Teacher-appreciation day approaches in February 2017, at our temple’s Hebrew school in Raleigh, North Carolina, so the night before I am baking coconut macaroons. Macaroons are my recipe—the thing I make. I open cupboards checking for supplies: coconut flakes, vanilla, eggs, sugar, chocolate for melting. Whatever I lack, I can run to the store to get; I could run to the store to get 50 of whatever I need. The store shelves are piled high with food, every kind of food. I stand on a tile floor in my kitchen and stare at my cupboards. People have been kicking over tombstones in Jewish cemeteries, calling in bomb threats to Jewish schools and temples. I usually think of teacher appreciation as thanks for putting up with our kids for a few hours a week and helping make sure they know about their heritage. Now I am thanking teachers for putting their lives on the line every time they come to the synagogue. As I suppose my children do, too, and we do when we go.
Activist Amy Siskind adjures us to take notes, to remind ourselves of weekly depredations, because under rising fascism things change rapidly and it is important to remember. Yale professor Timothy Snyder publishes a list of ways to stay alert and aware that is so powerful and popular that it becomes a book. I find that what I want to do above all is document what is, how things are as this begins; I fear that before long this simple act of making cookies will be a distant memory. I think we will look back with disbelief at the time we could just go to the store and buy ingredients. I fear we will look back and remember when the streets were unblocked, when at least some of us thought we could trust the police, when we had electric power and clean water every day. I hope I am being hyperbolic but I doubt it. I stand in front of my full cupboard, my full refrigerator, within a mile or so of two supermarkets so full of food it borders on shameful. I think, “I have to remember this. People will not believe that we had such plenty—and that amid such plenty we went mad.” Perhaps we have gone mad because of the plenty.
Louie’s bar mitzvah is nine months away—the very beginning of the timeline given us by the temple in a three-ring binder. We have to schedule meetings with the rabbi to assign and discuss the portion of Torah Louie will read. We also have to plan a party—book a room, organize catering, hire a DJ—but that is secondary; we do not lose track of Louie learning from Torah, making a transition. I remember my own bar mitzvah, thinking nothing of the party, focusing only on practicing: chanting, memorizing, preparing. The rabbi is our friend and will commiserate about Trump, about state-level leadership in North Carolina that is just as authoritarian. Then we will discuss what a good boy Louie is and how he should think about his portion of Torah. In the meantime I have macaroons to make for teacher-appreciation day. That evening in the social hall after the service there are many different kinds of treats, most homemade. The macaroons are just one of many. I hug the teachers. Sometimes we cry.The day after the election Louie asked my wife, June: “Now that Trump has won, will things get bad for the Jews?” We tell him, “Not first. Not soon.” That quickly we are wrong, and we are behind the times, and we are playing catch up.
And months speed by, filled with protest and anxiety, with the dawning awareness that it might be as bad as we feared it would be.
We meet with the rabbi in her comfortable office: a wall of books, Jewish art, the various certificates and piles of folders of the life of someone who plans, counsels, teaches, administrates. She is Rabbi Dinner but I think of her as Lucy. When I moved to town to write for the local newspaper she was my go-to source. We did not start out as friends. For a story when the holidays closely followed the Oslo accords I asked what she planned to say from the bimah. She was affronted that I seemed to be telling her that she must deliver a holiday sermon about the peace process. I hastily apologized and we continued the interview. Years later when I reminded her of that she shook her head: “So arrogant!” she said of herself and we smiled. We have met cute, we think.
She presided over our wedding—June a nonbelieving lapsed Baptist, I a semipracticing mostly atheist Jew—though she had conditions. If we did not plan to join the congregation? If we did not plan to raise our children Jewish? If we did not plan to keep a Jewish household? “Then you probably don’t need a Jewish wedding,” she said, cheerfully. And that simply we all agreed. Without discussing it in great detail June and I had long agreed on Jewish children. That made us a Jewish household, so joining the congregation made perfect sense. We also signed up for a class about Judaism required for mixed marriages. We both enjoyed the class and I learned a lot—Judaism has a long history, for example, of atheism, from Spinoza through Einstein and Sagan. You can have one God, in Judaism, and it turns out you can have none, too. (More than one, not so much.) Who knew Judaism was a big-tent religion?
