Monday, September 20, 2004

Rock Hashana

Every family has its disagreements. Especially when there are teenagers around. Some are relatively simple and generally mundane. Like:

Should a thirteen-year-old have an enforced bedtime?


Can he play on his new laptop whenever he wants?

Others, though, are more spiritually profound. The burning question in our house at this time of year is: which synagogue should we attend for High Holy Day services.

I know, I know, this is a dilemma you are probably scratching your head over and muttering “say what?” It was the same for us back in the old country: we were members of a single synagogue and that was where we went. After all, isn’t that what we paid all those dues for?

In Jerusalem, though, we have our regular synagogue and then there’s the hippy-happy super-sized Amiqa De-Bira, AKA The Leader Minyan.

By super-sized, I mean super-long.

I’ve written about this remarkable place before (click here to review “Yom Kippur Groupies”) and how, with all the high energy singing and dancing, High Holy Day services more closely resemble a rock concert than a traditional shul. And like a concert, the davening (prayer) goes on for a good 3-4 hours more than our regular synagogue. Think a Grateful Dead show vs. The Backstreet Boys.

But there’s something about The Leader Minyan that speaks to me on a very deep level. I relate to the davening there more than any other place. No wonder it’s been my High Holy Day home away from home for nine years now.

But that’s me. And then there’s my teenager.

“I don’t want to go there!” Amir blustered when I informed him of my plans.

“What do you mean...why not?” I replied, taken slightly aback by the intensity of his conviction.

“Listen, Abba, I speak Hebrew,” he said. “I can understand the prayers when they’re done fast.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I can’t understand the words when they’re said so slowly. I really didn’t enjoy it when we went last year.”

He had a point. Just saying the first word of the Shema at the Leader Minyan can take up to 30 seconds.


“Try not to think of the words, then,” I ventured. “Let the music roll over you. Get into the communal beat. Think of it as more than prayer. It’s an experience!”

“Abba, really...” was all he said, but his withering look didn’t hold out much promise for compromise.

“What do you propose we do then? Do you want to go to our regular shul alone?”

“I hate sitting alone,” Amir said.

“Why don’t you try coming with me, and if you still hate it, we can cut out early.”

“I don’t know...” he said.

“Sleep on it and we’ll talk in the morning.”

As I headed off to bed, though, my thoughts were nowhere near as clear as my fatherly advice implied. Was I being selfish, I wondered? Too rigid? A bad father? Or was I just being clear about what I needed to make the holiday meaningful? Was that so terrible?

When I stumbled out of bed in the morning, Amir was already dressed, sitting on the living room couch, ready to go.

“I’m going with you,” he said. “I’ll give it another try.”

My heart skipped a beat. As much as Amir didn’t want to be alone, neither did I. Having my newly bar mitzvahed son at my side, I knew, would be something special.

Still, Amir had not transformed overnight. He sported a scowl that reeked of “obligation” and only grudging respect all the way on the walk over.

When the chazzan started off the morning service with an extended bbbb-aaaaahhh-ruuuuu-chhhhhh, I wasn’t sure this was going to work.

The service meandered slowly from soulful to spirited. Amir looked impassive but, in time, not so defiant. At a particularly rousing section, I turned to Amir.

“Did you hear what the chazzan just did? How he built that repeated coda into a crescendo until everyone was near bursting, totally ready to explode?”

Amir didn’t say anything but I could see that, ever so slowly, his disdain was dissolving under the relentless drumming of 200 congregants pounding away on their chairs, prayer books and even the walls. I looked down. Was that his foot starting to tap ever so slightly?

The congregation belt out another song at the top of its collective lungs, singing as if the world’s survival depended on our words reaching a receptive inner ear. A quick glance at Amir: he was singing too.

I turned to him, trying to figure out the right words of encouragement that wouldn’t seem too overbearing, but he beat me to the punch.

“I can see why you like it here,” he said simply. OK, it was a statement, still “you,” not “we”. But a step forward. I ventured a hope. My son may yet “get me.”

