“Your nephew’s got it in his head that he wants to have a bar mitzvah,” my mom says. “And you’re going to have to make it happen. Your sister wants no part of it and I’m too busy.”
“I’ve got this,” I say.
Cody is my sister’s kid. He’s one of two nephews I have that are half-Jewish and half-descendants from the great Southern war hero Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States and the last president to actually own slaves. You don’t get any more “good ol’ boy” than Zach.
Cody is being raised in a low income apartment project without a father a few miles from where I was raised in Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the confederacy. Like me, he’s groomed on bacon sandwiches, NASCAR, and chicken on the bone. His mom did what my mom did. She intermarried. But then she took it a step further and became Baptist. Cody wouldn’t know a Jewish star from a rock star.
If you’re familiar with my book, then you know I had a very unorthodox introduction to Judaism. I was taught Hebrew from a rent-a-rabbi out of a Volkswagen bus located in the middle of the woods. The rabbi and his orange bus are long gone and so I send queries to all the synagogues in the area asking how someone like me can help someone like my nephew become a bar mitzvah.
Rabbi Schmuley is the only one who writes back. A week later, I’m sitting in his office telling him that I don’t understand why a kid who’s successfully assimilated would want to embrace something that’s caused so much pain to so many people in our family. I flash back to the time in middle school when I’m beat up in the empty lot by the Stromboli sisters for being Jewish.
“Inside the hearts of all Jews,” he says, “there is a self-activating-randomly-firing-super-Jew-fuse enabling our personal path to Heebdom. If we did not have this, we would have been diluted in half and in half and in half and into nothingness by mixed marriage long ago.”
He says the fuse, in Yiddish, is called the “Pentele Yid.”
“The mysterious Pentele Yid is a tiny Jew ember that is carried through the Jewish blood line – it holds our passion, our rituals, and our world famous matzo ball recipe.”
He explains that Halfies – those with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent – like Cody and I, encompass over 80 percent of the entire Jewish population. For guys like us, who barely connect to the meaning behind what it means to be Jewish, our Pentele Yid is but a tiny, cold, blackened seed, passed along to future generations. Cody’s Pentele Yid is like my own – a cigarette butt stuffed in the bottom of a Pabst Blue Ribbon can.
“Yet, for whatever mysterious reason,” the rabbi continues, “the Pentele Yid can and does ignite into flame, sometimes skipping one generation and hitting another one many years down the road.”
And it’s true, in less than a year, Cody’s Pentele Yid not only mysteriously ignites, but the heat is so intense that it singes my entire family. In less than a year, the little no-Jew sprouts into a sort-of-Jew and then blossoms into the first Jewish superhero in my family. He conquers Hebrew with a southern twang, starts Shabbat services in his mother’s house, and brings dates to the synagogue (young red-neck girls who smell like honeysuckle, shellfish, and pork rinds) who laugh with him in the back seat of my car on the way to shul. He not only wants to re-convert our entire family, he wants to convert his entire apartment complex as well.
At his bar mitzvah the two sides of my family reunite for the first time in many years. The super Jews beside the sorta Jews – my sister in a halter top beside my uncle in a thousand dollar suit and a yarmulke. It’s inspiring, heart wrenching, and profound.
How does a descendant from a slave owning good ol’ boy blossom into the first Jewish superhero my family has ever seen? Because like a heart that has been forgotten or a soul that has been misplaced, our Yid has been ignited and with it the heart and soul of my family returns.
“The Jewish soul is always inside the body,” the rabbi whispers to me after the service, “it is the individual who must follow the yearning to return to that soul when the time is right.”
I’d just covered what was believed to be the first Bat Mitzvah in an American women’s prison for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. It was the only time I’d been in a temple where the person sitting next to me was tattooed with the words “Suicidal Freak.” There’s a saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it should amended to, “and in penitentiaries.” If I am ever incarcerated you can bet I’ll be signing up for every form of religious education available as they serve snacks and the non-denominational chapel at Chino is air-conditioned. (In fact, there is a relatively new organization, Atheists in Foxholes, that does great work in the field, not sure about the quality of their snacks, though.) I figured if that rabbi could handle prisoners, he could do just fine with my son whose teenage years were starting to feel like a hostage situation.
Our son, Ezra, took to calling the rabbi a nickname, Rabbi Nudgey. He had so little experience with Judaism that he didn’t know that many rabbis hover in the vicinity of nudgey—that’s their job, to nudge you away from delicious shellfish and towards God. It would be like I’d started calling my proctologist Dr. Thorough. Ok, I lied, I don’t have a proctologist, but I’m old enough that I should have one. That’s just another thing on my To-Do-Now-That-I’m-Aging List that I keep misplacing and re-write every week all over again. Really, my son should have called him, Rabbi to be Expected.
