After all, we willingly spend, even overspend, on a good coat, a new roof, piano lessons. And our Brooklyn synagogue, having fallen on hard times since Andy himself became a bar mitzvah there in 1963, is not the kind of place that encourages ostentation. Sabbath dinners, no less than services, are mostly potluck. That we were first contacted about Erez’s bar mitzvah when he was already almost 12 suggests how few children were in the pipeline; at larger congregations, families reserve dates several years in advance, and often compete for (or end up sharing) the most desirable weekends. In short, Union Temple—informal and Reform and egalitarian enough to welcome atheist gay dads like us—is not a wealthy, starchy Goodbye, Columbus country club. Until it recently managed to sell its parking lot to a condo developer, it was even unclear whether the temple could afford to maintain its 77-year-old infrastructure; floods from the top-floor pool, leased to a health club, had a nasty habit of inundating the sanctuary and derailing what little lavishness the occasional bar mitzvah might muster.
No, the onslaught for which we needed to brace ourselves would be existential. How were we to make sense of the bar mitzvah ceremony today—not just generically, but for us, for our son? What were we meant to be marking and celebrating? And whose maturity was being tested in the process? This last was not an idle question. Shortly before the World Trade Center was destroyed, a friend attended a formal bar mitzvah party at Windows on the World: multiple bands, a rock-climbing wall, black tie all around, even for kids. Toward the end of the evening, a procession of waiters bore a giant sheet cake, blazing with candles, into the darkened room. After the newly minted man made his wish and the lights were restored, everyone could read what his parents had chosen to say to their son in the buttercream icing: “Don’t ask us for anything ever again, ever.” Which seemed to me to be a misdelivered message.
As our own bar mitzvah year began, I thought a lot about that cake. What were we asking of ourselves, and of Erez? Perhaps more than other couples, Andy and I came to these questions with dramatically contrasting experiences and expectations. Having grown up in a moderately observant, Conservative family—the kind that kept kosher except at Chinese restaurants—I had more to abandon in abandoning religion, and thus more qualms about any sort of rapprochement. Entering a synagogue feels almost hypocritical to me, unless it’s for a cultural or political function. Even so, while questioning the value of what passes for a religious education today, I have been unwilling to do anything about it, and many years ago consented in Andy’s plan to send Erez and his younger brother, Lucas, to Sunday classes at Union Temple. Even before that, they’d attended preschool at a Lubavitcher synagogue, where the fusion of practice and belief, however compulsory, rendered questions of hypocrisy moot. Observing observance there was a joy, because they believed what they believed without reservation.
But lacking that kind of ecstatic credulity, I can only see the rituals of Judaism—however beloved, however much I enjoyed enacting them when I was young, however comforting they may still remain—as more or less empty obligations to be filled, if at all, with imported meaning. Without that meaning, I feared we were running toward a pool both dry and dangerous. Not Andy, who seeing people swimming believes there must be water. For him, the bar mitzvah is uncomplicated except by my doubts. Having adopted Erez and Lucas when each was just a few weeks old—and having done so against the advice of many around him, let alone in a society that seemed to feel he was, as a gay man, bound to fail—the bar mitzvah was a chance to share the joy of his success, mixed with a bit of I-told-you-so. And perhaps it was also a chance to welcome his older son into the tradition of not understanding everything you must do.
In any case, the arrival of the “financial responsibility” letter initiated a series of (let us call them) discussions that have revealed—more than any other disagreement we’ve faced in the raising of our children—the rough terrain to be traversed between our muddy assumptions and common ground. Guest lists, music, menu, budget, the arrangement and content of the service itself: Each issue intersected maddeningly with the others. If we increased the number of people invited, then either the budget ballooned or the hypothetical menu dwindled. (Goodbye, poached salmon; hello, six-foot heroes.) And the number of people did keep increasing. Andy has a large family, with infinite cousins, very few of whom would be likely to miss the happy event. My guest list, tiny to begin with, seemed further limited by the one sure no-show at its epicenter: my late mother. The last large party we gave was her shiva.
With such emotions and imperatives in play, arguing became gridlock. And yet, for all our wrangling, we barely consulted the one person the wrangling was presumably for. But Erez is not tormented by such concerns. He is cheerfully fatalistic about what he views as an upcoming performance, not unlike playing viola for relatives or participating in a piano recital. These he always claims to dread and then in fact enjoys. He knows that the bar mitzvah ceremony will involve even more practice, in an even more abstruse language: not just vowelless Biblical Hebrew but the code of cantillation embedded in the tiny, runic markings called trope. On the other hand, he likes the opportunity to do well and somehow suspects that, once again, he will. Furthermore, having been a Jew since he was circumcised (a bit belatedly) at three weeks of age, he seems to accept this as an unavoidable milestone that has toppled in his path. If it cannot be circumvented, it must be gotten over.
And so, with a calm child but unsettled feelings, we made the first firm choice of our bar mitzvah year. One Sunday last month, while Erez and Lucas and their Hebrew school friends reviewed the Four Questions and Ten Plagues elsewhere in the building, we and the parents of six other prospective b’nai mitzvah met with the rabbi for background information and the fateful scheduling. There were plenty of Saturdays near Erez’s birthday to choose among; in the end, we selected March 10 on the basis of what the rabbi called its “juicy” Torah portion, Ki Tisa. She was right, even though it begins unpromisingly with head counts and tax policy and the tedious specifications for the oil to be used in anointing the ark—a passage in which God comes across as a kind of fussy party planner. What part of “no myrrh” do you not understand? But fittingly enough, it ends with the Golden Calf.