In December, my oldest son turned 13. Traditionally, in Jewish households, this is a big deal. But, in our house, it didn’t look like it was going to be. From a very young age, my son had made it clear that he was not interested in religion.
When my son was just 5, he announced that God was only pretend. When he was 7, he refused to go to Hebrew School. When he was 9, he shook his head as his little brother began to learn the Hebrew blessings.
So, when his 13th birthday began getting closer, I didn’t even think to ask him if he wanted a bar mitzvah.
But then, something changed.
It started with the a rash of hate speech and vandalism at a nearby school. That such a thing could happen in our quiet little suburb was unheard of. Then came the story of the persecution of the Jews in Whitefish, Montana, and then multiple accounts of swastikas on synagogues.
Although I didn’t want to frighten my kids, I did want them to understand what was happening.
And so, I talked to them about how other minorities like Muslims, African-Americans and LGBTQ Americans have also felt fear and worry about the climate of hate that seems to have become more blatantly pervasive recently. I told them how important it is for them to stand up for their friends of other faiths and ethnicities and to make sure to build strong bonds with their Jewish community as well, as there is always strength in numbers.
My son grew quiet as I spoke. His eyebrows raised and his he turned away from me. After a long while he spoke, “Are WE minorities, Mom?”
His question took me aback. Never for one moment have I doubted my status as a minority. When I was growing up, we were the only Jewish family in a white Christian area—and this made it clear very early on for me that our status in the world, while superficially secure, is actually quite tenuous.
“Of course we are,” I answered.
Something changed after that conversation. He started to flip through the Jewish books in his shelf, even to request attending Jewish camp events. But, the biggest shock of all came when, two weeks before his 13th birthday, he asked me to have a bar mitzvah.
Fortunately, our very kind and obliging Chabbad rabbi made it happen. One month after his 13th birthday I watched as my devoutly scientific son put on Teffilin for the first time in our living room.
There were tears in my eyes as I listened to him tentatively recite the Shema–the same prayer I’d whispered to him every night in hopes that one day he’d pray along with me.
During the ceremony, the Rabbi talked to him about what it means to become a bar mitzvah. He told him that he would be held to a higher set of standards, that he was in the “major leagues” now, that he could be asked to be part of a minyan or read from the Torah. My son listened with an intensely serious expression.
Perhaps this will be his only foray into the world of Judaism. Perhaps he’ll never put on Tefillin again or say another prayer. It’s his choice, and I support him. Still, watching the light in his eyes as he stood before us re-enacting a tradition that our people have followed for thousands of years, I knew that something had changed inside of him.
I don’t know how exactly that change will manifest. But, if it simply means that he is beginning to recognize that he, as a Jew, has a responsibility to watch out for his fellow Jews, along with people of other vulnerable groups, then he has learned what is, to me, the most important lesson of being Jewish.