On the Sunday evening after our son’s bar mitzvah, the bar mitzvah boy turned to me over brunch leftovers served as dinner and very honestly and curiously asked me, “Mom, how come you cried at my bar mitzvah?”
I tried as best as I could on the spot to explain to my boy-turned-man what I was feeling at services the previous morning. I gave him a rather canned answer—something about loving him and being proud of him and missing my own mother. He nodded and later that night went back to the business of being a 13-year-old boy checking fantasy football scores, Snapchat messages, and finishing up his homework.
As the days and weeks have passed since his bar mitzvah, I’ve had more time to process that question. Here’s my real answer for him, or at least as best as I can figure it out:
I cried at your bar mitzvah for the pride that made my heart swell. As I sat below you in our synagogue seats, watching you lead the service with such ease and confidence, I felt prouder of you than I had ever felt before. I thought back to our family vacation nearly a year ago when I listened from the slightly ajar door in the adjoining hotel room as you struggled to put together the words to the Hebrew prayers you were studying. I stayed up late that night wondering if you would be able to pull it all together and become a bar mitzvah. How wrong I was back then, and how good it felt to see that before my very own eyes.
I cried at your bar mitzvah for all the people we love who gathered together that morning for a truly happy occasion. When Dad and I stood next to you on the bimah looking out to the seats below, my mind was flooded with countless memories of the people who filled them—people who have been a part of your life, of my life, of dad’s life for so many years. I thought of the birthday parties, the soccer games, the funny stories, and all the laughs we shared together. I also recalled the sleepless nights, the long talks, and the tears that we shared with those very same people. I felt a bit like I was floating outside of my own body, seeing so many people I love in one place—all for you and for our family.
I cried at your bar mitzvah for the people we love who are no longer with us. I thought of your great grandfather—your namesake who you never knew. I imagined how much he would have loved to know you and what joy you would have brought to his life. I comforted myself knowing that he lived a long and full life, still realizing that no matter how long we have the people we love, it’s never long enough. I cried for your grandmother, my late mother, who did not have the long life I wish she had. I felt cheated for me, for you, and for her. I thought of something that a loved one told me that weekend—how my mother, more than anything, did not want to leave us—how she would have given anything to be able to see you that day, tall and poised and in charge. I have felt the bitterness of her loss on so many occasions but on this one so much more than I could have ever imagined.
I cried at your bar mitzvah for the Jewish people of generations past and for the traditions of our religion. Although I grew up a rather secular Jew, attending services on the High Holidays and the occasional Shabbat, I felt so lucky that we could be in our synagogue that morning practicing a long held tradition of our people. I thought of Jews of generations past who fought for their religious freedom, those who perished because of their religion, and I recognized how lucky we were to be able to be there right then. As I watched you read from the Torah—the very same one that I read from when I was 13, as did my father and many other family members—I felt a connection to the sacred scroll.
I cried at your bar mitzvah for the passage of time. When the service was nearly complete and I listened to the rabbi bless you, I saw a tall young man before me and wondered who that was. I flashed back to images of toddler you on that same bimah celebrating your nursery school Shabbat holding a stuffed toy Torah, dancing around with your friends. I wished for a moment that we could go back in time to the days of the dancing toddler. I came back to reality and realized that I will soon see you, the tall young man, grow even taller, that your time living in our house is not forever.
I thought about how I want to protect you from everything but also how I can’t—how I will need to let you go more and more.
And so I will, and so I cried.