In the scale of life’s fearsome difficulties, it’s hard to rank planning a party with, say, my grandmother’s leaving what she called “Poland-Russia” and making her way to America when she was 12. (When asked how she got here she always said she walked.) Nevertheless, I’m now staring at an Excel spreadsheet of all the guests we expect at Erez’s bar mitzvah, less than a week away, and thinking that a nighttime hike through the Black Forest actually sounds nice. It’s not a huge crowd (32 kids, 104 adults) and yet it’s enough to stall my permutational engine as we try to put people at appropriate tables. Some of the constraints are obvious: These two have to be kept together, those two have to be kept apart. The ones in wheelchairs should sit near the entrance. The one who offends everyone should be seated at the table with the ones who are deaf.
Andy wants to do social engineering, upending familiar groupings and generational cliques. I say that people forced into new orbits tend to have collisions. But I’m engineering, too. My picture of the room, with its tables for 10 and tables for eight, is a weather map of self-esteem. Who will feel diminished if seated with whom? Who will feel augmented? Andy tends to think: These folks all have young kids; they can talk about that. I think: Will they feel insulted if they’ve clearly been dumped at the breeder table?
So we spin the wheels again and again; the cool young adults coalesce in one spot and then go flying to the four ends of the room. Look, the actress is now at a table of orthodontists! They will be thrilled—but will she? It’s enough to make me wish we had stuck with Andy’s original plan of not assigning tables at all, a plan that was scotched when the caterer sagely told us it wasn’t hostly. Guests are nervous if they have too many choices, she said. They want to know where to go.
I know how they feel; I’m nervous, too. Once the table assignments have been made—and, oops, someone’s just cancelled—I still have to print up the seating cards, cut out the little cedar tree designs with the cedar tree hole punch I found online, then fold the damn things with a grapefruit spoon. (The word erez means “cedar” in Hebrew and Arabic.) That chore is but one on a list several pages long of things that need to be done between now and Friday, when the festivities begin with a pre-synagogue Indian dinner for out-of-towners. Each item on the list is as mind-knotting as the table placements. We have to assign the various ritual honors, like saying prayers and carrying the Torah, carefully balancing sides of the family with linguistic and physical capabilities. We have to contact guests about subway disruptions we barely understand ourselves. We have to review the rental order (where are the 16 table-number holders?) and e-mail Erez’s teachers, begging them not to assign any book reports for the following Monday. Not to mention planning clothing and haircuts for four. I am happy to say I’ve taken care of my haircut several days early, though the result is less like the George Clooney I was going for than a penitential Britney Spears.
None of this has anything to do with the real meaning of the bar mitzvah, of course; any religious issues have disappeared almost irretrievably within a fog of party planning. Indeed, the item on my checklist that keeps being moved forward each day as the rest get crossed off is the only one that speaks directly to the import of the experience: writing my speech. Relevant thoughts flit through my brain at night, but they are quickly chased off by those hostly concerns. At this rate all I will be fit to say to my son as his community watches him accept the duties (or at least the cash) of adulthood is what the chafing dish cost.
And why are we making speeches in the first place? We have eliminated all other fake rituals from our plan for the party: the candle-lighting doggerel, the open-mike roast, the pushy videography and the child-on-chair dancing. During the service itself, Erez will deliver a dvar Torah—an exegesis and interpretation of his Torah portion, Ki Tisa—that compares the Israelites’ fear-based shenanigans at Mt. Sinai to fear-based American foreign policy after 9/11. (In this analogy, Aaron stands for Bush, which seems apt enough; Aaron was a terrible public speaker.) In accordance with the rabbi’s instructions, the talk concludes with the traditional nechemta, or consolation: a hopeful application of Jewish values to the situation under discussion. Erez’s nechemta imagines a new Moses, perhaps in the form of a new president, albeit one who won’t literally break the law when he or she shows up.
Isn’t that enough of a message for the day? But no, Andy and I and my father (and even Erez’s 11-year-old brother, Lucas) each have to say our piece. It’s not a ritual; it’s a reflex. At least Lucas’s will be entertaining. In the draft I typed for him, he interprets Ki Tisa in personal terms, suggesting that if the Israelites had only hidden their golden calf under the bed when Moses got home, they might have avoided all that trouble. (“Believe me,” he wrote, “I know from experience.”) My father will no doubt invoke his own father, who spoke interminably at my bar mitzvah service, and in so doing attempt to trace for Erez the line of Jewishness to which he not only belongs but to which he is now also responsible. Andy is handling the welcome speech and, like me, has no clue what he will say.
What do you say to your son, now or ever? My mother saw herself, adapting the words of the poet James Merrill, as being condemned to talk about real things. This was her professional mantra (she was a therapist) but also her modus vivendi. She was not the type to ignore elephants in the room, but would invite them to come sit by her and unburden. And though she delighted in the mundane and frivolous, such things also needed to be addressed realistically. She would see any speech I might give at Erez’s bar mitzvah as far less important than what I said to him as he went to bed each night.
Would see! Oh, the implacable sadness of that conditional tense! For it was my mother, dead five years now, who gave me the vocabulary to talk about the love between a parent and child—and she seems to have taken it with her.
I try to think what else she would have seen if she were still alive. What would she make of Erez at 13? (His actual birthday is today, as I write this.) She would notice immediately that he is as different from me as I seemed to be from my father. He is cheerful, even-tempered, sturdy, gregarious, fidgety, thick-skinned, if anything too resilient. He says hello to everyone on the street, and remembers their names years later. He tries out his nascent Spanish on people who speak it. With good cause, he loves the way he looks.
I have nothing to teach such a child; he has more to teach me, I should think. Oh, in our normal discourse there may be things I can tell him: how to prioritize his homework, how to fold his pajamas. I can even, within the limits of my ability to analogize, give him advice as he starts to express his feelings for girls, though he’s on his own with the dance moves. What I cannot do is improve him in any larger way; where he is naturally gifted he is already unimprovable, and likewise where he is not. I have often said that he, and Lucas, came to us fully who they were or would ever be, and that’s not merely the consequence of adoption; biological children are just as willfully the product of their genes. Perhaps that’s why this whole bar mitzvah process has seemed so quixotic, highlighting as it does all the surface ways we shape our children: their clothing, their phrasing, their faith. Stand these next to the radiance of who they are without (or despite) our shaping and the whole project of parenting is revealed as less consequential than we usually dare to think.
Yet there’s no denying that many children are disastrously raised. And that some of us feel our parents to be tremendously significant, if only for having joined us in our project of becoming ourselves. I look back on how my mother chose to bend her life to mine; how, even stranger, my father did so almost blindly. Why did they do that? I couldn’t have seemed like anyone’s sure thing. (A theater major? Even worse, an English major?) The trick is not just egolessness, it’s faith. And I don’t mean in God.
As my son turns 13 I wonder what will happen to him in the knotty years that come next. It isn’t so much a question of whether he will be able to follow me as whether I will be able to follow him as he stalks all confident and godlike into the future. Unlike my grandmother, walking to America, I am a fearful person, and may not have faith in where Erez will take me. I am a calf-worshiper. But I’ve learned something from Erez’s dvar Torah, even in draft form: we must not act from such fear because we cannot live without the gods of our future. So perhaps, on Saturday, it’s not for me to tell him something profound between the main course and the cake. Or only as profound as this: I will listen to you; I will try to have faith.