Here’s one thing I hadn’t expected to have to think through—where we would hold our event. Our home, with its temperamental seventy-year-old plumbing, is not ideal, and the rabbi’s congregation meets in a doublewide trailer on the grounds of the Chino Women’s Correctional Facility, so that wouldn’t seem to be the best choice. Ultimately, we snapped up a generous and unexpected offer of the large, airy meeting room at the Episcopal elementary school our son had attended. It was their first and I believe to this day only Bar Mitzvah. Continue reading
I turned 50. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I do yoga. I moisturize. I still fit into the same jeans I’ve had for the last 15 years, though they do sit differently, but you can’t escape it, no matter how Vitamin D you’re taking (even though some studies say it doesn’t do anything of significance). As an actress, I always played roles sometimes even a decade younger than myself. This was before IMDB made it impossible to lie about your age. I’d told so many people so many different ages over the years I’d even convinced myself that my driver’s license might not even be accurate. There is precedence for this in my family. My father’s mother, Rebecca, shaved a few years off when she arrived in Alabama as a teenager around 1919 from Russia—I can only assume to make her self more attractive marriage material—but then she tried to have it corrected to collect her Social Security earlier many years later. We’re Southern, so a bit of Blanche Dubois tends to seep in from time to time.
In my 20s, I was an erstwhile punk. I was ahead of my time. No need for a New York Times Magazine cover to convince me of how germs are good for you. On a sunny September morning in 1981, I picked up a tattered black leather motorcycle jacket for 25 dollars from a guy under the Cube on Astor Place, put in on and didn’t take it off again for the next 3-7 years; it was the 80’s, so who can remember the exact number. I furnished my entire apartment with items I found in dumpsters. Ok, the entire place was only about 200 square feet. But still. Now, time has caught up with me. It’s not like this happened overnight, but as the days approached leading up to my 50th birthday, I was waking up at night, well, at 4am, the witching hour for all hormonally challenged women, thinking there’s been a mistake. The math is wrong! I’m just not ready for that number yet. That number is so huge; but when you start experiencing your youth like it was yesterday, never mind that 30 years have come in between me and the time when a jacket could symbolize a life choice, well, that’s a sure sign that the math is right, a big birthday is afoot. That was also the last time in my life when I thought there were good people and bad people. Now I know there’s just people and I’ve done things that anyone could easily label bad, just ask my son; he’s got an entire list of my transgressions.
At the same time as I was speeding toward 50, my son was reaching a milestone age as well. 13. Again, this had to be a mistake. My son—who used to regularly spout adorable esoteric insights as children are want to do, like at age 7 when he announced, “When I was younger, Mom, I wasn’t sure life was going to be so great, but it’s so much better than I expected”—was now becoming my biggest critic. He’s Ben Brantley to my Alec Baldwin. For instance, I was on The Oprah Winfrey show giving millions of viewers a tour of a landfill, thinking I was serving a greater good, and hoping to make my son proud, but no, even this was not to his liking. “Mom, you picked up a volleyball in that pit and you called it a soccer ball! Who would ever listen to anything you say now? You suck.” My cooking, my clothing, my comments, everything was just horrible now to him.
That was just one of reasons why I decided he just had to have a Bar Mitzvah. It would be a way of bringing us together.
There was also a practical consideration. Both my husband and I are atheists and secular Jews. We came to the conclusion that if he’s inherited even a smidgeon of my opinionated personality, he should at least have a working knowledge of what he might later want to rebel against. I’m not proud of it, but it is a passion of mine to argue against things I know very little about. Movies, books, and people I haven’t met are some of my favorite targets, but I aspire for my son to be a more informed critic. All things considered, I told myself, it was a good thing I’d done some time in the Women’s Correctional Facility in Chino.
To be continued…
Earlier this week, Tom Fields-Meyer wrote about reading and thinking about books and took a look at autism and God. He has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at an event to benefit my children’s summer camp. In the midst of a lovely discussion, the rabbi who runs the camp offered a question: “What’s your book’s Jewish message?”
I stammered and stumbled a bit before I came up with an answer. But afterwards, I kept thinking about the question. I tend to come up with much more articulate responses the next morning, on my jog, than on the spot. (That’s why I’m a writer and not, say, a White House spokesman.)
Following Ezra tells the story of raising our middle son for the decade from his autism diagnosis at age three through the day of his one-of-a-kind bar mitzvah. It’s loaded with Jewish content: there’s the awkward, hilarious conversation he had with a neighbor on the walk to synagogue one Shabbat; there’s the wonderful conversation when Ezra learned about the Eighth Commandment (the hard way); and of course there’s the last chapter, detailing the days surrounding my son’s bar mitzvah celebration.
But what’s the Jewish message?
In the book of Genesis, it says God created human beings in God’s image. That means we should treat every person with dignity, respect and honor—no matter their disability, no matter what they look like, no matter how many times they remind us when the next Pixar movie is premiering (a habit of Ezra’s that can be either endearing or annoying, depending on your perspective). That also means that encountering people who are different from us—from different backgrounds, different circumstances, or facing different challenges—gives us a insight into the many aspects of the divine.
My book begins with an epigraph, a single bracha, a traditional blessing. Jewish liturgy is full of blessings recited on various occasions. Most Jews are familiar with the blessings said over wine or before eating bread. One of my favorite pages in the Artscroll prayer book lists “Blessings of Praise and Gratitude,” the brachot that are reserved for life’s unusual encounters. There’s one for seeing lightning, and one for experiencing an earthquake. There’s a particular blessing to say when you see 600,000 people in once place. (How often do you get to use that one?)
In the midst of that list, the prayer book includes a blessing to say upon seeing a person who is different. The Talmud enumerates the various kinds of people included. It praises God, mishaneh habriyot—who “creates variety among living beings.”
Blessed is God for creating all kinds of people. What better words could introduce a story about raising a child with an unusual and fascinating mind?
And what better Jewish message could there be?