We drove out to Bucks County, Pennsylvania because my childhood friend, Eileen, who now lives out there, invited us to the bar mitzvahs of her twin sons, Jake and Frank. My husband’s parents live out there, too, but they’re Christian and live on a horse farm so up to that point, I thought Bucks County was just a bunch of stone houses, horse barns and Protestants. I’ve since done some research and I’m not sure how many horse farms are there, but it does in fact have a lot of Christians: there are 300 churches and just 15 synagogues. But my findings surprised me — not because of the small number of Jews there but because that number gave Bucks County one of the largest Jewish populations in the country.
Eileen and I grew up on Long Island, spitting distance from the famed Levitt houses in Levittown. I never knew what to call our town because my mother always used to say, “We’re in the East Meadow school, the Hicksville water district and have a Levittown post office.” Eileen lived next door to us and was my best friend from kindergarten to sixth grade, when my family moved to another town. I was looking forward to the bar mitzvahs – or b’nai mitzvah, as they’re called when there’s more than one – not just to see Eileen again but to see her family, whom I hadn’t seen in 35 years.
We took seats in the back row of the synagogue, and as soon as I opened the prayer book, I found myself singing along with all of the songs and prayers with the enthusiasm of a patriot singing, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I was surprised I remembered the words. Soon, the Torah portion I had to learn for my own Bat Mitzvah was going through my head, though I kept getting stuck in the one spot, repeating the same verse over and over again as my memory failed me.
As the rabbi called members of Eileen’s family to the podium to bless the Torah, I craned my neck to see her parents, her brother, Jeff, and her sister, Rhonda, who was our baby sitter when I was 10. I looked over at my husband, Bruce, who was holding our son, Eddie, in his lap and was struggling to read along in Hebrew from the words spelled out phonetically on the side of the page. It warmed me to see him try, though I suddenly realized he wasn’t wearing a yarmulke. I jumped up, grabbed one and put it on his head.
I wondered if Eddie would have a Bar Mitzvah. While I’m Jewish, Bruce is not. I’d like to raise Eddie Jewish, but I don’t want to push that on Bruce. As with most issues, we never made any concrete decisions about what religion to raise our child, so to insist he be raised Jewish now would be changing the rules pretty late in the game. It might also seem a little disingenuous, given that I’m not very observant. I fast and go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, I light a menorah on Chanukah, and I always attend Seders on Passover (two years ago, I couldn’t find one so I hosted my own), but I don’t rest on the Sabbath nor do I keep a Kosher home, and while I know Jews don’t believe in hell, I don’t even know if we believe in an afterlife.
But Judaism has two sides: the religious side, which has all the rules, and the cultural side, where you look, smell and feel like a Jew and have more than a mild acquaintance with stuffed derma, but you only find yourself in temple for weddings, funerals and the high holidays. On the cultural side, we were devout. My mother made roast chicken most Friday nights, and we’d light the candles, recite the blessing for wine, and say in unison, “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub, yeah, God.” I attended Hebrew school after my regular school a few times a week, where we ate apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah and potato pancakes on Chanukah, and our teacher, Mrs. Bialagorski, would sometimes stand at the back of the class and clap her hands and yell, “Rootzie, rootzie, rootzie,” or “run,” as we ran circles around the folding chairs.
On Purim, we ate prune and apricot hamantashen and dressed up as either the villain, Haman, the heroine, Queen Esther or her non-descript cousin, Mordecai. I think Eileen dressed up as Queen Esther, and I was Mordecai, or maybe I just remember it that way.
It never mattered to me whether I married a Jew. In fact I’ve always liked Bruce’s Protestant ways, his smooth, steady nature. We balance each other. Where I spill out all over the place, he’s more measured. Where I’ll argue in public, he’d rather apologize and save everyone the embarrassment. His taste is more refined. My people like chrome and mirrors turned on their sides so they look like diamonds.
But now that I have a son, I want to share with him my Jewishness. My food, my customs, an almost Jungian bond with my people that extends to those I don’t even know who lived centuries ago. I want him to feel that sweet melancholia I feel every time I hear that sad musical scale that lies behind almost all Jewish music. I want him to feel that kinship that exists between Jews that when put in a room full of non-Jews, they’ll gravitate toward each other like members of a high school math team. It’s one of the reasons my husband is unsure about raising Eddie Jewish: he doesn’t want to feel left out.
