Mitzvah, Interrupted

With five weeks to go until The Big Day, our son came in with an announcement. And not just any announcement.

“I don’t want to have my bar mitzvah party.” Excuse me? Can you repeat that? “I just don’t think I’ll have a good time.” Henry gave a couple of exceptionally well thought-out reasons for his decision, including that he didn’t think the party captured the spirit of what a bar mitzvah was about. There are other reasons that I can’t repeat here in print about young teens and their behavior at bar mitzvah parties that’d probably have him placed into the Witness Protection Program at school.

So what did he want? What he really wanted, what would really give him pleasure, he said, was just having a snowball fight with a choice bunch of his male friends in the park. But that wasn’t going to happen.

The Rabbi had never heard the likes of this in his many years in the trenches of bar and bat mitzvah teaching. What we had here was a voluntary, unilateral withdrawal from a teen party. Unprecedented in the life of the large Manhattan synagogue of which we are members.

We let Henry sleep on it, but the next morning emails were sent out to parents and kids. The reactions were uniformly supportive, even admiring. The bar mitzvah’s mother phoned the venue to break the news—unfortunately they weren’t as admiring.

(In fact, anyone who needs a swanky venue for a bar mitzvah party is welcome to use my credit at this fine establishment.)

The bar mitzvah took place in January on the appointed day. Our temple’s main sanctuary on a Shabbat morning is like the JFK of Shuls—there are bar mitzvahs stacking up, planes coming in and out, delays, new gates, announcements, constant movement of people and a constant background noise. We chose the privacy, if not the glamour, of a chapel on the top floor of the building, where Henry would be the only star of the show and the folks sitting down to pray and listen would be there to hear him, with the lunch reception to take place right outside of the sanctuary.

It turned into one of the most remarkable and moving days of my life. (I know it’s supposed to be, but the feelings still crept up on me by surprise.)

Henry mastered an awful lot of Hebrew and speech making. And standing there at the bimah, he was self-possessed, in control, witty, and kind—the boy truly transitioning into the embryonic adult. The Rabbi and Cantor were magnificent in word and song and personal touches. Everyone in that room knew Henry and rooted for him. I had a couple of moments of glorious loss of self control when I put my dead father’s tallit around Henry at the start of the service and later made the fatherly blessing over him in front of the ark: May The Lord Cause His Face to Shine Upon You…

His mother had spent a lot of time making a lunch that’d be personal and memorable. The theme followed his mitzvah project of environmental consciousness—a cause that his grandfather had famously pursued on a national stage for many years of his esteemed life. The food was spookily edible—I would say it was restaurant quality. The wine was provided by the owner of a vineyard in Argentina who loved Henry when we went to visit last summer. The “montage” (what’s with that word?) was a video that combined the “de rigueur” (hey, it’s just another Frenchy word) pics of Henry’s upbringing and relatives, with a variety of clips and spoofs and celebrity endorsements (the Donald Trump clip telling Henry “he’s hired” brought the house down).

It has been another particularly brutal post-Christmas winter in New York. We wondered whether some out-of-towners would have difficulty getting into the city with a hardcore blizzard hitting on Friday. They all made it without a problem. But the weather also brought another unexpected, but wonderful, guest.

As the lunch party wound down, the room’s glass doors were opened onto the roof garden. The boys all spilled out onto it. Shouting and cheering, they scooped up the recently deposited snow. And they had a snowball fight.

Richard Burns is a contributing writer to New York Family.