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Viewed through 21st century eyes, 13 seems a bit young to mark that proverbial passage from boyhood to manhood. Maybe 16, even 18. For some, 21 or even older might be more appropriate. But 13?
And I say this from experience, both my own, and that of my three sons, including the youngest, whose bar mitzva we celebrated this month. As his 12 years seamlessly turned into 13, I noticed no great or magical change in my youngest lad after he finished reading his bar mitzva portion from the Torah: not in his behavior, nor in his intellectual capacity.
The boy fought mightily and - considering his size - gallantly with his brothers before the bar mitzva, and continues to fight with them after. He didn't make his bed beforehand, and doesn't do so now. He was inquisitive before, and is showing that same curiosity after.
The only different thing I noticed in him was palpable relief that it was all over: that he wouldn't have to stand again, at least not for another year, and chant the Torah portion in front of hundreds of people; that he wouldn't have to engage anymore in public speaking; that we would stop bugging him to practice his Torah cantillation. In short, he was relieved to get his regular life back.
Yet there it was - 13 - one of life's milestones, a milestone he had been looking forward to for years, having watched his two brothers and sister celebrate their rites of passage. As the youngest child, always condemned to gaze on as his older siblings did things he wasn't yet able to do, he waited impatiently, expectantly, for his turn. Then it came and - poof - just like that, then it went.
WE CELEBRATED our youngest son's bar mitzva in exactly the same way we did for the others, careful not to detract from anything, so he wouldn't feel slighted.
For us it was already an old routine, for him it was his time in the sun. He went to the Kotel on Thursday to recite the blessing over the Torah, delivered his bar mitzva speech in full terror in front of the synagogue Friday night, read the weekly parsha on Saturday, had a party Sunday eve.
That this was our last child's bar mitzva left The Wife and me with more of a bittersweet feeling than we had during bar mitzvas past.
Sweet, because we - and he - reached the milestone together, merited 13 years in each other's company; bitter because those 13 years are gone, and so too what is defined as childhood.
This bar mitzva marked our last child's end of childhood - there would be no do-overs, no more other chances. It all brought an aching realization that after 20 years, we no longer had small children - with all their noise and innocence - running around the house. Adolescents, yes, with all their noise and attitude. Little kids, no. And in this country that pang of childhood's end is made more severe by the realization that the army - and all that entails - lurks just around the corner.
Friends pointed out that while this was our last bar mitzva, it's not the end of the smachot (family celebrations), because - hey - weddings are just over the horizon. But weddings are already different; weddings involve all kinds of strangers who you suddenly have to like; weddings you have to share with another family. Bar mitzvas are your own intimate production.
"Rak b'smachot," goes the familiar Jewish salutation, "we should only meet at happy events." And, indeed, that is what everyone wants.
I found myself, as a result, feeling a bit guilty when in the lead up to our own simcha, I counted in semi-dread the weeks remaining before the actual day, wishing it was farther off than it actually was. And, truth be told, I was also a bit relieved when it was all over.
"This is a simcha, I should be full of nothing but joy," I thought. "What's the matter with me?" Well, actually, nothing, because while we don't like to admit it, smachot - like everything in life - are a mixed bag. True, they are happy, joyous events, but they are also full of stress.
They are stressful because there are a lot of little things to do, small details to worry about; they are stressful because they bring out all those quirky family dynamics; they are stressful because - especially for immigrants - they stir feelings of regret and longing.
Wouldn't it be nice if the boy would be able to bathe in the sunshine of a large extended family, and not just the immediate one? Wouldn't it be nice if all the relatives were around, and not just a couple representatives who were still healthy enough and able to afford the trip? Not that it would be nice, mind you, if all the family was really around, because that itself would add more stress, but the idea of the whole family being around - now that would be nice.
"Relax," my daughter advised me, as I seemed to be stressing out in the run-up to the happy day, saying that one word that anyone stressing out just doesn't want to hear. "Relax." Then she added, "It's a happy day, for heaven's sake."
She was right, of course. But, then again, it was all so easy for her to say.