My older son, Jack, turned 13 on January 8, 2012. He shares his birthday with Elvis Presley, David Bowie, and Stephen Hawking, and I often say that’s why he’s a musical genius. Jack isn’t all that different from other 13-year-olds: he’s deeply into video games (Oh Zelda, you bitch…you are stealing my baby from me), devours the Percy Jackson books, won’t hug me in public but will in private, and is newly obsessed with “The Simpsons”. He plays the violin, makes the Honor Roll, has a group of nice friends, and is a great role model for his younger brother, Ben. A sweet, smart, pure soul, Jack is everything a mother, Jewish or not, could want.
The one thing Jack isn’t doing is studying for his bar mitzvah.
Jack’s father, my ex-husband, isn’t Jewish. We have never been a religious family, and to simply have a bar mitzvah for the sake of having one would be hypocritical. And to me, it would also be disrespectful to those who are committed to their faith. When I asked Jack what he thought about not having a bar mitzvah, he shrugged and said, “Our family doesn’t really do stuff like that.” He went on to say it would be “pretty bad” to pretend to believe in something just to get presents. I like to think I’m doing something right with this kid.
My mother, ever the Ultimate Jewish Mother, made sly references to his no-bar mitzvah as the big birthday approached. She knew from the moment he was born that there would be no bris (let’s just say we had it taken care of in the nursery, sans mohel), no bar mitzvah. She knew that her daughter was a Bad Jew and that my kids would grow up with the least amount of traditions as possible. Hey, we have a menorah! And we totally use it every year, I promise!
My indifference towards organized religion began with my own Bat Mitzvah, the emotional equivalent of a mixed martial arts event for me. I went to Hebrew School, because that’s what you did if you were a Jewish kid in suburban New Jersey. Every Tuesday and Thursday after school, from 4th to 7th grades, I struggled to learn Hebrew and generally be a Good Jewish Girl. I tried to care about it because that’s what you were supposed to do. Everyone else made it all seem really important, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.
I cannot look at the photo album from my Bat Mitzvah (which I know my mother’s got stored away and has my permission to burn). Everyone just looks hideous–it was 1982, probably one of the very worst years for hair, makeup, and fashion combined—but the real problem was that it fell during my tumultuous 7th grade year. I had been dealing with some brutal bullying and worried that I wouldn’t have a single friend at my party. In fact, my only real friend, Julia, was having her Bat Mitzvah—with me—on the same day. Since you can’t ask relatives to schlep out to Jersey for more than one thing in a month’s time, there was no way I could have my ceremony one day and the party the next so I could have one real friend there. I was not thrilled about preparing for the big day, though since I knew my parents were shelling out the huge bucks for it, I certainly feigned enthusiasm aplenty.
Once ensconced in my room, I would unenthusiastically listen to the cassette of the Rabbi chanting my Torah and Haftorah portions, which I was required to memorize. I had to participate in the Friday night Sabbath Service and lead the Saturday morning Sabbath Service along with Julia. I tried to look at it as a play I’d need to learn lines for…a play I didn’t really want to be in. Since losing all of my friends at school, I’d retreated to my room, read all of my books over and over, and gained weight. My skin was broken out, and I had a mouth full of shiny metal braces. I couldn’t have hated myself more. The last thing I wanted to do was stand in front of a sanctuary full of judge-y relatives tsking over my weight gain and bad skin, followed by the obligatory, “Such a pretty face.”
Along with puberty beating the crap out of me, I’d also begun questioning the existence of a supreme being because I kept having so many bad experiences. You know, the old “How can there be a God who would let XYZ happen” line of thinking. Not only did I have the kids at school to worry about, there was the daily verbal abuse from my father. I lived inside of a bubble made of my own dark thoughts where I mentally beat myself up on a daily basis. I mostly saw myself as a good person, someone who never instigated and only reacted when pushed. The world can beat up on a person like that, because we’re easily hurt. I was terrified of making any mistakes in front of anyone, lest they have more fodder to use against me. It’s a trait I sadly carried into my adulthood and one I only recently learned to get over.
And so I had a Bat Mitzvah, for no other reason than it was expected of me. I knew from others’ experiences that I’d get a lot of checks that my parents would then sock away for college. I chose the invitations based on the theme, Unicorns and Rainbows (1982!). I insisted the band be the one my music teacher, Mr. Hernandez, led on the weekends to earn extra money. The entire year is mostly gone to me now, repressed because of the pain caused by the jerks at school. My memories of my Bat Mitzvah are quick flashes: My father’s bad Mike Brady perm and handlebar mustache that made him look like a porn movie version of the Frito Bandito. Trying and failing to cover the zits on my chin with makeup. How pretty my mom looked in her blue knit dress. Pretending to enjoy the attention while slowly dying inside and hoping I’d get enough money out of it to make it all somewhat worthwhile.
I’m not saying Jack would have a similar experience to mine. He’s a lot like me in a lot of ways, but he’s no social pariah. He would have one rocking party. If he wanted to, he could tackle learning Hebrew and all that goes with the bar mitzvah training. He’s smart enough to make his own decisions about how he wants to occupy his out-of-school hours. To him, that’s violin and Tae Kwon Do lessons, reading and video games, friends and family. He’s not interested, and therefore, I’m not pushing him. A non-pushy Jewish mother!? Yes, we exist.
Jack will become a man whether or not he stands on a bema and reads from the Torah. His physical and emotional transformations will occur regardless of faith or the lack thereof. I stand back in amazement as he continues to evolve right in front of me. Jack is no more a believer than I, and has theories of his own to back it up. He is no spoon-fed regurgitator of his parents’ belief systems. Jack is his own person, way more self-aware and confident than I was at that age. We have discussions about everything, and he takes what I say and considers it before responding. It may not always stay that way as we begin to co-navigate the teen years. But there’s one thing I know for sure: Jack will never turn to me and say, “I wish you had forced me to go to Hebrew School!”