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June 22, 2009
For years, my Jewish identity existed primarily as an unexamined sense of difference from my peers. I remember Hebrew school as a place where rote learning seemed more important than explanation. Eventually I left, dissatisfied and bored, and my parents didn't pressure me to stay.
I might have never found a place to seek answers to my questions if it weren't for the woman who became my wife. An outspoken and pragmatic engineer from a large, boisterous Catholic family, Jen had no interest in organized religion, but encouraged my own exploration of my Jewish heritage. Her family took me in, and her grandmother told me simply, "You be good to Jennifer, and we'll be good to you."
|Rabbi Liza Stern (center) and the Eitz Chayim Adult B'nei Mitzvah Class. David Hoberman is the man on the right.|
Not long after we married, a friend's chance invitation to Eitz Chayim, a little non-denominational shul in Cambridge, gave me the opportunity to re-engage with Judaism as an adult--to wrestle and argue with it in the company of a diverse community full of people at all stages of practice and belief. Attending services wasn't Jen's thing, so I went on my own. But she often nudged me to go on those Friday nights when she sensed it would help me bring the week to a proper close. She could have simply accepted my exploration of Jewish observance, but she actively encouraged my deepening involvement in the shul because she could see how it enriched my life. Together, we experimented with lighting the Shabbat candles, hosting a seder, baking hamantaschen on Purim and attending the occasional High Holiday service.
Only after completing Me'ah (a two-year study program on biblical, rabbinical and modern Judaism), relearning to read Hebrew, hosting seders and taking an active role in my congregation did I decide it was time to take up that one thing left undone. I finally felt prepared to become a bar mitzvah, son of the commandment, to stand up and accept my place as a Jewish adult in the community that had already welcomed me with open arms.
Our rabbi drew together a class of other adults, and we studied together for almost two years. I learned as much from my classmates as I did from the rabbi. Some of them became Jews as adults. Several of the women grew up in a time before Jewish girls were called to the Torah to become bat mitzvah. We brought food for potluck dinners at evening study sessions and kept one another going.
For nearly a year, I didn't mention my decision to become a bar mitzvah to anyone other than my parents, uncertain if I wanted to go through with it when I considered myself a humanist, not a person of faith. I also worried whether I was up for the challenge. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to recite the words, that I'd mangle the blessings or, once I'd been chosen to lift and present the Torah to the congregation at the end of the readings, that I would drop it. Jen patiently scraped me off the ceiling and deconstructed my doomsday scenarios. When I offhandedly mentioned my upcoming bar mitzvah to my mother-in-law in Texas, without missing a beat she said she'd be glad to come. I was floored and deeply moved. She'd never been in a synagogue before in her life.
The days raced by as I practiced with the cantor over Skype, and the final week was a blur of practice and recital.
At last the day arrived, bright and beautiful. I rushed to shul to meet the rabbi and my classmates, and found my younger brother and his wife already there. My brother is never early for anything. Jen's mother and aunt Kathy, whose son married a nice Jewish girl, sat with my parents. So many friends and fellow congregants were there, Jews and non-Jews. An ASL interpreter sat next to us, ready to translate the service for deaf relatives and friends.
I welcomed people to the shul as we began the introductory service, and then we stood to receive our prayer shawls. My father presented me with his tallit, which had been worn by each of his younger brothers before coming down to me. Yellowed by time, it bore a small ink stain on one end like an accidental benediction or a reminder of the messiness of everyday life.
Once I started to recite from the Torah, the words flowed from my mouth. They were the first seven lines of the Torah portion Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2, about the sabbatical year--a Sabbath for the land. I thought my legs were going to shake themselves out from under me, but my voice held. Once my classmates finished their portions, I levered the Torah off the table, turned and raised it upward for the congregation to see. I did not drop it.
As our rabbi said, our b'nei mitzvah ceremony was a start, not a finish. Call it a liminal moment, a transition from one state to another. I'm not a different person. I'm not a better person. Yet it felt amazing--an acceptance and a homecoming of sorts. Though not particularly pious or observant, I've realized that I find value, richness and meaning in the culture, traditions and rituals of my faith.
Afterward, Jen snapped the picture of my class that graces this reflection. Among the gifts I received to mark the occasion were several Jewish books sent by her family. I was honored and humbled by their curiosity, their openness to difference and their willingness to sit there for three whole hours to witness this life-cycle event. It meant so much that they were there for me and my classmates.
Most of all, it mattered that Jen was there.
One night, weeks later, we lay in bed as I gathered my thoughts for this piece, talking about the difference between acceptance and encouragement. I mused aloud how her encouragement had enabled my Jewish choices, whether or not she participated. She said quietly: "It's fairly simple. When you love someone, you help them become the best person they can be. I was just loving my husband."
After a moment, she added dryly, "It's not like there's a return policy or anything."