As we read from the prayer books, Eddie began to fuss, disrupting the service, so Bruce took him out into the hall. I remained in the sanctuary reading along in Hebrew. I can read the words but don’t know what they mean.
My own Bat Mitzvah fell on a December evening during Chanukah. I wore a ski cap to bed the night before so that my curly hair would be straight the next day. In the photographs, I’m wearing liquid blue eyeliner. During my service, I sang like a bird. These days, it’s hard to imagine standing up in front of a crowd of people and singing. I now get performance anxiety.
After about 20 minutes, Bruce brought Eddie back into the sanctuary, handed him to me, and then sat down. Eddie remained quiet for a couple of minutes but again became disruptive so I took him out into the hallway. I stood by the double doors to the sanctuary and peered through the little glass windows, watching as they removed the torahs from the Ark and carried them around the room so the rest of the congregation could kiss the scriptures as they went by.
They called Eileen up to the podium by her Hebrew name, Esther Gitel, a name I immediately remembered from Hebrew school like you remember the name of the person called just ahead of you in homeroom. Eileen’s husband, who is not Jewish, was also up on the stage. He looked proud of his boys but a little uncertain about where to stand.
I walked down the hall with Eddie and sat on the floor next to a box of Chanukah gifts left over from the holidays. I ripped open a bag of four dreidels and started spinning them, trying to get all four tops spinning at once. I wanted to dazzle him with the objects of Chanukah. It’s hard to compete with Christmas.
A friend told me she’d seen an article about a Jewish organization that sends books to little Jewish children for free. I didn’t tell Bruce, but I signed Eddie up, and we’ve received three books so far. I read one of them, called, “Before You Were Born,” to Eddie all the time. The book says that before we’re born, our souls wait in the Treasury of Souls until the Angel, Lailah, comes and escorts the soul into a seed that is then implanted in the mother’s womb. As the seed grows, the Angel, Lailah, reads to it from the Book of Secrets, which contains all the secrets of the world, from the languages of all the animals to everything that has already happened and will happen in the future. But just as the baby is born, the angel puts her finger to his lips to remind him to keep everything she taught him a secret. According to the book, that’s how we got the indentation above our lips.
Eddie soon lost interest in the dreidels. I spotted a box of miniature kaleidoscopes and took one of them out. It was a cheap kaleidoscope that you had to rotate manually. I held it up in front of Eddie’s right eye and turned it slowly, but he didn’t know how to look inside the little hole. He grew bored and began to fuss until he spotted a box of foam stickers in the shapes of menorahs, dreidels and scrolls. There were 100 stickers in the box, and Eddie was about to dump the whole thing onto the floor when I grabbed it. He had such a tight grip on the box, I had to wrestle it out of his hand. He began to cry so I gave him a menorah, which he promptly put in his mouth. I thought there was no harm in it until he pulled it back out, and I saw that half the foam rubber candles were missing. As I took the little menorah out of his hand, I could smell he had a dirty diaper so I took him into the bathroom to change it. By the time I came out, the service was nearly over.
After the reception, we drove to Bruce’s parents’ house, which was just a few miles from the catering hall. His parents marveled at how Eddie could now stand himself up and make his way around the room by holding on to chairs and tables or the wall. He couldn’t yet walk by himself, but he could cover a lot of ground by staying near furniture or walking along the perimeter of the room.
We spent two days at Bruce’s parents’ house reading magazines, watching football on television, talking to his parents, and watching Eddie try to walk. He would take a step, and then fall down, take another step, and then fall down. At one point, he was standing by the island that separated the kitchen from the dining area, and he walked four or five steps. I know this not because I saw it but because when I heard the shouts and clapping, I ran over just in time to see the back of him as he fell down. I missed my child’s first steps because I was sending a text message. But I would have a chance to see him walk again, and again. By the end of the weekend, he was taking more and more steps on his own, without having to hold on to anything.
As we walked to our car before heading home, I said to Bruce, “He’s growing up so fast. I feel like we brought him out here a boy, and we’re bringing home a man.”
Bruce paused and said, “He had a Bar Mitzvah.”
I smiled. For now, I’ll take what I can get.