At the wedding we said our vows beneath a chuppah made of PVC pipes and a tablecloth cross-stitched by my grandmother. Lucy beamed and we broke a glass and we became that Jewish family. After Louie was born Lucy talked us through an unexpected difficulty about whether a small Christmas tree once belonging to June’s grandmother had a place in our Jewish household. “Being a Jewish family means having to give some things up, to grieve for some things,” Lucy said to June, then stopped me midgloat. “If you wanted all Jewish, all the time,” she said to me, “you could have married a Jewish girl.” The tree stayed, stays. That’s what rabbi-ing looks like.
I’m saying we have history with Lucy. I’m also saying Jewish ritual has meaning for us. We light Shabbat candles as often as not, singing prayers in the glow, arms linked. When we do a good deed—clean a park, share in the work of neighborhood projects—we often sing the Shehecheyanu, a prayer of simple gratitude that we have lived to see a particular day, a happy moment.
When we meet in her office Lucy has Louie read a few blessings and he pronounces his Hebrew just fine. She tells him his Torah portion will be Vayishlach, in which Jacob meets and wrestles with the angel, and he plans for and has a meeting with his brother, Esau, whom he has betrayed. There’s a lot going on, and for his d’var Torah—his speech about the portion he is reading and what lessons he takes from it—Louie has to choose a segment to explicate.
I discuss with him the part about wrestling with the angel. Jacob wrestles with the angel, the night passes, and afterward, I have repeatedly learned through my years of Hebrew school, the angel gives Jacob the name Israel: Yisra’el. OK—sure. I have shrugged my way through this seemingly arbitrary story all my life. Until in a brief discussion with another rabbi I mention some aspect of Judaism that’s giving me trouble and she encourages me to keep worrying it but not to worry about the worrying. “After all, that’s who we are,” she says. “The people who wrestle with God.” Wait, what? “The people who wrestle with God,” she tells me. “Jacob and the angel. Yisra, wrestle, with el—with God. Yisra’el; Israel. We are the people who wrestle with God.” I have to stop and catch my breath. A story I’ve heard all my life suddenly has not just sense but overwhelming power, and I understand this aspect of my culture in a new and deeper way.
So in the weeks before the next meeting with the rabbi, Louie and I discuss his portion and I tell him about the power of this section, about its centrality to our identity. We are a people who ask questions; we are a people who stands up for what is right. We are willing to wrestle even with the highest authority. I feel as though I am giving him a jewel. And that’s fine with him, and he chooses to discuss the story of Jacob planning to meet Esau, the brother he has betrayed. I initially assume Louie’s younger brother, Gus, 9, is the core of Louie’s interest. Jacob and Esau are at such odds that Jacob worries Esau might kill him, and Louie and Gus are like any two brothers, often at odds. But no—as Louie talks, and as he thinks, it becomes clear that he’s interested in Jacob’s guilt. Jacob has done something terrible, and he feels awful fear and anxiety. That’s what interests Louie and what he’ll talk about. Lucy points out that when the brothers reunite Jacob says seeing Esau’s face is like seeing the face of God, and I imagine days when my two boys will be separated, and when seeing one another will be like that. How can they think of this? How can they imagine? I have seen them both born; I have looked at their mother beneath the chuppah. I know what it is like to see in another the face of God. Louie remains interested in acceptance of error, and in forgiveness. Lucy notes that the element I wanted to emphasize—about questioning authority and standing by your point—Louie seems to have absorbed rather well.
We go to rallies. We write emails. We make phone calls. We accept reminders to take care of ourselves, to pace ourselves for years of struggle.
Then Charlottesville comes in mid-August. On the news we see Tiki-torch Nazis convene in Charlottesville and march, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and use an automobile to injure many and kill one protester. Like every Jew in the world I see only the torches of Nuremberg and experience the first moment of existential fear in my life. This is happening; this is now. Gov. McAuliffe of Virginia publicly shames the Nazis. President Trump says their group includes “very fine people.”
This is happening. This is now.
For a couple of months Louie practices basic prayers with the B’nai Mitzvah Club, a cohort of kids his age with birthdays near to one another. When that’s done we begin going to see Nancy, Louie’s tutor. We park at her house and while they study I take a half-hour walk around the neighborhood. Louie gets stickers when he has mastered one prayer or another, and week after week Nancy reassures us: Louie is doing fine, he is right on schedule, he is progressing. “He told me one day,” she marvels, “‘You know, this is fun.’” He is clearly not just memorizing, not just clearing a hurdle. He is learning to read Torah and he has decided this is worth doing. This 13-year-old boy has consciously decided that this is a worthy goal and he has embraced it.
