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Stiffnecked People

We thought getting Erez to learn his Torah portion would be the hard part. Then we started planning the party.

Jesse Green
September 14, 2006

Our plan to install Virtual PC on our Mac computer—so that our son Erez could learn his bar mitzvah portion on a Windows-only program called Trope Trainer—reduced our hired Mac consultant to shudders of disgust. “Please don’t do this,” he pleaded. “It may work but it will ruin everything.” It was as if we’d asked the grand rebbe whether we could serve an appetizer of crabmeat wrapped in tiny phyllo Torah scrolls. The solution that had once seemed so brilliant, not just as a technological workaround but also as a metaphor for resolving all the incompatibilities the bar mitzvah was stirring up for me and Andy, now proved to have unforeseen consequences—consequences worse (or so our technogeek insisted) than the original problem. He said it would compromise the system’s integrity, or perhaps he meant his own; he used the word “compromise” as if it was a bad thing. Of course, it can be: it means “agree on a middle ground,” but also “undermine.”

Andy and I have not been doing much compromising in either sense. Almost six months into our bar mitzvah year, by which I of course mean Erez’s, we are still mostly at a stalemate as to how we will celebrate the occasion come March. We have eliminated some options, but have not replaced them with others we both like. Out of kindness to one another, we have not much bruited our conflicting expectations, and yet that has not transformed them into agreements. So the basic questions have barely begun to be resolved: What kind of party or parties will there be? Where should those events be held? Should there be music, and if so what kind? How many people can we each invite? How much money can we afford to spend? As always, it’s that last one forcing our hand; already our synagogue is asking for a $1,000 deposit to reserve its party room. Do we want to use it? Now that the ceiling has stopped leaking and the old chandelier has been reinstalled in place of a bare 9000-watt bulb, Andy thinks we do.

What has become clear is that we come to our incompatible hopes from contradictory experiences. Andy has nothing but unhappy memories of his own bar mitzvah: it was something done to him, without his consultation. Mine was everything I wanted it to be: a public display not of my faith but of my abilities and taste. Andy wants to repair the past. I don’t need to; I just don’t want to compete with it.

Neither motive should be relevant to an event supposedly about our son, let alone a supposedly spiritual event. But the modern American bar mitzvah is mostly an exercise in managed hypocrisy. Only a very few Jewish 13-year-olds seem to take their religion seriously as ethical inquiry and supernatural instruction—how could they, when their secularized families deal with Judaism, if at all, as a collection of confusing parables and high-cholesterol recipes? Rabbis like ours work heroically to crank up the machinery of “meaningful” preparation, complete with Torah study and moral treasure hunts. (Visit the infirm? Check.) But they wouldn’t have to if the process were religiously meaningful already, instead of a treceañera with tallises.

But there are other kinds of values beside religious ones that can be addressed, even in apparently religious ceremonies. Many people, Andy among them, seem to play a substitution game: Replace “God” in your mind with “community” and everything’s all right. (What self-respecting secular humanist wouldn’t kvell as a boy took on the yoke of his covenant with “community”?) My own accommodation is perhaps even more abstract: Meaning can be derived from the ways you are forced to confront its absence. My teacher in this was my mother, who grew up in the famous Atheist-Communist branch of Judaism but became more observant, at least in the sense of watchful, after marrying my Conservadox father. She found a way to join a tradition that was not her own while remaining, however contradictorily, herself. She studied Talmud and, in the back of the freezer where my father never ventured, kept a stash of treyf.

Perhaps it is the very longevity of Judaism that has allowed—or forced—it to include in its tradition the means of unmaking and remaking itself. The Talmud, with its Byzantine struggles for interpretive supremacy, is as likely to encourage subversion as faith, or maybe subversion within faith. At least it did for my mother. I remember her working on a passage in which the rabbis argue over how to determine the exact moment of sundown so that Sabbath could begin. The answer—”when blue cannot be told from green”—was shockingly lovely, but living as we do in brightly lit cities and not observing Sabbath anyway, what could such an argument possibly teach us now?

“How to argue,” my mother said.

Heresy to believers, of course: the same heresy that Joan of Arc (as voiced by Shaw) expressed in her testimony before the Inquisition. (“What other judgment can I judge by but my own?”) The Talmud does not permit lay interpretation. But like parents who smoke and advocate nonsmoking, that prohibition often becomes a temptation, or even a prescription. And once the arguments become more impressive than the issues being argued, why would a thinking person relinquish her judgment in favor of someone else’s?

