My son, my youngest child became barmitzvah yesterday. All year I have watched him take out his siddur and Torah, sit at the kitchen table with a yurmulke on his head, and as I washed the lettuce and boiled the pasta, I listened to him practice. We have sat together and discussed his parsha, read commentaries, underlined the parts with which he resonated, and reflected upon how the portion spoke directly to him.
Yesterday he lead his community in prayer, delivered a drasha, and read from the Torah before his friends and family. I managed to stay relatively dry eyed, except for the moment when he stood facing us all on the bima, holding the Torah in his arms as if it was a small and precious child. “It is mine now to hold” he seemed to be saying. And I admit to my eyes moistening a little as I stood beside my ex-husband, and together again if only for a moment, we were one, linked by our child who was about to become a man.
Something happened to my boy in the last few weeks. His heart began to open. Previously he had maintained that this event was for us, that his becoming barmitzvah had much more to do with our desires than with his. But recently, I noticed him stepping out into the world differently somehow. He stands taller, he offers me an arm sometimes as we walk together in the street. He showed a lot of maturity when considering his portion. He began to reflect upon the man he thought he might become. On the bima, he spoke confidently and with authority. He allowed himself to be moved by yesterday’s events. It was indeed a rite of passage.
In other societies, such ‘coming of age’ rituals demand more of their boys as they enter manhood. Amongst certain aboriginal practice, the men take their boys from their mothers, and circumcise them. Other societies demand that their boys undergo feats of courage and endurance, and alter their bodies with ceremonial wounding and scarring. They return to their tribe outwardly altered, so that all can see their new status. They return not to the arms of a mother, but the society of men. Robert Bly, poet and social commentator, suggests that the problem with boys in the West is that they have no tribe, and so form gangs. Their fathers are often absent, and so they cannot imagine what it is they are to become. They have no feat of courage to perform, and so are compelled to take risks. They have no ritual or transcendent experience for the spirit, and so alter their consciousness with drugs. Of course, the problem in the West is not limited by gender. We can all flounder without mentors, without the sacred, without community. Yet, anthropologically speaking, it is boys who undergo this experience. A girl’s body changes naturally, the onset of menstruation is a natural rite of passage, implicitly honoured and understood in the society of women.
In light of this, I have been very grateful to the wisdom of Judaism. We practice a rather sanitised version of this rite, (much to the relief of young boys and mothers) and yet, I think it can be effective. We Jews are a tribe, we know what is expected of us. Although in modern times, we can not take for granted that there will be a supportive family and community to welcome our children into adulthood, it is still largely so. And although I know this is not popular thinking in our age of political correctness - I cannot help but feel there is something very good about men coming together in prayer, binding their arms with leather straps that lead to a box in which a prayer is held, stating that God is One, and telling us how much we must love Him. It is like Secret Men’s Business, and I do not believe that it in any way encroaches upon my rights as a woman. Boys need men. I want my sons to relate to, confide in, be inspired by and be encouraged by men. As a single mother, I feel it profoundly.
Not only did my father, my two sons, their father, and his father receive Aliyah yesterday, so did my daughter and I. The rabbi of my synagogue holds so dear the concept of sexual equality, that I remember some years ago, he voiced strong objection to a Rosh Hodesh group for women being held under the auspices of the synagogue. “Isn’t this what we reject, exclusivity of gender?” he questioned with deep sincerity. I understand increasingly, that equality is not sameness. It is honouring not only the equal status of both genders, but acknowledging the difference.
Yesterday, I felt exceedingly rich. Both sets of grandparents were present to witness my son’s barmitzvah. Several of my parents’ friends, many of whom I have not seen in a long time were there, reflecting on the years past and the unending cycle of life. My ex-husband’s new family joined us. I was surrounded by cousins and aunts, sisters and nephews, new friends, old friends. Each one was focussed on this moment in my son’s life, praying for him, hoping he does well, welcoming him into the tribe. When we celebrate a life event like this, we celebrate life itself, Jewish life, and the higher purpose of it all.
And when those men took the chair upon which he sat, and threw him up into the air, towards the heavens and back down to earth again and again, I looked at those strong hands holding the chair, firm and steady, and I lifted my voice with joy that he can be tossed about, as we all can be in this life - and that he can be caught again, in the arms of good, fine men.