Nine months. It has taken me nine months to write this blog post. I’ve spent a lot of quiet nights looking at a bright white, blank page. I’ve just sat looking at that blinking cursor bouncing on my screen unable to conjure up one word. Over one year ago this blog was started so that I could track my son’s development from his twelve birthday to his Bar Mitzvah. It was a marathon. I ran the blog hard. A book popped out from my effort. Unfortunately, one foot from the finish line I stopped. Why? Simple really, I could not find the right words to express my pride and admiration for my son Jake. Until now.
For the uninitiated, a Bar Mitzvah ritual can be a brutal undertaking. Just after a kid turns ten, Parents get their son or daughter’s Bar(Boy)/Bat(Girl) Mitzvah date from their Rabbi. A tutor is hired. A year from their Bar Mitzvah date, the pre-teen is required to meet with their Tutor at least once a week. These sessions go on for the entire year. Add to the Tutoring commitment, your kid must attend Hebrew School on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings. The family is required to meet with the Rabbi once a month, prior to the service.
Once ready, there is generally a large two hour service that is a mixture of English and Hebrew. The thirteen year old is required to lead the service, and the newly minted teen is required to read from the Torah in Hebrew. Then they must deliver an old style sermon in English based on the Hebrew text. This all happens in front of hundreds of their family, friends and Jewish community. Believe me, Jewish teens earn that party.
Jake turned thirteen on August 5th. Saturday, September 17th, was his big day. Jake put the work in. As you know, from earlier posts, Jake decided to sacrifice a baseball season and other hobbies to make his Bar Mitzvah a priority. Jake took it seriously. He treated it like a job. Jake quickly learned his Hebrew. With the prayers on his iPod, it was customary to hear Jake sing off-key to the monotone voice of his Israeli tutor. Over the summer, every other day at Jewish summer camp Jake met with the Rabbi to go over the Torah teaching and work over his Hebrew pronunciation.
One month out, I put a big white Crate & Barrel box on the dining room table. We began to rehearse every word of the entire ceremony, every single day. This prep helped Jake get used to being on his feet speaking from a podium. At the formal rehearsal with the Rabbi in the synagogue Lisa hit the wall. It was ninety-six hours prior to the Bar Mitzvah. All the family preparations and party stress were consuming her. Jake saw that she was nervous. After we finished with the Rabbi, Jake took her aside, “Mom. Stop worrying about the service. I GOT this. You worry about the party and the family.”
Family began arriving on Friday night. Jake did not get distracted from his duties, as some teens might be expected to do. Instead, Jake spent time with every out-of-town guest. He thanked each of them for making the trip and taking the time to come for him and our family. I found myself bewildered. I would stand on the sidelines, listening to this child, not speaking like a teen but like a young man. He would engage in thoughtful conversation with humor, clarity and maturity. It was an out-of-body experience for me. I kept having flashbacks of him as a toddler and a baby. At one point, I even imagined that I felt the weight of his eleven pound, eight oz. baby body in my arms.
On the Saturday of the service, we made sure to tell the family to the Synagogue two hours early for family photos. You can take pictures before, just not during the service. This was the very first moment I got stressed. My father, who is always late, called from the Temple as I was tying my tie at home. “We’re here. All of us. Where are you guys?” With that, I was launched into a panic. We rushed out the door. Of course, every moron that should’ve had their driver’s license revoked happened to be on the road in front of me on our normal 18 minute drive to the Temple. Yes, I yelled, and loudly. Worse than that, I cursed like a New York City cabbie with Tourette’s. We arrived at the Synagogue in 12 mins. I dropped off the ladies in front because they had heels. I searched for parking. Calmly, from the back seat I heard “Dad… Dad. Don’t stress. It’s going to be a great day. Let’s have some fun.”
Every single moment from that moment is so fresh in my mind. I have television-like recall of that entire day; from sitting on the stage and seeing a sea of smiling faces to hearing the creaking sound of the divider opening to allow access to the overflow room, we were beyond capacity. Jake sang the Jewish prayers with perfect pitch. It was such a sight having Jake’s four grandfathers standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind him with pride and seeing Lisa’s father holding the Torah. Our entire community joined us in the Hora as we held hands and danced around the congregation. There were so many pure and blissful moments.
In our synagogue the Rabbi allows a parent to say three sentences at the end of Jake’s Torah portion. It is the moment he is ready to be accepted into the Jewish tradition as a man. Here is what I said:
“Today could be one of the proudest days of my life. You amaze me every day. Look out there. I love the relationships you have with so many people sitting in this audience. I love the man you are becoming. I can’t wait to see the positive impact and change you bring to this world. I feel so grateful that you are my son and that I get to be your Father. I love you so much.”
My best friends from New York and LA were in their seats exchanging $1 and $5 bills with our northwest friends betting that I would cry. I did not cry.
The Bar Mitzvah party was spectacular. When people arrived, 2 extra-large photos of Jake faced them, his eyes in one and his marvelous smile in another. A video projector streamed pictures from Jake’s life. The DJ sourced the music from Jake’s playlist that included everything from Al Green and James Brown to Justin Bieber and Rihanna. You were not invited to this party if you did not dance.
There was food and drink galore. Early in the evening, the kids had hot dogs from Dante’s Hot Dog cart. We made sure that there were jars and jars of colored jelly beans and gummy bears in the corner. Tubs of ice were filled with organic soda of every flavor. Gourmet hamburgers from Skillet were served up for the adults. Every twenty minutes I timed something to happen. Smoke on the dance floor to lasers at the end of the night. Games, games, games, a photo booth with a dress up chest churning out old school photos strips and there was only one break. No speeches or candle lighting just a 3 minute video I did for Jake. It took months to edit, complete with a 683 picture montage of Jake growing before your eyes. No awkward family microphone fumbling. We went back to the dancing. At 9pm I threw open the doors and there was Molly Moon’s Ice Cream truck. There was some major shrieking.
Every single person connected to the party setup had a personal connection to Jake. Our dear friends David North and Steve Quinn were on the ladders with Ed Fotheringham to helping install his art work and put the lights around the walls of the space. Ed’s remarkable wife Becky nursed us through the entire event process to the bitter end with her terrific party event skills. Becky kept Lisa from having a nervous breakdown. My Uncle Jack set up the tables with Becky’s kids helping and our dear Robin’s flowers arrangements anointing every table. Skillet was remarkable with the catering. Add the fantastic DJ Bryan Kretz (who set up a Studio 54 lighting with 3 of his guys) + our friend Molly Moon and my buddy Dante and his Hot Dogs. Everyone knew Jake. It was personal. Even our Portland pals, Ned and Louise, provided a personally prepared brunch for our traveling guests at the hotel the following morning. I will say it again. Everyone did it for Jake. He knew it too. Jake was so appreciative.
The Bar Mitzvah experience was so pure and joyful. I would get as far as the keyboard and freeze. It is as if that weekend and that shared moment was so sacred that somehow if I contextualized the experience I would pollute its meaning. I was worried that writing about it would somehow fog the windows of my memory. So I just chose not to write.
I’ve finally found the words. It has not changed the meaning of the day. Now I shared it with you. Now I feel like you were all there with us. Jake owned it.