The other night, we had a family outing to a very large fair. The kids rode on typical fair rides that spin you around and hurl you upside down into the air after eating typical fair fare like corn dogs and fried dough.
I am not a big ride person. At all. But I do like to people watch at carnivals and fairs. I like to see what people are wearing, or what they are not wearing enough of so everyone can see the writings or etchings that cover their arms and legs in the form of a tattoo.
At least, under those summer carnival lights, there is still somewhere left on earth for self-expression.
Today, my 5th grader came home from school. His shirt was inside out.
Did I miss the note that today in school was inside out day? It’s late May. I’m kind of done with checking homework, checking notes.
No. A teacher in school made him turn it inside out.
The shirt was “too religious.”
The shirt in question said: “I rocked out at xxxxxx’s Bar Mitzvah” It was black and had a guitar emblem on it hand designed by my daughter artist-in-residence. You would think that an art teacher would have admired the shirt for its individuality. But no, she in front of the whole class made my son wear his shirt inside out for the rest of the day. No one had paid any mind to my son’s shirt until he was asked to turn it inside out.
The shirt was leftover from his brother’s Bar Mitzvah.
From three years ago.
You can blame me, teach, because he has so many of that shirt in his drawers and there was probably no other shirts left because I’m a bit behind on the laundry.
Initially, I became furious that my son could not wear anything “religious.” Would a Christian kid be asked to remove a cross? A Muslim kid remove her hajib? God in heaven, I hope not.
So I called the school with my concern and calmly (okay, NOT calmly) explained the situation.
“Oh yes, kids are not supposed to wear shirts they get from Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. It makes other kids feel …. bad.”
Sorry, but I guess I never got that memo either. Because my son, and his brother and sisters, have tons of T-shirts from Bar Mitzvahs. And sports teams. And youth group weekend retreats.
In fact, if it weren’t for all those shirts they received when they worked the Bar/Bat Mitzvah circuit, why, they may have not had any clothing that school year at all!
Giving out T-shirts, or for those high-end B’nei Mitzvah parties, sweatshirts (!) has been the popular party favor for decades.
The school’s rationale is that these types of Bar/Bat mitzvah T-shirts distract the student from their academics. The school’s rationale is that this rule is there to protect the uninvited from feeling excluded.
Let’s examine how other items of clothing, or any other actions we do, may make people feel excluded. If we are really going to take inclusiveness to the highest level, perhaps school boards should consider banning the following items of apparel:
Sports or athletic clothing: Lots of kids wear varsity clothing and some may even have varsity letters. This may make the non-athletes around them feel sad or unsatisfied with themselves.
Concert T-Shirts – I remember in high school the kids who spent all their money, or got money from their parents to go the hottest tours and they would wear their T-shirts that they bought from that concert that very next day. I remember thinking how much I too would have loved to see that band and then …. I got over it.
Vacation T-Shirts: When kids from families who can afford plane tickets during peak vacation time return from Florida or their time share in the Caribbean, it makes the white, pale pasty kids who didn’t escape to somewhere warm feel very excluded.
Designer clothing – My son speaks of a classmate who he swears gets a new pair of $200 sneakers every other week. That could make anyone -ANYONE – who is not a Joneses – feel excluded.
I presented these ideas to the principal when he called me back. I asked him if, during the months of October through December, if he could make sure that there would be no showing of anything red and green, or that no one in school wears Christmas lights or ornaments as necklaces or earrings, or that no one be allowed after Christmas to wear any sweaters with reindeer or candy canes or snowflakes or fir trees on them.
Absurd? Well, it might – MIGHT – make a tiny part of the school population feel – excluded.
I asked him how much longer he wanted to continue this ridiculous conversation with me. But if the ridiculous rule were not there, we would not be having this ridiculous conversation.
Want to see the dress code rules? Here they are. Please see if you see any mention of Bar/Bat Mitzvah or any party swag in here:
14. STUDENT DRESS
District students are expected to dress, groom, and attire themselves in a manner that is not
potentially dangerous, does not distract others or disrupt education, and does not convey a
message contrary to District policy. The following are examples of dress, grooming, and attire
that may violate District policy. This should not be considered an exclusive list.
