My eldest son turned 13 in June. We didn’t arrange a traditional bar mitzvah for him, for reasons I outlined earlier.
However, my son still became a bar mitzvah. He didn’t read from the Torah, make a speech, or hand out glow sticks to a few hundred of his closest friends. He was, nonetheless, according to Jewish law, a man.
Anyone who has met a typical, American, 13-year-old knows how ridiculous that notion is. (Though my son is a responsible boy–he navigates New York City by subway on his own, he takes his younger brother to school every morning, he babysits his siblings, and even other kids for pay, he does his homework without prompting, and earns good grades. But, a man, he is not.)
On the other hand, despite the lack of a rabbinically-sanctioned bar mitzvah, my son did end up experiencing a rite of passage the week he turned 13. With a most unexpected Jewish component, to boot!
The week he turned 13, my son traveled to England–alone. It was as part of a student exchange, and there were other boys from his school along for the trip, as well as teachers to chaperone. But, it was still, effectively, the first time he would travel alone without parents or grandparents or friends of the family.
We didn’t schedule the trip to coincide with his bar mitzvah, but, I must admit, I took full advantage of the serendipity.
“You’re almost an adult,” I told him. And I had him pack his own suitcase.
“If you can’t carry it, you can’t bring it,” was my motto while I traveled the world as a figure skating researcher for ABC, ESPN, and TNT, and I passed that wisdom onto him. “There won’t be anybody to carry your bags for you. You’re on your own.”
I had him check and confirm his own travel reservations.
“If something goes wrong, I won’t be there to fix it. So you’d better know the details yourself.”
He took his own money and went to the bank to exchange it for pounds, learning, for the first time, about transaction fees.
“That’s not fair!” he protested.
“That’s the way it is,” I informed him.
He researched and bought a European charger for his Kindle. And he determined that his cell phone wouldn’t work in England, so he might as well leave it behind, thus more or less cutting the last life-line to Mommy and Daddy.
He really was on his own. (If you didn’t count the other kids and the teacher chaperones and the US Embassy. Like I said, this was an American kid’s stab at independence. He wasn’t exactly going on an Australian walk-about or being drafted into the Czar’s army.)
The entire eight days he was gone, we had exactly one email from him to announce he’d arrived (feeling very sleepy), and a Facetime chat on his actual birthday, complete with the whole family serenading him. The rest of the time, it was radio silence. I operated on the theory that if there were a problem, I’d hear about it. Otherwise, let him be.
Which is why it wasn’t until after he got back and was telling me about his trip, that I found out about my bar mitzvah boy delivering an impromptu Hebrew lesson–in Oxford.
As part of the student exchange, my son spent a few days at a boarding school (alma mater of Harry Potter star Emma Watson, and a partial model for Hogwarts, no less).
He sat in on an Ancient Greek class, where, for reasons either he didn’t fully understand or had trouble articulating, they were in the process of studying another ancient language–Hebrew.
“Adam speaks Hebrew!” The boy whom we’d hosted earlier in the year at our house in NYC spoke up. (That’s what we get for dragging the poor kid to Shabbat services when he was here, I guess.)
The teacher was delighted to hear that, going to a cabinet and pulling out a miniature Torah that she explained she’d gotten from the Religious Studies Department.
“Have you ever seen one of these before?” she wondered.
“Yes, I have,” my son said (reassuring me that he’d done so politely).
“Could you read to us from it?”
“Uhm… I need vowels.”
At which point the teacher produced an Etz Hayim book and thrust it at him.
My son haltingly read a few sentences.
“And that’s what Hebrew sounds like!” The teacher informed her class.
My son demurred, “That’s what bad Hebrew with an American accent sounds like.”
The teacher seemed pleased, nonetheless. She then explained that they were in the process of learning to write their first names in Hebrew, and printed ADAM on the Smartboard.
“Is this right?”
“Actually, it needs a Mem Sophit,” he once again corrected (once again, I sincerely hope, politely).
At that point, she put him to work helping the rest of the boys transcribe their names.
“But, they were all named William or James,” my son lamented. “It wasn’t easy!”
When I wrote about it a month ago, among my many reasons for not having a traditional Bar Mitzvah was that I didn’t feel my son was ready to take on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult, or that he even understood fully what that meant.
With this trip, independence + education + playing the role of Jewish ambassador (without provoking an international incident), I feel like he has taken a giant step towards both goals.
Mazel Tov, son!