What are the odds? You have two friends. Each had a son born on Jan. 26, 1999. Thirteen years later, two invitations arrive, one requesting your presence at a bar mitzvah in Seattle, the other at a bar mitzvah in Los Angeles, both on the same day.
So what do you do?
If you’re me, you have to make a difficult, Solomonic choice, but instead of splitting the baby in half, my wife and I are the ones splitting apart and going separate ways. I’ll be spending this weekend in Seattle, celebrating the bar mitzvah of Noah, son of Gary. Robyn will head to L.A. for the bar mitzvah of David, son of Rob.
Gary and Rob are not just ordinary friends of mine. They are two of my very best friends.
Rob I’ve known more than 50 years. Our dads were friends. We went to the same day camps. Together we wondered what girls were like (and found out around the same time).
My wife met Rob on a summer bike trip in the Pacific Northwest. They became a couple after returning to L.A., and that’s when from afar I first fell hard for Robyn. We were 16.
I’ve known Gary since ninth grade. We grew our hair long together, danced madly at Grateful Dead concerts and cruised the streets of Westwood on balmy summer nights. We joined a cult together, and got out of it together.
Later in life we attended each other’s weddings, as well as our parents’ funerals. Both Rob and Gary are indispensable friends, without whom my life would have been far less interesting or fun.
How could I miss either bar mitzvah?
Or perhaps a more pointed question: How did any of us end up with bar mitzvah boys?
We never had bar mitzvahs ourselves. None of us grew up with a Jewish education beyond learning the difference between knishes and kreplach.
I remember us as snotty teenagers, ridiculing our Yiddish-speaking grandparents and their Old World ways. I remember reveling in the radicalism of the times, sneering at religion and subscribing to some sort of deJudaized one-worldism — with marijuana smoke and Rolling Stones music thrown in for pizzazz.
It’s not like we were rebelling against Judaism. We didn’t know what it was.
Yet somehow, as adults, we found our way back to something we didn’t know we had missed. Each of us felt the gravitational tug of our heritage. Rob, Gary and I independently studied Judaism, took a stab at learning Hebrew and joined synagogues — all without benefit of parental role modeling.
How could this be? Why didn’t we just stay on the path of the bleached-blond secularism we grew up with?
I’ve written columns about my own zigzag journey back to Yiddishkeit. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, my friends’ journeys mirrored mine in one key respect: It took fatherhood to spur each of us on. There’s nothing like your baby boy staring at you with that look that says, “So, who am I anyway?” to get a man asking previously unasked questions about identity.
So now we are the older Jewish gentlemen we never thought we’d become. And perhaps someday in the future, we’ll be cantankerous geezers sending soup back in a deli.
But this weekend, I’m sure my two friends will experience that acute, throat-clenching “Sunrise, Sunset” feeling I felt at Aaron’s bar mitzvah 16 years ago.
Rob understands I could not be in two places at once, that I had to make a hard choice. Robyn will do a fine job representing us in L.A., and I’ll be there in spirit.
Were I in the two places at once, I would spend more time gazing at the teary faces of my best friends than those of their sons. After all these decades, we still share the high times. We really did make it this far together, just as we predicted on those balmy L.A. nights long ago.
I’m no talmudic scholar, but here’s a quote from Tractate Ta’anit that resonates for me: “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers.”
That’s true for me, but I’ll add one thing. Rob and Gary were my teachers, too.
Dan Pine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.