Every year on the anniversary of my bat mitzvah, I do some quick math in my head to figure out how many years it has been since that momentous day. This year when December 7 rolled around, after my math screamed 25 years, it struck me just how far away from that time of life I really am. A quarter-of-a-century, to be exact. I’m still in denial that I am able to have a 25-year-anniversary of anything other than my birth.
But on December 7, 1990, I stood on the bimah before family and friends (many of whom I am proud to say are still my friends today) and accepted my obligation to adhere to the commandments of Judaism. And then I had a party and opened a bunch of checks for $18. It was a great weekend, though I have no doubt its significance was not fully felt until years later.
But what is more striking to me in the oh-my-gosh-where-does-the-time-go realm is that my niece—who is still a little girl in my mind—will take her turn at the bimah in just a couple of weeks. As is wont to happen in life, as I reminisce about the significant moments in my past, another person about to embark on hers.
My 13-year-old niece is a very different person than I was at my bat mitzvah. She’s confident, athletic, and loves the outdoors, counting the minutes every year until summer camp (in fact, it’s the theme of her bat mitzvah party). I was never brave enough to leave home for more than a night or two when I was that age. I know the experience at her Jewish camp has had a profound impact on her religious identity, and I hope it adds a deeper context to her bat mitzvah that I didn’t have.
I marvel when I see my niece interact with my 21-month-old twin boys. Since the moment they arrived, she has been a constant in their lives. Even her love of camp that first summer after they were born was dampened by her love for the boys because she missed them so much. It would be easy for a 13-year-old girl to lose interest and want to do her own thing (and she most certainly has these moments), but when my sons are around, she is their play buddy, teacher, and protector. I do not recall possessing that level of maturity and compassion for others at an age where you are usually self-involved and angst-ridden.
But for all our differences, she is still a 13-year-old girl. And while our interests might have varied, the feelings are universal. She deals with the same hurts we all did at that age (and still do at times): being left out, changing friendships and relationships, first crushes. Adding to it, she experiences this all through a social media filter. Didn’t get invited to that sleepover? Don’t worry, your Instagram feed will fill you in.
As I look back on my own transition into adolescence and young adulthood, I am moved to offer my niece some of the lessons I have learned along they way:
1. Friendships change and shift and fall apart and come back together. I lived this throughout middle and high school, and even now to an extent. It’s OK to be sad or angry or hurt when friends change, but unless they do something unforgivable, try not to close any doors. I have been both the giver and receiver of forgiveness, and sometimes those friends are the ones you count on the most later in life because, you fought for that friendship.
2. Circles don’t fit into squares. They never will. You will try to mold certain relationships—romantic and otherwise—into what you want, but they will always pop back into the ill-fitting shape. It’s easy to ignore the inner voice telling you something isn’t right, but eventually you will trust yourself enough to listen to it. And it will save you a lot of time and heartache.
3. Love your little brother. I don’t know what I would have done then and now without my amazing big sister (your mom). I know he throws a party the day you leave for summer camp, but I’m pretty sure after about 48 hours, your brother misses you. You will need each other more than you know as you go through life.
4. Dream big. Dream so, so big. I’m just starting to get in touch with my real dreams, the ones that you keep pushing down for one reason or another, but they refuse to go away. I hope I have enough time to pursue them, and I hope you spend your whole life doing so.
I could go on and on, but I have an aliyah to prepare for (it’s been 25 years since I’ve read from the Torah). One day my niece will be imparting her own advice because time, if you’re lucky, just keeps moving forward. It’s funny to think that at my sons’ b’nei mitzvah, she will likely need to take off work to attend. That makes my head explode.
But for now, we will celebrate. She will no doubt shine as she recites her haftarah, and then we will whip and nae nae (that’s still a thing, right?) our way through her party. If we’re lucky, while the kids take a break, the adults can belt out the party classic “Don’t Stop Believing.” It turns out that 2016 marks the 35th anniversary of that song.
Please excuse me while I go hide under the bed.