Potentially Dangerous Items:
Chains, pointed rings, metal spikes, clothing or attire restricting physical movement,
Distracting or Disruptive Items:
Clothing that exposes or draws unusual attention to breasts, buttocks, or
genitals; styles that expose undergarments; bizarre clothing, grooming or attire that
focuses attention on a student or group of students at the expense of learning, such as
nightwear or beachwear, etc. Students must wear shoes.
Contrary to District Policy:
Clothing that advertises or promotes smoking, alcohol, or the illegal use of drugs;
clothing reasonably likely to be perceived as promoting racial, ethnic, or religious
discrimination or intolerance; clothing reasonably likely to be perceived as advertising
or promoting illegal behavior; clothing reasonably likely to be perceived as obscene,
lewd, vulgar, or plainly offensive, etc.
What are we doing when we have rules that go to the extremes to coddle the middle schoolers feelings?
We do our kids no favors by not teaching them to start developing a tough skin and not to feel disappointment. Yes, have a tender heart, but start thickening that skin by age 12 or 13. So it won’t hurt so badly the first time you get rejected. By a college. Or a boy. Or a job. With that tough skin, you know it will hurt for a little. And then, you’ll go on.
Know now, starting in middle school, that even the most seemingly popular kids are frightfully insecure, and all you need in life is a few good true friends.
You don’t need everyone to be your friend. But you need to find that bunch of friends who will include you for YOU. Not because you are going to have the fanciest Bar Mitzvah in town and give out the best T-shirts.
Better to learn in middle school, that no, you won’t get invited to every party. You may or may not go to prom. But you’ll know the kids who did, because guess what, in HIGH SCHOOL, along with that expensive prom ticket, guess what you get to wear Monday in school?
A sweatshirt. Saying you went to prom.
My latest student sat before me sullen. Sad even. Completely disengaged. The chid complained of a headache, even a stomachache and could NOT find the strength to sing.
The child had not a chance to review the sentences given to it to study months ago. The child’s iPod had also mysteriously stopped working, so he/she could not listen to the melodies of the chanting either.
I get it.
To many emerging young Jewish adults, studying for one’s B’nei Mitzvah may not be your thing. You’ve got a life, for gosh’s sake! That life is full with homework and friends and sports and has nothing to do with chanting a strange language in a building you hardly go to!
And what does all this Hebrew mean that I can barely read and hardly understand?
And how am I going to find the time to study?
When it comes to hunkering down and preparing for one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, many obstacles can get in the way. In a recent post on the Jewish culture blog Kveller, a rabbinical student even honestly put it out there: why put your kid through the motions of having this Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony if it is devoid of meaning, when a small percentage of Jewish adults even volunteer to read from the Torah after they reach that milestone day.
Here is why.
Like it or not, kid, you are the next link in this 5,000 year chain that cannot be broken.
Last night, after my student left and after dinner and dishes, I watched a PBS special: Space Shuttle Columbia: A mission of Hope, about the 10th anniversary of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. What made it all the more tragic was it was the first time an Israeli, Ilan Ramon, son of Holocaust survivors, took a trip to space.
And on this unique mission to space that bonded this unique multicultural team of astronauts was
a tiny Torah.
A Torah that survived the Holocaust.
A Torah that had been used to prepare a boy for his Bar Mitzvah in the hell of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A boy that survived and grew to be an old man living in Israel still in possession of this tiny scroll.
A Torah that, when Ilan Ramon heard of its story, he knew it had to accompany him in space.
For all of the Jewish people.
I’m not going to retell the story here. I won’t do it justice. But if you can, watch with your family Mission of Hope, and you will understand the Big Picture of why joining the Jewish community as a fully participating adult is an incredibly precious honor.
If that’s not inspiration enough, then look at this photo below:
this is a recent picture of men, Holocaust survivors, who never got to be Bar Mitzvah boys. Until today.
Now, stop kvetching, stop whining, and go study.
I’ve been making final arrangements for my son to have his Bar Mitzvah at the “Masorti Kotel,” a part of the Kotel off to the side of the main Kotel Plaza that is known as Robinson’s Arch. This is the designated spot in the Kotel Plaza that allows for a mixed prayer group of men and women.
