Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Out of Context

We were recently invited to a bar mitzvah “weekend” at the resort hotel of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, a few kilometers from where we live at the southernmost edge of Jerusalem.

The bar mitzvah weekend is an alternative to the usual custom in our community where the bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) is called to the Torah in synagogue, with a festive Kiddush held afterwards followed by a lunch or party in the evening.

With the bar mitzvah weekend, though, guests are invited to stay over (often at the bar mitzvah family’s expense) at a hotel. The family gets to create exactly the environment they want in a more intimate space, and the guests get a three meal catered break from the weekly routine.

We were really looking forward to it. That was, until Amir got sick.

Our eleven-year-old, Merav, had already made her own plans to spend the Shabbat with a friend in town (it was a bar mitzvah after all...boys, ecchh).

“I guess we should cancel and stay home,” I said to my wife Jody as thirteen-year-old Amir flushed the toilet for the eleventh time that hour.

Jody had a different idea. “Why don’t I go with Aviv and you stay home with Amir?” she suggested.

I was shocked. Insulted. Hurt. Over the years we have taken great pains not to be separated as a family for Shabbat. Even when I used to fly overseas for business sometimes as often as twice a month, I’d always try to get back by Friday. And from California, let me tell you, that was one heck of a transcontinental shlep.

And now Jody was suggesting that we separate...right in the same city?

Still, she had a point. Why should we both miss out on the weekend? Six-year-old Aviv would have a great time (he loves hotels). Besides, our friends wanted us there.

“OK, how about this,” I countered. “You go to the hotel and I’ll stay home with Amir Friday night. Then if Amir’s feeling well enough in the morning, I’ll walk over for Shabbat services by myself.” It was under an hour to Ramat Rachel on foot.

“Would that be OK, Amir, if you stayed by yourself for a few hours?”

Amir just looked green.

“Right, we’ll play it by ear,” I said.

As Jody packed up her bags, though, I realized that all that togetherness meant that this weekend would be charting new territory. You see, I had never spent a Shabbat alone with one of my kids.

Which wasn’t a bad thing. It’s just...well, what would we talk about? Sure, Amir and I have never been at a loss for words. Still, I felt vaguely uncomfortable. The context was confused.

Which raised another question: what would we do, just the two of us, at the dinner table? Would we still sing Shalom Aleichem, the song welcoming the Sabbath angels to our house, without the rest of the family, I wondered? What about Kiddush? And the motzei over the challah?

There was no time to ponder. The sun was already setting. I put food on the hotplate, just like a regular Shabbat.

But Amir wasn’t hungry; all he could eat was rice and applesauce anyway. And I thought: maybe we should just skip the whole thing. Take a week off. Why go through all that bother?

And that felt even worse.

“Come to the table, Amir,” I said.

Amir was on the couch reading “New Spring,” the prequel to Robert Jordan’s wildly popular “Wheel of Time” series, his eyes still glazed from a week of nausea.

“Do I have to?” he mumbled.

“Yes,” I commanded, sounding more sure of myself than I really was.

Amir came. And we began. We sang Shalom Aleichem to our regular rousing tune. To my surprise, Amir joined in, as enthusiastically as his flu-weakened body could muster.

Then we turned to the empty chair where Jody usually sat and sang Eishet Chayil. Amir pretended to give his mother a massage. “That’s my job!” I joked.

While I wolfed down a piece of chicken and a couple of small potatoes, Amir poked at his rice and we talked. About whatever came into our heads.

We discussed the price of college and the new Nintendo DS Amir’s so crazy about. I pontificated on an article I had read recently in Wired Magazine about the economics of digital media distribution.

At the meal’s end, I even insisted that we sing the grace after meals, something about which I am habitually ambivalent. Amir didn’t complain.

And it struck me that the rituals which I thought would have less resonance without the full family gathered around...actually meant more. They provided a starting point, a common ground between father and son. In the very situation where I’d anticipated laziness, I found myself more stringent.

After dinner, we retired to the living room, both of us curling up with our books (I was a third of the way through The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s harrowing best seller about growing up in Afghanistan).

After a few pages, I put my book down, looked up and tried to put voice to the thoughts I was having.

“Amir,” I said. “Did you think that we were going to do all that?”

“All what?” he asked, lifting his eyes slightly.

“You know, the Kiddush and motzei and stuff?”

Amir’s answer was as simple as it was telling. In little more than a few quickly exhaled words, he validated thirteen years of parenting and varying adherence to tradition.

“Yeah of course,” he said. “Why not?”

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