In any case, after her wedding, at which she felt like a hired prop in a production staged by her in-laws, my mother vowed never again to let others’ judgments dictate the rituals of her life. As her children were bar mitzvahed and confirmed and married, she moved progressively further away from prescribed formulas toward more personally meaningful expressions. It was, to her, a form of tikkun olam—repairing the world. Though usually construed as a form of faith-based community service, she argued that it could just as well be interior and small, a way of tailoring off-the-rack observance so it fit better. Appalling some suburban matrons, she handwrote the invitations to my bar mitzvah on simple stationery, not requesting the engraved “honour” of anyone’s presence but merely asking friends to “join us.” For wedding gifts she usually gave new couples matched copies of The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Sex. The evening before my own brother’s wedding, she broke into the locked sanctuary to rearrange the chairs and fine-tune the chuppa; what were some petty administrator’s “rules” to the mother of the groom? Leaving 20 minutes later, we (for I was with her) set off a shrieking alarm. Violators of the temple! We hightailed it home.

No one found out about our intrusion, but the baton of self-determination—some might call it selfishness—had been passed. The next day, outside the sanctuary, as my brother nervously fiddled with his new suit, I clipped on my highly unorthodox yarmulke: a side-panel from a small round evening bag that my grandmother had left incomplete on her dressing table when she died. Wearing it was not meant as a provocation but as a modest rebellion against the institution of marriage, from which I was restricted, and perhaps also against the religion that enforced the restriction. Mostly, though, I liked the way it looked, especially compared to the synagogue-issued puffy white skullcaps that work well enough on bald men but give anyone with hair that snow-capped mountaintop look. The standard embroidered dome—blue velour, with silver stars of David—is only an improvement if you’ve always wanted to resemble a pinhead.

Mine was perfectly flat. In fact, for years I’d used it as a coaster. The jet beading was hardly noticeable if you weren’t staring right at it, which, at that moment, the rabbi was.

“You can’t wear that!” he exclaimed.

Oh yes I could.

But replacing one god with another, even with the god of self, has its consequences, as we would learn.

At the beginning of this summer, the rabbi (not the no-gay-yarmulkes rabbi, but the rabbi at our Reform temple in Brooklyn) asked Erez to select the dozen or so verses of his torah portion, Ki Tissa, that he would like to learn to chant. Without thinking, he chose the first 12, which even the greatest scholars of antiquity could not make interesting. But upon reading the whole portion in English, and upon our reading it too, he switched to a selection beginning with Exodus 32. That’s when the Israelites, wondering what happened to Moses up there on Mt. Sinai, make the golden calf and dance around it—a celebration that believers read as a treasonous riot but that seems to secular sensibilities as innocuous as a bar mitzvah hora.

Thus begins what must be one of the strangest treatments of divine power and human free will ever committed to print. The Lord, seeing that the Israelites are what he calls “a stiffnecked people”—they will not accept the burden of His yoke—tells Moses to get out of His way so that He may destroy them. Moses reasons with the Lord, essentially arguing that it wouldn’t look good to the goyim. This calms the Lord down, but soon enough Moses himself is enraged by the sight of his people adoring their shiny ruminant and he destroys the Ten Commandments. (Less famously, he grinds the golden calf into a powder and makes everyone drink it as punishment, or fortification, like cod liver oil.) Then he orders the Levites—the priestly and most loyal clan—to do what he’d argued God out of: to “go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” Three thousand die that day.

While it takes a lot of exegetical ingenuity to make this passage palatable to modern sensibilities, it takes absolutely none to make it familiar. A classic Jewish case of overindulgence followed by overreaction, it exemplifies the dangers of teaching children (or subjects) that they can fashion a form of power from their own intelligence, for they will use it, and not necessarily intelligently. Though people may aspire to be godlike in goodness, given half a chance they will match Him in other traits as well, with the clerical class more than happy to assist and provide the rationalizations.

If we are a stiffnecked people—the word is a fairly literal translation of the Hebrew phrase k’sheh oref—we have cause. We always have cause. Luckily for my mother, she was still flexible and unformed enough at 20 that she and my father could in most ways grow together. But aside from the fact that we are both men, Andy and I were planted too far apart and too long ago to make that process happen naturally; when Erez chants Ki Tissa in March, Andy will be 57 and I 48. If we each believe that compromise is nothing more than a way of achieving fairness through mutual dissatisfaction, we are too old to rethink our positions. We are stiffnecked. How could we not be? The head, though it weighs just 12 pounds or so, is an enormous burden, and like the ears only gets bigger with age.

Still we try. One day as summer ended, we spent two hours behind closed doors trying to work through some of the issues. It was a good talk, if sometimes a loud one, and yet once again we got nowhere. The only firm, positive decision either of us made about the bar mitzvah was that I would wear my jet bead yarmulke.

But progress was being made in the next room. The boys don’t like it when we “have discussions,” so they busied themselves with the old Windows laptop I had recently found: a slow and heavy vestige of my PC days, long forgotten in a cabinet but able to run Trope Trainer without defiling the MacHoly of Holies. The colors highlighting “trope groups” were garish, and the synthesized voice produced by selecting the “child” setting should probably have been labeled “chipmunk.” But by the time Andy and I emerged from our fruitless discussion, Erez had learned the first verse of Ki Tissa—the one in which everyone wonders what’s taking so long on the mountain.

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