I recently attended my first bar mitzvah, for our grandnephew Ryan. I knew generally that the bar mitzvah is the ceremonial marking of a Jewish boy’s religious coming of age (at 13). I did more research beforehand and learned about the meaning behind parts of the ceremony. And as I bragged to my niece Tamra (Ryan’s mom), when I was in fourth grade, we lived in a predominately Jewish community in Silver Spring, MD, and at one point in my elementary school career, I could recite the entire Hebrew alphabet and spin a dreidel like no tomorrow. So, I felt as prepared as any gentile could be. However, I wasn’t expecting such an emotional, spiritual ceremony, or such a great party!
Ryan is a sensitive, precious, often under-appreciated old soul. At our family party for my son’s USNA graduation last May, at the conclusion of the predictable toasts from the expected adults, out of nowhere dear Ryan’s voice piped up, and he spoke the most beautiful, heart-felt tribute to my son. (Until then, I had managed to keep my composure, but that’s when I completely lost it.)
Ryan’s mother Tamra came from a Christian background and his father Mike (her husband) from a Jewish. Ryan was not raised in either faith, although he was exposed to elements of both. Neither Mike, nor Mike’s two siblings, had a bar or bat mitzvah. Imagine the surprise when Ryan, as a very young boy, announced he wanted a bar mitzvah. (Even more shocking, he wasn’t aware that gifts and parties were involved) Because of the huge effort involved, Mike and Tamra tried to talk him out of it, but finally relented after months (even years) of Ryan’s begging.
Ryan’s Hebrew teacher, whose more typical experience was tutoring young people pressured to have bar mitzvahs by their families, relished the experience of working with this diminutive boy with a big passion for his studies. By the time Ryan was midway through his lessons (about an 18-month process to prepare for the bar mitzvah), his younger sister Erin decided she would have a bat mitzvah and embarked on her own training.
Having just completed a study of Exodus with my church, I was eager to see how the Old Testament rituals and traditions might be expressed in the bar mitzvah. It was moving to observe the customs, passed on for generations and thousands of years. Ryan wore a Talit (prayer shawl) for the first time, presented as a gift from his Jewish grandparents. As part of the ceremony, Ryan received the Hebrew name that he chose for himself, David Solomon, in honor of his cousin (and my stepson) David. (Here’s where I first lost it).
The ceremony continued with Hebrew blessings, prayers, and songs, the opening of the Holy Ark and the passing of the Torah from generation to generation (starting with Ryan’s grandfather and then from family member to family member, ending with Ryan). Ryan then read from the Torah, that week’s passage from Leviticus. I learned later that he was reading from the original Hebrew, containing no vowels, which meant he had to memorize the entire passage and follow along with a pointer, right to left.
Tamra, Mike and Erin each rose in turn and, while standing next to him, shared reflections on Ryan and his accomplishment. I couldn’t help but be struck by Ryan’s face, as he was able to graciously and openly (and without any apparent embarrassment or discomfort) receive public words of loving tribute from the most important people in his life. (That’s when I really needed that package of tissues).
Finally, Ryan gave his speech, his word of thanks. Maybe I’m biased, but I would submit that it is highly unlikely such wise, heart-felt words have left the lips of any other 13-year-old boy. Ryan spoke of his initial dismay at apparently drawing the short straw for the Leviticus reading (which covered in great detail various unsavory health conditions and their treatments). But after further reflection, he said, he found the relevance of the passage for him and, in fact, decided it was “perfect.” He shared that his paternal grandfather and aunt are both physicians, and his mother (our niece) is battling advanced thyroid cancer, and then beautifully connected the scripture to his life. (Dang, why didn’t I bring a BOX of tissues!)
Following the ceremony was a party for the ages, complete with dancing, dinosaurs (Ryan aspires to be a paleontologist and that’s a whole ‘nother story), food and games. Ryan entered the hall to the heroic Jurassic Park theme and thunderous applause. We lifted Mike, Tamra, Erin and Ryan on chairs, we danced the hora, and we celebrated faith, family, and Ryan. I danced until midnight, came home with my hair and make-up in shambles, with sore feet and a tender right hip (primarily from overexertion doing the Thriller dance number and the Electric Slide, both of which, in my opinion, I slayed) and hadn’t had that much fun in ages.
The more I reflect on Ryan’s accomplishment, the more I am impressed. As a pre-teen boy, Ryan chose a very difficult path, not for rewards or recognition, but for the journey and its significance. In his social world, his choice could have easily caused him to be ostracized rather than admired. He clearly heard a deep spiritual calling, and not only did he answer the call, but he followed it through. The grueling preparation and study required for his bar mitzvah was on top of an already heavy scholastic and extra-curricular schedule, and in the midst of significant family struggles. It is inspiring to see such spiritual depth and maturity in one so young, and I am proud to be part of his mishpacha (which according to Google, means ‘family’ in Hebrew). Mazel tov, Ryan!