When I talk to Nancy and we agree what a fine young man Louie is I get a little chokey sometimes. Crying is a part of this. It always is, I assume. The more so after the Holocaust, of course. Now with torchlight anti-Semitic parades and Trump supporters overtly calling for genocide and nobody from the president on down even intimating that that might not be a good thing, I wonder whether Louie—or we—will eventually die for this Judaism, this consortium of aunts and uncles, this multimillennial book club. “This thing of ours,” the mafiosi call their organization in the movies, and I jokingly do the same. I tell Louie and Gus that through no virtue or fault of their own they have been born into the oldest club in the West, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing and they should often spare a thought for the generations before them, pay their meager dues without complaint. Now I wonder whether someone will kill them for this club.
I have never experienced meaningful anti-Semitism in person. I had a girlfriend once from South Carolina and when I visited her family, her 2-year-old niece babbled. Her grandfather said, “April, you’re talking like a Jew to me,” and everyone cringed. Everyone but me—I grew up around plenty of older, immigrant Jews who spoke Yiddish, so I knew just what it felt like to be around people whose language I didn’t understand, though I loved learning new words, and to me the rhythms of Yiddish speak of comfort, not perplexity. But from my girlfriend’s grandfather I heard only a variation of “it’s all Greek to me” and took pains to demonstrate that I was not offended.
Once in the neighborhood we moved to when I was entering second grade, one of my sister’s kindergarten friends called her a dirty Jew. I ran to stand in front of the little girl, knowing something had happened, but knowing also that the situation was on its face kind of stupid. “Did you call Lori a dirty Jew?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. Standoff. I do not even remember whether I told her to stop it; the whole thing felt so foolish. We weren’t in danger; there was no danger. Being Jewish was like having a particular color of hair.
And once, actually, someone wrote the word “kike” on a piece of wood inside a closet we were having installed. When notified, the foreman first claimed his crew could not have been responsible because our house, full of menorahs and framed certificates, in Hebrew, for various life passages, betrayed no evidence of Jewishness. When pressed on the absurdity of that claim, he then offered to fire the entire crew—all immigrant workers. We objected to that, of course, and simply urged him to get the job done quickly and leave. Only in retrospect did we draw conclusions about where the word might have originated that had little to do with immigrant construction workers. Until now it was a lousy contractor story, not an anti-Semitism story. Until now.
I’ve never caught someone muttering as they turned away, never believed I was ill-treated in a store or business or job. Always believed I was surrounded by people who, if I had suffered for my Judaism, would have found that horrific. My mother would shake her head. An American her whole life, she nonetheless had aunts, uncles, a father who fled the anti-Semitism of Europe. They all told her, and she believed, that things could change fast. But my Judaism has been for my entire life a positive thing: a long, complex backstory; a foundational place in Western history; a colorful language, a penchant for story; a place of honor at our cultural table. The American table used to be more accommodating.
Our family even has an almost perfectly American Ellis Island story. My great-grandfather, Gershon Eisenberg—Zayde to us—was a blacksmith in Losice, Poland, when a decree came down that he could still have his business, but he couldn’t open a door out onto the street, in front; a Jew, he would have to do his business out the back door, into the alley. “This,” Zayde thought, “will not end well,” and he headed for the United States, to Cleveland, where evidently he had a cousin or two. Gittel, his wife—to us, of course, Bubbe—stayed behind with their five children. Zayde got a job shoeing horses and mending wagons for the Telling Dairy on Cleveland’s east side. This happened around 1912, when a work week took six days. Saturday was Shabbat, so Zayde couldn’t work that day, and the foreman put Zayde out on the street.
