My local farm stand is up and running. The featured crop right now is fresh-picked strawberries. They are picked by 8 a.m., loaded on the pickup truck, and driven about 25 miles to the farm stand in my neighborhood. So they are FRESH. Nearly every day I buy a quart or two and wash and slice them for Abby and Eytan to snack on when they’re doing homework. This year, their sweetness is sending me right down memory lane.
Two years ago in May, Eytan was starting his bar mitzvah tutoring. He epitomized the “reluctant bar mitzvah boy.” Disengaged, bored, grumpy—and a bigger fan of science than religion—learning trope and chanting Haftarah and Torah was the last thing he wanted to do. Eytan had started a new school, and was navigating new friends. On top of that, his father and I were getting divorced, and his father had moved out a few months earlier so Eytan was spending every other weekend away from his childhood home at his father’s townhome. It was a lot to handle for a 12-year-old boy.
I knew he could master what he needed to learn for his bar mitzvah, but I was concerned that ramming Judaism down his throat was counter-productive. Perhaps the process of becoming a bar mitzvah was going to drive him away rather than engage him. Eytan was (and is) a “just the facts” kind of kid. All this talk about God, whom we cannot see or know through any of our senses, was maybe too “out there” for him.
Eytan’s tutor was his cousin Jason, a recent college grad who was indefatigably happy. They were the perfect match: yin and yang, sweet and sour, Oscar and Felix. Eytan’s moodiness was no match for Jason’s good cheer and perseverance.
One day I was cutting up strawberries and brought the bowl into my office where Eytan and Jason were practicing. Immediately, Eytan cheered up and began chanting with a mouth full of strawberries. In a blink, Jason figured out the best way to motivate Eytan and put the strawberries next to him.
“Eytan, if you chant the next verse perfectly, I’ll give you a strawberry.”
“Nice job, just fix that one phrase there.”
[More Hebrew chanting.]
“Excellent! Have a strawberry.”
And the chore of bar mitzvah tutoring was transformed into something more tolerable by that first bowl of strawberries. Jason joked that Eytan had turned into Pavlov’s dog. Most of Eytan’s Haftarah and Torah readings were learned with a “strawberry and stick” approach. Eytan would learn to chant a line or verse, and Jason would reward him with one or several strawberries. That year, strawberry season extended itself into mid-June, later than normal, but if God wanted Eytan to practice for his bar mitzvah, then He was going to have to send strawberries.
Summer came and Jason went out of town for a few weeks, so Eytan’s tutoring was paused. He sort of practiced—with much nudging on my part and complaining on his. When Jason came home, Eytan had (fortunately) retained most of what he had learned. They started their sessions again, without strawberries, but with watermelon, because in the heat of August, even with the air conditioning running, it was HOT.
Eytan started 7th grade (we start school in August in the south—I don’t make the schedule, I just follow it) and I realized he had grown several inches and his little boy voice had turned into a beautiful tenor almost overnight.
Now Jason and Eytan were going to tackle one of the hardest parts of the bar mitzvah—after the student has learned Haftarah and Torah, what does it mean? In our congregation, the bar mitzvah is expected to give a d’var Torah, an explanation of that week’s Torah portion. And in true Jewish fashion, Eytan and Jason wrestled with the meaning of the Torah portion. Jason gave Eytan enormous latitude in interpreting his Torah portion. Eytan pulled from sources as diverse as “The Big Bang Theory,” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Albert Einstein to try and explain how he reconciles religion and science.
Two years have passed since Eytan and Jason started tutoring, and this year’s crop of strawberries is just as delicious as it was two years ago. I cut them up and remember hearing Jason and Eytan working together. As worried as I was that bar mitzvah prep might push him further from Judaism, Eytan’s time spent with Jason, and his d’var Torah which evolved from their conversations—in which he expressed a newfound appreciation for people who search for God, even if he goes about things a different way—proved that any struggles were well worth it.
Eytan is now a confident 8th grader, taller than his sister and me, and sings bass in the school chorus. He still struggles with science and religion, and at this point, science is winning, but the struggle continues.
When faced with a challenge many people, including adults, often don’t know what they need. For Eytan to master what he needed to know for his bar mitzvah, he needed Jason’s support and good cheer—and a quart of strawberries.
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