Photo courtesy Flickr user zeevveez (https://www.flickr.com/photos/zeevveez/).

Before They Go Crazy

I was standing with a friend during a bar mitzvah one Saturday morning, as a 13-year-old took on the spiritual obligations of a Jewish adult. The bar mitzvah is a really big deal in Jewish families, so it was with interest that I heard my friend, who was not Jewish, describe the event she was seeing. 

“I think this whole thing is such a brilliant idea,” she said. I looked at her, squinting.

“Huh?”

“You honor your children just before they go crazy,” she said, and I laughed, thinking of all the parents I knew trying to navigate the high-wire act of raising teenagers. Of course, a bar mitzvah is about becoming part of a Jewish congregation and leading it — but I had to agree with my friend about twelve- and thirteen-year-olds entering the land of adolescent angst. On this particular morning in synagogue, I was expecting and did not even want to imagine my kid’s bar or bat mitzvah. Instead, I turned my attention back to the bar mitzvah boy chanting his Torah portion.

And then one day, not quite knowing how I got there, it was time for my own son’s bar mitzvah, only instead of honoring him before he went crazy, I think all the adults around him went crazy instead. It was supposed to be the best of times, but the months and weeks leading up to Josh’s bar mitzvah had been chaotic. Josh’s stepmother, whom he loved deeply, had become ill with cancer and died. His younger siblings were in second grade and mourning their mother after months of watching her fight her disease. Josh’s father was fighting to keep everyone afloat, including himself. 

I, on the other hand, was struggling with my own demons, one of them being the belief that Josh preferred his father’s family to mine. Throughout his childhood and well before his stepmother’s passing, it felt like he wanted to be at his dad’s more than he wanted to be with Pete and me. To be fair, there was a piano, guitar, singing, and brother-sister twins at the other house. While we brought Josh to museums, movies, and plays, I think it was simply more fun at his dad’s place. Besides, as the books all say, boys want to be with their fathers more as they approach adolescence. My demons hadn’t read the books, so even though I knew all this rationally, I opened the door to the green-eyed monster and let him waltz right in

That’s probably why, a few days before the bar mitzvah at his father’s synagogue, Josh and I had a fight that reduced me to a teary mess. To his credit, Josh’s father called later to see how I was doing. Somehow, he got us both laughing, and a few minutes later, I apologized to Josh. I had hoped it made him feel better, but I spent the evening obsessing about all my parenting mistakes. By the time the morning prayers started on the day of the bar mitzvah, our extended family had assembled at the synagogue, looking up at Josh on the bimah as he began chanting the parsha, the Torah portion for the week. Each parsha is subdivided into chapters, and during a bar/bat mitzvah, the celebrant — age 13 for most, age 12 for girls in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues — reads several chapters aloud in Hebrew. 

Each chapter is read — chanted, really — from the Torah, a parchment scroll in Hebrew that’s written by a specially trained scribe. The words in the Torah scroll have no vowels, which makes it difficult to read. 

Josh’s parsha was called Behaalotecha, meaning “when you light” or “when you kindle,” which is fitting as it begins with Moses’ brother Aaron being commanded to light the menorah in the Tabernacle (sanctuary).

Torah portions are set according to the calendar, so there’s no choosing of one’s portion. The kids do have the choice, though, of how many chapters to read and how many to offer to others. Josh decided to read all seven, which made his father beam as he stood next to Josh on the bimah.

I saw what it meant to Josh to be performing this ritual alongside his dad. Watching them together showed me how much it was helping Josh grow and how silly it was to want him to divide his time equally between us, as if he were a math equation.

As Josh read, I started following along with the English translation to better understand what he was saying in Hebrew. He had shared very little with me up to that point, studying his parsha only with his father. I hadn’t done much reading on my own — mostly due to time constraints more than anything. 

The opening chapters were straightforward enough — and pretty boring — with the tribe of Levi being initiated into the sanctuary service. Instructions followed and things built slowly, with details about celebrating Passover and the building of the Tabernacle. This signaled the start of the people’s journey into Israel and moved into the two final chapters, where things finally started to get interesting.

As soon as the Jews set off for the Promised Land, they began grumbling about the difficulties of the journey and wished they were back in Egypt — insanity, considering they had been slaves there for four hundred years. They hated the manna provisions they were given and longed for meat. God’s response was to promise an abundance of meat to the Jews until it comes out of their noses and nauseates them. I smiled slightly, thinking of how my mother would rail at us if we complained about her dinner menu.

In the final chapter, everyone’s gloves were off. God provided piles of quail and the people devoured it eagerly. Those who ate most gluttonously died in a plague with the meat still stuck in their teeth. 

We then move from bad to worse. Moses’ brother Aaron and their sister Miriam spoke against their brother’s decision to marry a Cushite woman who was not a Hebrew. God retaliated by striking Miriam with leprosy, which she endured for seven days, though Aaron was not punished for any of this. (Why am I not surprised?!) Moses pleaded with God to stop afflicting his sister and eventually Miriam was cured.

Though it’s a horrifying story, I couldn’t help but feel it was a perfect chapter for us on this bar mitzvah day. Seeing how the Jewish people erupted at Moses and how his siblings talked behind his back made me think of other Biblical stories and families. No matter how much we might think of people in the Bible as elevated, the truth is they were flawed human beings. Maybe the Torah is trying to tell us that it’s not the people who matter, but their stories, journeys, and what they learned. Or didn’t learn. Or forgot.

I finished the parsha and began following along with Josh as he continued chanting. His voice was already a confident baritone, and though a few cracks appeared, he recovered quickly. I remembered what my friend said about honoring your kids before they go crazy and decided, if Moses, Aaron, and Miriam muddled through, we could weather whatever might be coming our way, too.

When it came time to speak to Josh in front of the congregation, I talked about his persistence, courage, and kindness while he watched me silently. It was getting harder and harder to tell what he was thinking, and that was, I knew, something 13-year-olds were good at. I hoped we’d be lucky enough to celebrate many more occasions with each other, so he’d come to know how proud I was of him. And no matter what happened to him or with him or around him, I hoped nothing would keep him from being the man he was starting to become.

Guest Columnist Jenna Zark was one of the original writers for TC Jewfolk. Her essays became the seeds for her newest book, Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey. The book will be published by Koehler Books on September 5, 2022.  To learn more, visit jennazark.com.