But Mr. Telling heard the story and reached out to Zayde. What did the horses care whether they got their shoes on Saturday or Sunday? Could Zayde work on Sundays? Of course he could. So Zayde got back to work, which meant that after eight years (WWI complicated immigration from Eastern Europe) he could send second-class tickets across the Atlantic for Bubbe and the children. Bubbe, as one did in those times, exchanged her second-class tickets so she could afford many more tickets in much cheaper steerage and brought extra cousins. You can call this chain migration, and we used to think it was central to the American experience. That meant Ellis Island stories—possible disease, quarantine, separated children, and all the rest of it, though in our case it all worked out OK. I have a framed copy of the sepia passport photo of Bubbe and her five children; my grandfather, Louis, for whom our bar mitzvah boy is named, stands in the back because he has no shoes.
I regard the Telling Dairy foreman’s actions as less anti-Semitic than capitalist. He wasn’t getting rid of some stinking Jew, or at least I don’t know that he was; I think he was just getting rid of some worker who didn’t effortlessly fill his needs. The ships were daily dumping in the United States the wretched refuse of Europe’s teeming shores, so he didn’t need to expend effort to keep his horses shod and his carts mended; any special accommodation was one accommodation too many. What Mr. Telling did, though, was special. Mr. Telling was a man of the America into which I was born. Mr. Telling would not fit nearly as well into the nation we make for each other now. My great-grandfather would not fit at all.
We’re not confused. Unarmed black people are regularly—constantly—killed or at least assaulted in the street by police; immigrant families are maliciously ripped apart by ICE agents. People saying ugly things about Jews doesn’t really compare; members of more vulnerable groups are dying. We understand that when we told Louie Jews wouldn’t be first, we were sort of right.
Just the same. The traditionally anti-Semitic term “globalist” has crept back into what was once decent conversation. We are other; we are just not the otherest. Yet.
Sometimes June and I stand in our room. “How did this happen? What will we do now?” Days are now gone when we could be referring, as we used to, only to our son growing up. “What happened to our little boy? What happened to the baby who used to live with us?” Now we worry about what will happen, not where the time has gone. June is not Jewish, and when I bring up whether we should be thinking about getting out—looking for work in Ireland, Canada, New Zealand—she thinks I’m overreacting. Of course I am. But getting out is part of my history: We learned in Hebrew school that the ones who got out were the ones who left in 1933, 1936. We have family stories of the ones who lived through the camps and what they looked like when they came back. If you wait for Kristallnacht, it’s probably too late. June shares my concern but she didn’t grow up hearing: “Someday, they will come; be ready.”
On the other hand, where to go? Europe is going mad, too, and adding to our troubles the need for work and the status of refugees hardly seems like an improvement. Plus we’ve just got our house looking nice, plus it just sounds like a lot. We never really consider making a change; nobody we know is really considering making a change. We’ll rethink things perhaps after the 2018 election. We’ll rethink things perhaps after Kristallnacht.
We’ve had our living and dining room painted, in preparation for all the bar mitzvah visitors, and as we hang pictures back up we listen to Fiddler on the Roof. The boys used to call this record “Tradition!” “Can we hear ‘Tradition’?” We could. The songs—Tevye, almost constantly, praying for peace and comfort for his children—sometimes made me cry. When they were little the boys would march around and sing along and we would laugh. Now we just sing.
It is a time of shallow breathing. It is a time of falling into exhausted sleep and waking three hours later into darkness and uncertainty and anxiety and hopelessness. It is a time of poor concentration. It is a time of scattered thinking. “I must finish this story today,” I think at work, and I read notes but then check my feed one more time. Maybe I write a sentence. But what is happening now? I check my feed again. It is worse. Something worse has happened. But I still have to finish my story. I will finish it tomorrow. Also I have calls to make. I must call the temple director to talk about the hall. I must talk to the family who is organizing the oneg. I must speak with the photographer. But what is happening now? I check my feed. What is happening?
Weeks go by. Louie practices the blessings before and after Torah, blessings I have sung all my life. I will chant them myself, for his second portion. I hum along as I hear him practice; the tunes are completely familiar, as comforting as nursery rhymes, as the little ditties and nigguns I heard my grandparents, my parents, my teachers hum all the holidays and all the Hebrew school hours of my childhood. Louie advances to his Torah portion, making a game attempt to master the cantillation marks—not content with merely Hebrew and tunes, chanting Torah requires mastery of a complex system of code marks that tell you which little tune snippet goes with which words. Like most approaching bar mitzvah, and certainly like his father before him, Louie quickly gives up on the cantillation marks and simply memorizes the tunes. We are a Reform congregation, so his religious study comes on Sundays, which means his class spends less time in services than I did during my Saturday morning classes, so to him the tune comes across as at least somewhat unfamiliar. By the time I studied for my bar mitzvah the various snippets of tune were as familiar to me as the blessings, as those nigguns, as the bum-biddy-bums of my mother, my grandfather. I hear Louie singing those tunes upstairs and I do not think, “Torah,” I think, “home.” There is not one moment when I think, “Is it safe for him, for his brother? To be brought up with this?” I think, “This is who we are and this is important.” Since the election I have been making grim jokes about trains and camps, but after Charlottesville the threat is no longer a mere joke. People ask whether I am really afraid the government will pass anti-Semitic laws, undertake overtly anti-Semitic actions. I tell them I am not afraid of the government. I am afraid of my neighbors.
