Wednesday, June 23, 2010

59 days to Bar Mitzvah: vowels are for amateurs

In 59 days, our Jawa becomes a man. Right now, he is a boy -- who requires a ton of limousine service. Last week I wondered what I'd do with the extra hours in my workweek, the ones I used to spend surfing the web, trying to look busy when I'd already written four stories that day and still had two hours left until five. It took all of three days as a free agent to figure out where that time would go: to driving my Jawa back and forth from appointments.

This week, each day began with a drive to Pacifica for surf camp. Today, the final day of surf camp, I finally got back to the beach early enough to see my wetsuit-clad child stand up on a surf board and ride the foam to shore. "Woo-hoo!" I said involuntarily as I sat there, huddled against the wind and fog on a flight of stairs leading from the world's only oceanfront Taco Bell to the beach, frantically texting Sandra Bullock and cursing the tiny camera inside my Blackberry.

Surf camp is exhausting. Afterwards, you have to drive to Donut Time and order a custard-filled donut just to regain your strength. You're taking a risk; the donut, having been infused with custard before your very eyes like nothing you've ever seen before, might be too heavy to carry after spending three hours paddling through waves. And when you get home, well, you can forget about doing anything other than falling asleep at the desk in your bedroom as YouTube videos of guys surfing run on your desktop and episodes of "Futurama" screen concurrently on your netbook until your father wakes you up and orders you to accompany him to the dog park, which takes another hour out of his day and your nap.

Fifty-nine days to Bar Mitzvah. This is not a problem when you've already had eight years of Hebrew. Even if you spend seventh grade accepting a demotion from the "highest" Hebrew class to the "middle" Hebrew class, then kind of lost interest enough to get a B+ on stuff you walked into the classroom on Day One already knowing. Even then, you still must invent ways to challenge yourself as you recite your Torah portion in the car on the way to meet Cantor Roslyn Barak for chanting practice.

First, you recite the fourth Aliyah (the last Torah section you will be reading), since this is the one you don't yet know by heart. You follow along in your printed-out Torah portion. The fourth Aliyah is highlighted in pink.

For this read-through, you follow on the side that has vowels, since you want mostly to make sure you know your stuff and won't freeze up on the Bima, embarassing yourself on the day you most want to show the world that you are poised and knowledgeable; that you are a man.

A note to the unitiated: Hebrew has nothing in common with English. It doesn't look like English, it reads from right to left. It's not like Spanish, where some words just sound like English words with the letter "a" added to the end. And most of the vowels don't appear as full-size letters. Instead, they're little symbols added underneath the consonents. Eventually, when you are fluent in Hebrew, the vowels disappear altogether.

You wondered why Jews are so certain that good fortune will always be met with hardship and tragedy? Learn Hebrew. The better you get, the harder they make it.

For this aliyah, the Jawa informs me, as we turn onto Laguna Honda Boulevard, he is employing the "five minute" memorization technique. Since it closely resembles his "ten minute" homework technique, in which five minutes of homework is sandwiched between two ten-minute breaks, I am skeptical.

"No, Dad," he says. "You recite it once, then wait five minutes to see if it's in your long-term memory."

I stand corrected.

Five minutes later, he rips through the fourth aliyah. "That's it," he says. "I know the whole thing."

"Okay, then, from the top," says his father, who obviously was in the kitchen, getting a snack, when the PSA by the Mormon Church, which urged parents to appreciate their children's accomplishments unconditionally, aired in 1985.

The other three aliyot -- highlighted in green, yellow and orange -- are no problem. The Jawa's tuneful, pre-adolescent voice is so soothing that I almost forgot to get mad while inching down Stanyan Street. I imagine thousands of years of tradition flowing through him, ancient knowledge brought into the present by this rite of passage. By chanting in this ancient language he will become part of the unbroken line of generations of Jewish men who've honored their religion and culture in the face of almost constant persecution. Thirty-two years ago, I climbed onto the bima and chanted; twenty-seven years before that was my father's turn; my grandfather did it in 1930. And so on.

"So," I ask when he's through. "Do you feel thousands of years of tradition flowing through your veins?"

"Nope!" he says cheerily. "You know what that part I just said was about?"


"It's about a guy getting hanged. I say it over and over."


"Yup. It comes after the part where they say that if you defeat someone in battle and impale their body on a stake, you're not supposed to leave the corpse out overnight."


"It's an affront to God."

I don't know if any of you consciously try to seize certain moments that you feel somehow require parental wisdom. Since I am still operating according to the Tom Corbett model, in which great sage-like knowledge and judgement flows effortlessly from the father, while he downshifts and steers around S-curves in his MGTD, I feel it is my responsibility to bring light to the ethical and moral questions raised by this issue.

Tom Corbett would say something about how God would want His children to realize that even the vanquishing of an opponent was nothing to brag about, that all killing was tragic, which is why you can impale your defeated opponent on a stake maybe for the afternoon, but not overnight. Honestly, thought, I thought it was going to be because after a few hours, the body would get gamy.

"Now I'm going to try it without vowels."

Who says my Jawa shrinks from challenges? Here he is, 59 days before his Bar Mitzvah, and he's got his Torah portion down cold. Looking for a little spice, he's going to try it without the vowels, for most of us akin to poking around in a pitch-black unfamiliar room.

"Should I see how far I can get or count how many times I have to look back?" he asks.

"How many times you have to look back."

The same stuff flows out of his mouth. He has to look back only twice. The meeting with the cantor lasts 15 minutes, as the Jawa has pretty much already locked up the technical parts of this whole Bar Mitzvah thing. I'm not promising a Pulitzer-worthy speech (the d'var Torah), as ours is a Jawa more comfortable among numerals and figures than he is amidst the mysteries of the English language.

By the time we get home, it's almost six. There's laundry to be folded, Shack needs to be fed and we need to start thinking about dinner, since it looks like Sandra Bullock might be working late. And there sits my laptop on the kitchen table, beckoning, promising me that the road to fame and fortune runs straight through its water-spotted screen.

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