The first part of the service ended and we broke for a community Kiddush consisting of honey cake and cherry juice (there was more, but that's what I had).

Not wanting to push my luck, I said to Amir, “So should we go now and catch the rest at our regular shul?” Better to leave on a high, wanting more, I figured.

“No, I’m enjoying it here,” Amir said.

“Really?” I asked, though at this point I didn’t doubt it.

And then he added: “You know, you were right. Last year, I really was too young to experience it.”

I guess we won’t be having a disagreement over where to go for Yom Kippur this year.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The A-Ha Moment

As soon as I heard that sixteen family members were coming from overseas to Amir’s bar mitzvah, I knew we had to do something special.

First of all, sixteen people coming to Israel in these days when the country is still perceived as a threat to life and limb is worth celebrating with a significant dose of joy and appreciation.

But once they got here, what would we do with everyone?

Sure, the main event – the bar mitzvah itself – was a good start. And there was a party the following night.

But I wanted to create something that would provide our visitors – some of whom were on their first ever trip to Israel – more of a taste into why we love it here, why raising a bar mitzvah boy in Israel is so meaningful to us, and why we stay...despite all the difficulties (and make no mistake about it, life here is difficult).

In short, I wanted to give our guests an A-Ha know what I mean: that point when a click goes off in your head and you just “get it.”

And so my wife Jody and I began planning.

We organized several days of day trips around the country. There were group meals to order for the days we were in town. Kugels and herring to buy for the Kiddush on Shabbat.

I worked with the band to play just the right mix of bar mitzvah music and rock and roll at the party. I built a PowerPoint presentation of embarrassing baby photos while Amir practiced reading his parsha (the Torah portion of the week).

All this while staying on top of airport arrivals that spanned a full week, then dealing with the crusty bed and breakfast proprietor who routinely botched most of our reservations.

This was one serious logistical operation.

As the week progressed, though, our planning paid off. The parade of pre-bar mitzvah events proceeded without a hitch and I began to hear what I had dreamed of for so long: those tell-tale sighs, murmurs and oohs. Little by little, the magic of this place was working. Our guests were really “getting it.”

The only problem was: I wasn’t getting mine.

You see, I had been so busy with all the planning and the coordinating that I got lost in the details. The bus driver needed directions. Restaurant reservations had to be confirmed. The band didn’t know if they could work Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi into the rock set. Deadlines…timelines...

Where was my A-Ha Moment?

Shabbat morning finally came. The big day: the reason for all of this. We arrived in shul on time (for once). But I was still in host mode.

The gabbai needed to know who to call up for aliyot to the Torah, and in what order. Did everyone have a tallit? Had all the herring been properly toothpicked?

And so I wasn’t at all ready for the wave of emotion that practically bowled me over when Amir finally took to the bima to say the blessings on his own aliyah for the very first time.

I had imagined this as just another event among the many that had taken place or were still to come. But it wasn’t. When he concluded his final blessings and everyone started throwing Hershey’s kisses and other sweets at him, I felt like he had crossed a threshold.

During dinner the night before, Amir asked if he could lead the zimun, the invitation to the benching – the grace after meals – that you’re only able to do if you’re thirteen or over.

I was unsure.

“Why not?” Amir asked. “I’m thirteen already.”

The truth was, I didn’t know what the Jewish law said in this case. Could he do this before the bar mitzvah ceremony itself? Or was this something that needed to wait?

Ultimately, I decided I wanted to do it myself, one time at least, as our entire family was gathered for the festive meal.

The next morning, as Amir ducked under his tallit to avoid the hailstorm of projectile candy, I realized why I had hesitated.

His becoming bar mitzvah wasn’t just another event. He had, in a single instant, been transformed. Like at a wedding. One minute you’re single, the next you’re married. He had gone from boy to man with the utterance of a word.

And I was so proud of him. It wasn’t the same feeling I’d have if he’d studied hard and aced an exam. Rather it was because he had joined me in the world of adults. He’d become my equal in the responsibilities placed on him by the Jewish community.

And that’s how I finally got my own very personal, very special, quite extraordinary A-Ha Moment.