The High Holidays come and go. Attendance is high, and we greet one another with long hugs and slowly shaking heads. The police presence is no higher than it always is. A small detail. We always have police guarding the doors at our most important services. We notice it when there’s trouble in the Middle East, but usually it’s just part of the background. Now it feels different.
As his bar mitzvah draws nearer Louie has practices scheduled with the rabbis and with his tutor, Nancy, no longer at her home but in the sanctuary, on the bimah. I bring Louie to the synagogue, and Nancy leads him to the ark, opening it matter-of-factly. A half-dozen Torahs stand in the silent ark, each wrapped in crushed velvet, with silver chest plates, crowns on the scroll handles. As part of the Torah service Jews march around the sanctuary carrying the Torah; congregants touch it with their prayer book or tallit, then kiss the object. Jews love their story; I tell people we treat our story the way the Green Bay Packers treated Vince Lombardi: We pick it up, put it on our shoulders, carry it around in celebration. It is an object of reverence, this written word, this story, this object. This thing of ours. Seeing a row of Torahs in the ark is always a moment of mystery and pleasure.
Nancy pulls from the ark the Torah Louie will read and holds it against her shoulder, explaining to Louie: You lean it against one shoulder and with that hand you hold the bottom plate of that shaft; with your opposite hand you grab the handle on the other shaft. “This is your Torah,” she says to him. He balances it, and I don’t think he’s heard. Or I don’t think he understands. But he does. Nancy hands him the Torah and he unsteadily balances the unwieldy scroll against his shoulder. I begin crying. Nobody has told me to expect this. When at the obstetrician’s office we for the first time heard the ultrasound of Louie’s heart beating inside June, that fierce rapid-fire drumroll, that first cry of “I am!” from the developing baby, June and I burst into laughter. I tell people that tears squirted out of my head at escape velocity. How did nobody tell me to expect this? It is the same with the Torah. Tears stream down as I watch him hold the Torah.
Not “the Torah,” Nancy said. “Here is your Torah.” Here is your story, here is the story of your people, here is your heritage, here is what belongs to you, here is what you belong to, here is what you now join. Here, Louie: This is yours. For this, people are once again urging separation, exclusion, mistrust. Nancy helps Louie find a way to hold the Torah so he does not twist his back around it like he has scoliosis. He has to carry the Torah not just from the ark to its stand on the bimah—he has to carry it through the congregation. He needs to do it competently. He needs to carry this burden safely. He will carry it for a long time.
When we undress the Torah and unroll it Nancy places a Post-it at the bottom of the column from which Louie will read. We are pragmatic.
In the ongoing madness of the special Alabama Senate race, someone is creating robocalls that purport to be from a Washington Post reporter seeking sources to make false claims against Roy Moore. The name the fake reporter gives is Bernie Bernstein. One theme of the criticism of the dirty trick is how badly the call’s creator executed the anti-Semitism. So some anonymous person or group takes a flagrantly anti-Semitic action and we laugh about what a bad job of anti-Semitism it is. I wonder how long this kind of thing will seem funny. I think of Louie and remember being his age and learning in Hebrew school about Nazi illustrations showing preposterously cartoonish representation of Jews—big noses, slumped shoulders, clutching hands. I found it horrific. Now we see the same thing. Some perceive these ham-handed attempts, these Tiki-torch Nazis, as a less-threatening fatuous imitation of evil. They look evil enough to me.
