Sunday, June 6, 2010

76 days to Bar Mitzvah: real Jews

In the beginning, after God created the heavens and the earth but before that awful retreat we went on last fall, we attended our first Temple Emanu-el Bar Miztvah as part of our commitment to "Shabbat Exchange." "Shabbat Exchange," as we've discussed earlier, was several Saturday mornings in a row dedicated to a one-hour class -- led by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, who took something I'd dreaded and made it into a truly delightful experience -- followed by mandatory attendance at whatever B'nai Mitzvah was going on that day. Bar Mitzvah crashing was part of the curriculum.

At the time, we didn't realize that there is no such thing as "crashing" a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Everyone is invited, including the lady in the ski jacket who pulls around the box. Weekend services, which begin Friday night, are the nucleus of a congregation, and as our temple representative reminded us a few weeks ago, they'd be happening whether it was your turn to read from the Torah or not. Of course everyone can go.

Even after seven-plus years of Jewish Day School Education, we didn't know that. We felt weird.

Especially weird was the fact that this particular Ba(t) Mitzvah would honor the daughter of a couple we really liked but did not know well enough to be invited to their Bat Mitzvah. "Oh, man," I thought. "That's going to be awkward," which shows you just how much of a B'nai Mitzvah greenhorn I was.

"Maybe we can hide in the back," said my equally clueless bride. There we were, after all, in the slightly-below-business-casual attire we'd though appropriate for Shabbat Exchange class. Suddenly, faced with a room full of people we casually knew but felt didn't know us well enough to understand that, had we known we'd be seeing people we knew at a Bat Mitzvah, we would have stepped up our game, we were cowering in the back, looking like the hired help.

Actually, I take that back. The hired help always wears ties.

I now know that we looked like only slightly-shabbily-dressed members of the congregation, sitting in on the Bat Mitzvah that was part of our Saturday ritual services. Everyone had gone through it themselves. They totally got it.

And I also know that nobody felt awkward except us, because everyone truly is invited to the services. So savvy are we now that we've attended numerous Bar and Bat Mitzvahs this year that we were not invited to, understanding first that our importance on these days is only slightly greater than that of someone who, driving past the temple on Arguello Street that morning, slows down a bit to see what's going on, and second, it's actually honorable and respectful to congratulate the family of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah,regardless of how well you know them.

Rewinding back to last fall, we knew none of this. We thought we needed to be invisible.

There was something interesting about that first Bat Mitzvah, and it had to do with this room full of people we knew superficially but not well. As everyone knows, people are full of surprises -- some good, some not so good. I need more than both hands to count the number of times that people have thought I was one thing, only to be disappointed when they found out I wasn't. That's my fault for either trying to be something I'm not or hiding what I really am. They should know it up front, even though it ain't all pretty. Let them decide if they are going to be disappointed before they make an investment.

On a much less brutal scale, the first time you see a bunch of people you've known in a secular setting -- and yes, even at a Jewish Day School, where you see people trading all kinds of theological, ethical and cultural back-and-forth daily, you're still not seeing them in their House of Worship (Should I have capitalized that? Did I do it just to mask my own faith-based doubts in the hopes of avoiding the bolt of lightning that might come from belittling a House of Worship?) -- the volume and scale of the whole scene can really knock you for a loop.

Maybe I'd assumed they were all like me -- really bad Jews who thought being Jewish meant rejecting all religious tradition, including our own. Maybe it was like my first week at Santa Clara University, when I was shocked to find out that people actually went to Mass on Sunday. For whatever reason, seeing my semi-peers enter the room quietly, pause to expertly arrange their tallit, then respectfully sit down and dive headfirst into the service completely blew my mind.

The lesson was sharpest in the person of this one guy -- a fellow Brandies parent I knew only slightly from coaching basketball at the YMCA. At Brandeis, he's a very high-profile guy, who's sent several kids through the school, volunteered his time generously and is unanimously liked by students, parents, faculty and administration. This guy is a BHDS icon, totally respected by all -- including me, who barely knows him -- so I don't know why I was so surprised to learn that he knew the ropes, Judaism-wise.

I don't know. Maybe I'm so shallow that I assume that a guy who was a football star in high school, coaches sports and seems entirely neurosis-free can't possibly also be an observant Jew. Maybe it's something murkier and far more insidious. Maybe I'll earn that bolt of lightning yet. All I know is that this guy, and all of those other guys that I casually knew not well, all of these other guys who once made the same decision we made -- to send their son or daughter to Brandeis Hillel Day School, guys who show up at Brandeis events, some in business suits, some in casual wear, seeing them hunkered down at services on a Saturday morning, tallit draped over their shoulders, murmuring in Hebrew -- some from memory -- was more than weird. It was very impressive, for one, and very touching.

There was no moment of conversion. Nothing like that. Unfortunately, I haven't turned out to be wired that way, not yet, at least. But it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that I was in awe of these guys -- and slightly envious. Whatever their actual level of faith, Saturday morning services were a time of familiarity, a time to settle into something comfortable and comforting. And the slight bit of adjacent glow I received from them was pretty bright. Thanks, guys.

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