How do I know the final arrangements are official? The rabbi of whom I am in correspondence with in Jerusalem cc’ed his email to “hakotel.” Yes, the Holiest spot to Judaism in the world was kept in the loop that my son will be called to the Torah in Jerusalem. Now it’s really official.
There is no way of documenting in words what emotions my family will be experiencing when my son, his brother and sister, parents and both sets of grandparents along with friends and a few surprise guests will come to Robinson’s arch to pray in honor of Nathan’s Bar Mitzvah. We’ve been planning this moment since around his birth.
But this story goes back perhaps even farther, it’s a story of the power of prayer and placing a note in the Western Wall, and how Gd answers these notes in Gd’s own time.
Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met one summer at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. They met through mutual friends on a cracked tennis court. The girl kept missing every shot, and the boy didn’t seem to mind chasing all these balls and retrieving them for her.
The boy really liked the girl. Loved the girl. But the girl just wanted to be friends.
That winter, the boy visited Israel with his family. They visited the Kotel, or the Western Wall. The holiest place in all of Judaism where Jews for centuries pour out their hearts in prayer for a united Jerusalem, for a rebuilt Jerusalem. The boy wrote a note to Gd asking that the girl would one day fall in love with him, his family would be blessed with health, and (a bit of a more material and earthly ask), that he would make it into the Engineering program at MIT.
Within a month of writing that note, the girl (who would be me) turned him down when asked to prom. Within a month, the boy’s sister became seriously ill with meningitis and lapsed into a coma. And, the rejection letter from MIT showed up soon after that.
That boy felt like he was truly being punished by the Divine.
Not to worry. Gd answers prayers. Just not in the instant we would like them to be granted.
The sister of the boy recovered and thrived, went to MIT and went on to finish an MBA at Columbia University, has a tri-athlete husband and four beautiful children, and a thriving cupcake business!
Nine years later the girl that turned down the boy for prom came around and they were married before 247 guests!
The boy in the story is my husband. Whenever we are having an argument, or whenever my husband is getting on my nerves like when he doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, I think back to his note in the Kotel, realize that our marriage is meant to be by Gd, so I let it slide.
Now, I’m going back to the Kotel again, the fourth time in my life. No two trips to Israel or the Kotel are ever the same. Each time you go there, you are a different person perhaps at a different phase in your life. So, I’m going not only with my family, but I will also be going as a messenger taking along the notes my students wrote to place in the Kotel.
Most of them.
As my students started their note writing, they had many questions: How will Gd know it’s me? What should I write? How long does it have to be? Can I ask for anything…. anything? Is this a wish, or is this a prayer? And, will it come true, what I ask? How do they keep all the notes from falling out of the cracks?” …. and so on.
I guess this is a lesson to myself that it is hard for a child to know exactly how to compose a prayer of one’s own to be placed in such a holy place when one has only an abstract concept of the place itself. These students have only the most fledgling connections with Israel, let alone an understanding of the emotional impact that a united Jerusalem, and access to Judaism’s holiest site, has on the Jewish psyche. But they did their best, and I answered their questions as best as I could.
A note in the Kotel can express thanks to Gd for the health of family and friends. A note to the Kotel can ask to heal broken friendships or relationships. A note to the Kotel can ask to be provided for, and to never know hunger but one should not ask for “Lots of Money and an iPhone.” A note to the Kotel can ask for world peace and haters of peace, for their plans to be destroyed. But a note should never ask for the death of your enemies, let alone a family member. Gd is not your hitman. These notes will not be placed, nor do they deserve a place in such a holy place.
If you live a spiritual or religious life, there are times when sad, untimely events strike you so hard you want to throw up your hands in rage and ask WHY? But if you live a spiritual or religious life, you are given the coping tools that make you realize that sometimes we don’t have the luxury to question and mope, but instead answer through acts of kindness through the community.
And how do we respond as a community? We mourn. We sing. We dance.
A Bar or Bat mitzvah is a major milestone in a Jewish 12 or 13 year old’s life. It is the first day they are counted by the community as a Jewish man or woman, even if by contemporary standards they are still too young to vote or drive. And in the joy of planning and all the silly details – the guest list, the centerpieces – it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning of the day. But in these silly little details, there is so much joy in planning your child’s coming-of-age occasion for moms and dads. This is how it’s supposed to be.
But life doesn’t always go as it is supposed to be.