There are moments, entire mornings where I forget. I have breakfast with Gus, our younger, and he and I spend our extra half-hour before school reading in the quiet living room. I feed the parakeets, start the dishwasher, tie my shoes, prepare for work, and enjoy those unstructured moments in the peaceful house, Gussie turning pages, the dishwasher susurrating, classical music playing from the kitchen, company for the birds when we leave. Bubbe, born in Poland, had during my mother’s childhood a parakeet. She taught it to say, “Good Shabbos.” I do not turn on the news.
Louie has a practice with the assistant rabbi, who pronounces him ready. Us, too. We have sent invitations, collated replies, found hotel rooms. We have organized a hodgepodge of caterers and helpers, rented the temple hall, hired a DJ, organized centerpieces and lighting and pictures and treats. We are all ready.
The week before the ceremony I am finally finishing the slide show, a new thing in bar mitzvah celebrations since my day. My initial idea was to keep the show to four or five minutes, but June said why not just load it up? Then let it project and loop throughout the party and everybody wins—lots of pictures with grandparents, lots of opportunities to see whatever’s up there, and never a time when we force people to watch. So I go through 13 years of photographs and relive our family’s history. I watch Louie come home from the hospital, crawl, toddle, speak, sing, play piano. A million images of him reading, playing sports and instruments, making art, and smiling. June does the same, and many is the time we call one another from another room, sobbing—here Louie says his favorite word is his brother’s name; here he is holding the trash bag the day he saw a roadside littered with trash and asked if we could clean it up.
And then suddenly it’s 2011, and as North Carolina enters a period of repressive political madness, the flow of pictures is clogged with images of protests—some without him, but many with him and his brother. You cannot fail to notice. It’s like the trope in dystopian movies where the TV in the background is always showing scenes of public unrest: crowds chanting, fires, helicopters, lines of advancing police in riot gear. As I go through the pictures, protests leap into the frame and never leave thereafter—we see Louie making signs and holding them, marching in solemn processions, he and his brother holding candles during vigils. This is what he will remember.
And these, more than likely, will be the happy days. This is before.
Louie went through a Superman phase that we all remember with great fondness, dressing as Superman for what looks in the photo record like several years at a time. Images of him standing, fists on hips, a stern glare on his face, a flimsy, pilling blue-and-red costume covering his clothes, begin appearing around the time he is 18 months old and continue until he is 6 or 7. Superman stands, fists on hips: “Look, Dad, he’s doing his pose,” Louie would say when he gazed at old cartoons, comics, books. Photos of Louie and his brother together, both in costume, appear and I remember how powerfully Superman comforted them. I remember falling in love with Superman myself through Louie. Batman is dark; Spider-Man is complicated; every other superhero has a fully developed modern, morally complex backstory—but not Superman. Superman is a good guy: Superman was from a less-complicated time, and all he had to be was good; all he had to do was fight bad guys, and in easily found images those bad guys include Nazis, anti-Semites, racists, fascists. We once took this for granted, that those people were bad and that we all wanted to be like Superman. When Louie is in his Superman phase, running amongst the trees, arms outstretched, we experience a peace and do not worry about him. He wears his choices outwardly, and those choices of goodness comfort us: He is saving the day. Many people speak to him and speak to us: He inspires them. He inspires me. In the photo record I seek—and find—one photo taken by a friend in our neighborhood park, one of my favorite images of him ever. He is on a swingset, barefoot, dressed as Superman. He leans backward as he pulls into his swing forward, his legs outstretched. His red cape spreads behind him as though he is flying.
When we ask non-Jewish friends to participate in his bar mitzvah service by sharing a reading, they choose a song called “Always Trust Your Cape.”
An internet search reminds me. At a rally in Arizona Trump supporters urged a genocide of liberals. For Jews they suggest mere deportation. The Anti-Defamation League counts almost 2,000 anti-Semitic acts in 2017—the second-largest number in the 40 years it has been keeping count. Awareness of anti-Semitic sentiment is so high that conservative commentators even write columns describing fear of anti-Semitism as overblown and absurd.
Vladimir Putin suggests maybe interference in the 2016 U.S. election came not from the Russian state but perhaps from Jews or others “just with Russian citizenship.” The notion of Jews as other, but pretending to be citizens—pretending to be white, according to people like David Duke—is back. I stop searching the internet. We have a bar mitzvah to plan.
