This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the bat and bar mitzvahs of my middle daughter’s friends. Twins, these two seventh graders had been working for months, if not years, for this big moment, the transition in the Jewish faith from childhood to adulthood. They were now able and willing to take on the responsibility of fulfilling “mitzvah”, God’s commandments. And their family, faith congregation and a few “Gentile” (non-Jewish) friends like us were gathered to mark this most wonderful occasion.
The celebration was part of the weekly Sabbath service, held on Saturday in the Jewish faith. As we arrived at the Synagogue we were handed our equipment: prayer books (Siddur) and Humash (a red book containing the five books of Moses) and a kipa. Bright purple, the kipa or yarmulke in Yiddish, is a small head covering worn as a sign of respect for God. Bobby pins are used to hold them in place though I noticed one older gentleman adeptly balanced his own intricately woven kipa on the little shelf of tight curls that ringed his head. Once inside the Jews in attendance also donned prayer shawls, most long rectangles, some large squares that hung down to their legs, all with fringes.
Inside, the sanctuary itself was more similar than not to a Christian house of worship. An altar rose up in front and rows of pews filled the rest of the space. At the back of the altar a large curtained cabinet set in the wall and adorned with Hebrew housed the Torah. Above this “Holy Ark” hung a candle, the “eternal light”. Beautiful modern-style stained glass windows ringed the sanctuary, one set depicting the seven days in which God created the universe and the others representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
Once quietly seated in the back two pews, we began to watch with fascination the events unfolding before us. At this house of worship the entire service is said in Hebrew. The books we had been handed were also in Hebrew (with English translations on the opposite page) and as with Hebrew were to be read left to right, front to back. It took a little getting used to – more than once I tried to find “page 200” in the front of the book only to realize it was at the back! I was in awe as the twins chanted in Hebrew right along with their Rabbi and then individually read passages from the Torah. Given the length of what they read, there was no way that they had simply memorized these passages without claiming the language of Hebrew as their own, a language with its own beautiful, but identifiable alphabet.
The service was very long at two and half hours and I was pleasantly surprised by the level of quiet attention paid by the young people in attendance. There were new things to experience at every turn. A few highlights were when the Torah (a very large and heavy scroll) was taken out of the Ark and carried around the congregation, first by one twin at the beginning of the service and then by the other at the end, and when the twins each read (in Hebrew of course) passages from the Torah and then gave short sermons (in English thank goodness) on the readings. What wise, and witty, thirteen-year-olds these Bar/Bat Mitzvahs are! And my daughter and her classmates really got a kick out of throwing sweet soft candies at the two to wish them “sweetness in life” at the conclusion of the mitzvah service.
My favorite part of the morning however was when the twins’ father and mother addressed each child in front of the congregation. Both parents did such a beautiful job looking back over their lives, commending them on their hard work and character, and acknowledging their future as young adults both in their faith and in their greater lives.
As I sat listening, almost teary-eyed myself, I summoned my memories of our eldest daughter’s confirmation this spring (when young adults mark their transition to “adulthood” in our faith) and found it wanting in this one regard. I realized that these are words my own children needed to hear about themselves, but often don’t. They do hear the everyday nagging and criticisms born out of worry: “please clear the table NOW!” or “have you finished your homework?”, as well as the brief accolades: “Way to go on your exam”, “nice picture”, or “great goal”. But they have not heard in a long time, if ever, what my thoughts are on them as a whole person, from beginning to end, birth to now, memories and all. I plan to change that very soon. And like the twins parents I will tell them from beginning to end.