We got Stephanie’s simple yet stylish pink and brown Bat Mitzvah invitation in the mail. Though her parents were long divorced, though her mother was not Jewish, mom and dad’s names were both on the invitation. Their names stood together for the first time in perhaps many years in celebration of the daughter they raised who was now about to become a Jewish woman.
Just days later, we learned that the Bat Mitzvah girl’s mother died of cancer.
How does a community come together? We do so in mourning.
How do you enter the house of a girl who is supposed to be excited about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah instead of mourning the death of her mother? You enter it very quietly, brushing off your shoes as best as you can from the latest Western New York snowstorm. You nod but don’t smile to the people in the crowded living room, some of them there to mourn the passing of their own parents. Parents who died when they were in their 50′s and 60′s. Not at age 12.
Stephanie sat quietly near her father and the rabbi, but was soon accompanied by her friends, my daughter among them. My daughter had become a Bat Mitzvah just the year before. I thought about what I was doing five weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I thought about the unfairness of it all.
Then, the rabbi began the service. When it was time to recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the mourner, it was not the time to shake our heads and ask why. Sometimes there are no answers or explanations. There is not the question “why” but “what are you going to do about it?” And almost telepathically, we just knew. Instead of one voice, many voices uttered these ancient words. Voices of her teen friends who stood by her, to put arms around her. Voices of the older members of the congregation, who carried her small mourner voice in theirs.
After kaddish was over, there was silence. And then,
“Hey, well, we have a lot of coffee and cake, so can I offer anyone some?”
Stephanie managed a cheerful voice, trying to break the sadness in the room with an offer of coffee and cake. A child who had just lost her mom was not crying but offering us the good deed, or the mitzvah of hospitality.
How do we act as a community? We sing.
Five weeks later, Stephanie sat poised and beautiful on the bimah, (pulpit) on her big day. I had the honor of sitting next to her for a bit as I waited for my turn to read from the Torah.
“I’m really nervous,” She whispered.
“It’s okay. That’s perfectly natural,” I said, trying to still my own fluttering heart. “Do you know I get nervous every time I read too? Just take deep breaths and know that everyone in this room loves you….. And by the way I just love your earrings!”
One compliment on the tiny blue rose earrings that adorned her lobes got a smile, and then she was ready.
She did her Torah reading and it went off without a hitch. Then, it was time for the reading of the prophets, or the Haftarah. This is usually a much longer, solo chanting. Unlike being surrounded by clergy and congregants when reading from the Torah, reading the Haftarah can seem like a long, lonely walk.
Stephanie’s sweet voice held through until about the last few sentences. Then, as she anticipated that the hard work was almost over, she slipped. A slight mispronunciation of a word. A wrong note. If you have ever missed a line in a play or forgotten the lyrics of a song you are singing during the performance, you know that feeling of absolute unraveling. But under the circumstances, it was a completely normal and almost healthy unraveling.
Perhaps it was the slight error that threw her. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that her mom was looking down on her from heaven instead of with her on Earth from here on in that finally caught up with her, but it all seemed to come to a head. At that very moment, before the whole congregation, Stephanie dissolved into tears. And there were still a few paragraphs to go, the blessings after reciting the Haftarah.
Sometimes people say they don’t like going to church or synagogue because they don’t know how or what to feel. Or, they don’t understand the Hebrew. But on that Shabbat (sabbath) morning, there wasn’t one dry-eyed soul there that didn’t know what to feel. Or what to do.
We were not going to let this young lady falter. Not on her first day of being a Jewish adult. So, one by one, we stopped our own crying enough to give her our voices. We sang those final blessings right along with her. Without a cue from the rabbi. Without the consensus or a vote or a ritual committee meeting. We just knew what to do. And it was perhaps the most powerful moment – more powerful than any rabbi’s sermon or cantor’s reciting of the Yom Kippur prayers - this sanctuary had witnessed in a very long time.
How do we act as a community? We dance?
When you are a guest at a Jewish party, you have a job to do. You have to add joy to that room to increase the joy of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid, or a bride and groom. And you do it by dancing. That night, we whirled and danced as much as we could. Because we were truly happy for Stephanie and so grateful for the lesson she taught us that day about courage and community.
*the names of those who I mentioned in my blog have been changed.