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My Son's Bar Mitzvah Through a Convert's Eyes

Two months from now I will be relaxing in the happy afterglow of my son's bar mitzvah. Guests will be catching flights back to their homes around the country, my son Harrison will be beaming, proud of his accomplishment, and his sister will be counting the days till her bat mitzvah, three years from now.

In many ways, the last 10 months were precisely what I had expected: shuttling to and from temple for appointments with the clergy, doing mitzvah projects, listening to Torah portions and blessings being chanted at home and planning the details of a party. I even expected Harrison to procrastinate the bulk of his Hebrew studies--a prediction he effortlessly fulfilled.

Harrison Friedes and his cat
Sally's son Harrison, shown here with his cat, is going to become a bar mitzvah.

What I didn't expect was a nagging sense of uneasiness. I first noticed it when we met with the rabbi to discuss the rituals of the bar mitzvah service. I couldn't shake the notion that this all felt foreign to me. It happened again when the caterer talked about how we could honor guests at the evening party. It wasn't until we met with the DJ that I identified the familiar feeling; it was the same discomfort I often experienced before I had converted to Judaism. As a Catholic woman, married to a Jewish man, every time I attended seders and High Holy Day services I felt like an outsider. Now, nearly 10 years after my conversion, I was feeling non-Jewish all over again.

I had become Jewish five years into my marriage because I found Reform Judaism to be the perfect spiritual home for my beliefs. Since then, I've embraced a Jewish life: hosting Sabbath dinners, chairing Social Action committees, taking adult education classes in Judaism and teaching the tenets to my children. I rarely identify myself as someone who converted. I'm simply Jewish.

So when a sense of separateness crept up on me during the bar mitzvah preparations, I couldn't help but be distraught. At first I thought it was my unfamiliarity with the service that made me feel like an imposter. Having only attended a handful of b'nei mitzvahs, I realized that I had little idea of what to expect of the bar mitzvah rituals. I am a Jewish mother, but now, with my son's bar mitzvah approaching, I felt eerily unqualified for the job. My child would be looking to me for direction and I will not know which way to point.

The irony of the realization--that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to put my son at ease--did not escape me. Not only is the bar mitzvah a time when a boy becomes a young man, it is a time for his mother to let him do so. The service was not a place to hover. Harrison would find his way. I also reminded myself that the service is not centered on the bar mitzvah; rather, we will be attending a service in which Harrison will become bar mitzvah. We will be there with our friends, family and the congregation, welcoming our son into the adult community.

"On May 30th, something will change," I've told Harrison. "You will join the adults in your Jewish community and start to look at your life through the eyes of a young man."

He probably interpreted that as "You will be required to take out the trash more often," but I know better. Harrison will become a young man because of the dignity and pride in which he'll carry himself after his bar mitzvah. I am proud that my religion offers one of the few rites of passage into adulthood in the Western culture.

Yet, as lovely as my epiphany about the service was, I still felt uneasy. There was the matter about the party and my Midwestern, Catholic family. While they had graciously accepted my conversion, they had never really seen Judaism in action. I knew they would find their way through the rituals in the service, but I wondered what they might think of the tradition of the party. What would they think of a dinner and dance honoring a 13-year-old? Would the event seem over the top to them?

Then one afternoon, after a full day of negotiating hotel rates for our guests, worrying that I was inconveniencing my family with travel, it occurred to me: it wasn't my brothers', sister's and parents' discomfort that I feared. It was mine.

I turned to my mentor, Rabbi Larry Kushner, and his wife, Karen Kushner, for answers. Sitting with a group of parents at a b'nei mitzvah planning meeting, I brought up my concern.

"Maybe it's just because I wasn't raised Jewish. But I'm having a hard time planning a wedding-like celebration for a child. I can't help but think it is … " I searched for the right word. "Indulgent." I was surprised that most of the other parents were nodding.

"That makes perfect sense," Rabbi Kushner said, "But it is not a kid's party. It is your party to honor your child." He and Karen went on to explain that, with married couples having children later and later in life, there is less of a chance that grandparents will be able to attend their grandchildren's weddings.

"So the bar mitzvah is another occasion to bring family and friends together, to celebrate something good in life," Karen explained. It was just the clarification that I needed.

In two months my son will become a young man. But that won't happen on his bar mitzvah. Harrison has shaped himself as a young Jewish man over the course of his studies, just as I became a Jew during my conversion process. And now, through my son's rite of passage, my own reverence for the beauty of Judaism has deepened even more.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Sally Srok Friedes

Sally Srok Friedes has been a guest speaker about the road to her conversion at synagogues on both coasts. She has written for parenting publications, appeared on television, hosted satellite tours and worked as a panelist on a radio program. Visit her website at www.sallysrokfriedes.com for more information.

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