Lucy will be out of town for the actual service, so we have set up the final practice with her. She praises Louie’s reading of Torah and haftarah, kvells over his speech, smiles at June and me as we all share memories of the shocking speed with which the years have flown. One of the doors to the ark gets jammed, and while we wait for various maintenance solutions we end up pulling out every Torah from the ark—more than a half-dozen—so Louie can climb into the broad, shallow space to see what he can do. Using various cellphone-flashlight functions and poking around with a mop handle he finds and dislodges a stray screw that has become wedged in a track, and the door works again. Lucy beams and we all find the interaction symbolic of something or other. Our good young man, who likes to help, likes to leave things better than he found them, likes to please his parents and the rabbi. When she puts her arms around us all and delivers the priestly blessing my disappointment that she will not be present for the ceremony vanishes. This—this moment is enough. This is growing up, taking on a role in his community. This is a good boy.
The weekend comes. Friday evening services go smoothly, Louie reading a few prayers, undertaking small leadership tasks, to take away the nerves. Afterward we have an oneg, with friends and relatives pouring in, including my three best friends from college; we have not been all together since some wedding or other, decades before, and we re-create a photo taken at the first of those weddings: the four of us, together, smiling. Four Jewish guys, you would not fail to note if you saw us. We talk the way you do—we’re glad to be together, we miss each other, we pledge to be closer in touch. It’s a celebration.
Louie has trouble sleeping that night and he and I sit up together. He worries about exhaustion but I have seen him practice and promise he could chant his portion in his sleep. Gentle discussion helps him find his way out of his anxiety and he goes to bed late but wakes up rested and comfortable. He displays no nerves and we leave home and arrive at the temple on time, a rarity for us. We greet family, take pictures, nervously shift around. We distribute programs we have made, welcoming non-Jewish attendees and explaining various aspects of the service: the tallit and why, the love of story we express in Torah, the strange occasional bows and bounces visitors can expect to see from the congregation. Above all we thank them for, in a time of hatred and fear, embracing our tradition and joining the celebration. Our synagogue is called Beth Or—house of light, in Hebrew—and we thank our friends for sharing their light with us. And from the moment the rabbi leads us from the waiting room into the synagogue we feel only light.
We sit in the front row, Louie following the rabbi onto the bimah. His grandmother—my mother—and step-grandfather present him with his tallit, and wrapped in that he goes through his first series of prayers, with the congregation, for daily miracles. When that is done his face relaxes and June and I know it will be all right. We hold hands.
My father is nearing 90 and has Parkinson’s. For some time I have jokingly informed him he is not authorized to experience any major status change until after Louie’s bar mitzvah and he has agreeably committed to remaining alive. This provides a cheerful and even silly way for us to address what we need to acknowledge but prefer not to discuss. In recent years he has begun noting that though he can commit to Louie’s celebration, he views Gus’, which will be some three years further in the future, as less certain and he cannot promise. It’s a little sad but mostly beautiful; an opportunity for a winsome smile.
We have a ritual in our synagogue called passing the Torah. To represent the Torah traveling forward through the generations the rabbi during the bar mitzvah invites onto the bimah the parents and grandparents of the bar mitzvah child. They gather before the ark for the beginning of the Torah service. The moment when the rabbi opens the ark and takes out the Torah, though repeated each week, retains its mystery and power. We open the ark and take out the Torah, our sacred object, our story, our constitution, our scripture.
So in our congregation when during a bar mitzvah the rabbi opens the ark, the family turns to face the congregation and the rabbi hands the scroll to the members of the oldest generation, who hand it to the next, and so on until it arrives in the arms of the child about to enter into the bar mitzvah. For my father and mother, both in their 80s, this is an exercise mostly of the rabbi holding the Torah with them, but we complete the tradition. I am far more focused on seeing Louie confidently assume that weight, and when he does I take a deep breath. As we begin singing the triumphal song that accompanies the procession of the Torah through the congregation, I gently guide my father back to his seat; I am satisfied that he is comfortable and safe again and I catch up to Louie, carrying his Torah through his people.
The Torah service begins, the scroll is undressed and unrolled, and the officiants begin calling the aliyahs—those given the honor of “going up” to say the blessings before and after each section the reader will chant. My father of course is first, and as we have agreed I help him up, guiding and lifting by the elbows as he climbs the few carpeted stairs to the bimah, supporting him as he watches Louie read. He reads the blessing, watches Louie chant his verses, and reads the blessing after. As we descend the stairs so he can sit back down he murmurs something to me and it is only after he is seated again that it filters through. “I am keeping my contract,” he says. He has stayed alive long enough to say the blessings at Louie’s bar mitzvah. I do not have time to process because it is time for me to make my own aliyah.
