Soon after I came to Stoke, there was a boy of 8 or 9 who got really really enthusiastic about Judaism. He dragged his not terribly religious father to shul regularly, and wanted to join his friend, two years older, for Hebrew lessons. So I taught the two of them together, and the older of the two celebrated his bar mitzvah in due course. They've always had a really great friendship and partnership, in spite of what might have been an awkward age gap, and I was really pleased that the bar mitzvah boy was entirely keen to carry on with Hebrew lessons once he'd finished the bar mitzvah.
Younger lad wanted to have a bar mitzvah in his turn. And there were lots of reasons why this might not have worked out but he was so keen, and had really obviously thought through all the ramifications, so we agreed that we should start preparing a Torah portion. So for about a year we've being alternating one-on-one bar mitzvah tuition with joint lessons for the two lads, focusing more on general language skills.
I can tell you, it's been an absolute joy to work with D. He has put so much thought into the whole process. He asks probing questions about religion and ethics, and he thinks deeply about the text he's been working on. Plus, he's turned out really reflective about approaches to learning and practising; there was clear transition where he acquired what educationalists call "meta-cognition" and started taking charge of his own progress. So the whole learning process has really felt like a partnership between equals; I might have better Hebrew and related skills than him, but he was fully involved in the whole thing and not just doing what I told him. And he really did learn to read the unpointed text, actually building his language skills piece by piece rather than learning by heart.
This shabbat was the simcha, the celebration, itself. Earlier in the week we spent an evening in the synagogue doing a run-through of reading at the bimah from the actual Torah, so he'd get a feel for what it would be like to actually leyn rather than have a lesson in how to do so. We had discussed whether he wanted to learn how to lay tefillin as is traditional for a bar mitzvah boy, and he thought about it seriously (like he thinks about everything) and decided that he did want that. So after we'd practised the reading, I showed him how to put on his father's tefillin and taught him the blessings. I'd never been in a position to do that before because none of my other bar mitzvah students have wanted to learn about tefillin. It was... let's say it was deeply moving, and leave it at that. At least until I get the courage to make the embarrassingly personal post about tefillin that I've been contemplating for a while.
Boy's father, who had been somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing but willing to support his son's enthusiasm, got caught up in the process a few months ago, and started thinking about what it would mean to him for his son to become bar mitzvah, something he hadn't really expected would be in his future when he had kids. So he invited his whole extended family and some old friends, and was somewhat surprised when they all accepted. That meant first of all that we had to cram in about 50 people into a building that normally only seats 30 (one of the guests referred to it as 'bijou'). And secondly that I had a very, very mixed congregation to handle on Saturday.
One half of his family are directly related to Holocaust survivors and many of them have a very strained, or often no, relationship with Judaism. The BM boy's mother's family are mostly Presbyterian Christians, so with one thing and and another I had really quite a lot of people who'd never set foot in a synagogue before this weekend. Meanwhile, the other half of the dad's family are mainstream Glasgow Orthodox types, a range in how actively frum they are but familiar with the provincial anglo-Orthodox style of doing things, which among other consequences means they're not at all used to women leading services and reading Torah. A (Reform) rabbi who taught D when he was little, before the family got involved in my shul in Stoke. And finally the regular members of the community; it was very important to me that the service was meaningful to them and they didn't get pushed aside by relatives who hugely outnumbered them, as can easily happen at bar mitzvahs.
In the end it was one of the best services I've ever done. Everybody was so delighted to be there and celebrate with D, even the ones who are suspicious of religion in general. And both the newcomers and the Orthodox guests found my style of service comfortable and welcoming, which I'm pleased about. There was such a great energy throughout, I got the pacing and balance just right, so that the bar mitzvah boy reading from Torah for the first time was a big deal but didn't completely overwhelm the service which in the end is for the honour of Shabbat and the Torah, not for making a big fuss over someone reaching the age of religious majority. It was of course the day after the Presidential inauguration; I didn't say in so many words, God wants you to resist Trump, but I did preach on the midwives and their resistance to Pharaoh, so people got the idea without anyone being directly confrontational. D of course did brilliantly, which I knew he would because he was well prepared both spiritually and intellectually.
I felt like a rock star afterwards. Just about every person present came up to me during kiddush or at the party in the evening to tell me how wonderful the service was and how much it meant to them. Somebody said that it was the fastest two hours they'd ever known, which is really the best possible compliment. Another said that it was really visible how much naches I had for my student, which I'm pleased about too. (This is a Yiddish word which means being proud of another person's accomplishments, basically.) The rabbi was very complimentary indeed, and we did a bit of gossipping about mutual connections in the Jewish community – it's always a bit intimidating to run a service in front of an actual rabbi, so that meant a lot to me too. And after the service we did a photo opp for people who are not shomerei shabbat, to avoid the awkwardness of photos during the service, which meant that we got the Torah scroll back out of the Ark, and some of the Orthodox women clustered round and asked wistfully what it's like to hold a Torah, and the rabbi helpfully popped up at my elbow and told them it's absolutely permitted for women to hold a Torah scroll (even if you hold that they can't read from it), so they got a chance to do that and were absolutely glowing at such a unique experience.
So I came away feeling like I'd been able to do something I'm good at in a way that really meant something to other people, to my community, to the visitors, to the bar mitzvah boy himself and to his Dad, who gave a somewhat tearful speech referencing Fiddler on the Roof about how precarious we are as a Jewish community that somehow continues in spite of everything. I think Stoke isn't really comparable to Anatevka, but I do see his point. It is amazing that such a small and isolated community is still viable, and I can really see the newest member contributing to that as he grows up.
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