I satisfy myself by keeping my voice steady as I chant blessings I learned for my own bar mitzvah, touch the Torah—and Louie—with my tallit, bring it to my lips. I watch Louie read the ancient text, managing to breathe and maintain control of myself. He finishes his verses, I chant the blessing after the reading, and I walk back down, sitting in the front row. Louie is alone, with the rabbi and the Torah of course, but alone now. He chants the blessing, and for a moment he and the rabbi have lost the place in the column where his last set of verses begins. They frown, scan for a moment, consult the Post-it, then find their spot and he reads. In this moment of competence I lose my last concern for his day; he and the rabbi solved a little problem, together, not unlike the way he and Lucy helped fix the door to the ark. He’s comfortable, he does his thing, he helps. This is who he is. Today everybody can see it, but this is just who he is. That he breezes through his other prayers, through his haftarah, is simply what he does. June and I watch like the besotted parents we are.
Louie gives a speech—about making mistakes and facing them, about who helped him along the way, about becoming bar mitzvah. He charms everyone. June and I, too, are asked to speak. June talks about preparing herself to allow him to grow up; I tell him that in these terrible times he gives me hope. I think, what a terrible burden, to be the hope of your parents, but of course these times are no different than all times: Children always bear the burden of their parents’ hopes.
It is over in a moment. Suddenly we are in the social hall, eating pastry and challah and accepting congratulations. The rest of the day we spend decorating the large hall for the evening of food and dance. Like the high-school gym for prom, the gussied up social hall always looks like a gussied up social hall, though recycled table centerpieces—glass vases with clear marbles intermingled with tiny LEDs—lend a certain magic. Guests arrive and the DJ has the kids on the dance floor almost instantly. The adults drink beer and wine, June and I lightly managing caterers but mostly downing great drafts of wine and relief.
The service always carries emotion, but our many non-Jewish friends clamor to tell us how meaningful they found it, how glad they are to have been included. We are so grateful for their attendance, their support. The evening is a time of arms on shoulders, hands on arms, full-body hugs. Everyone likes the food. The DJ shifts from tween hits to Israeli dances, then it’s time and we all circle up and begin the hora, legs swinging, arms together. We raise Louie on a chair, then his brother, then June, then me. I look down and there are my friends from college, my uncle, my brother—this is my history, carrying me around on a chair. I remember every bar mitzvah, wedding, anniversary party of my life. The circle dance, the moment when the adults, following some instinct I can follow but still not explain, raise their hands and rush the center, the kids dancing there screaming in almost overwhelming, giddy glee, avoiding those giant adult legs, literally carried away by celebration.
I cannot fail to think of “Tradition” and the wedding in Fiddler on the Roof. The family plans its first wedding, and as the men in the Jewish community dance and drink suddenly they are joined by the Ukrainians around them: “To your health and may we live together in peace!”
Later in the show there’s another wedding, and with that one already comes a pogrom.
I wonder what Gussie’s bar mitzvah, three years hence, will bring. I wonder if we are enjoying the first wedding in Fiddler on the Roof. Sitting in that chair, carried by the friends of my lifetime, that is what I wonder.
Among the treats June has made for people to take as they leave are little paired packs of Smarties, held together by a sticker printed with Louie’s bar mitzvah date and an image of the tree of life: a metaphor for Torah, holding the pair of candy packs that simulate a tiny little Torah. Every Jewish child is given a little toy Torah at age 5 in what we call consecration, the beginning of religious study. They get a little toy scroll printed with unreadable Hebrew and sometimes a few English Bible stories or pictures. With it they get a cookie or some candy. Other traditions say when you teach your children the Hebrew letters they get honey along with the lesson; they should associate Torah with sweetness, with goodness. People leave the hall with heartfelt embraces and effusive thanks that we have shared this beautiful part of our culture with them. Always something sweet in your mouth.
After Louie’s bar mitzvah the holidays come. With the holidays come more sweets, more cake, more food.
After the holidays I don’t know what will come.
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