Bar mitzvah blues: Ready or not, a son is growing up

I ran into a mom the other day whose son is having his bar mitzvah in a few weeks, just before my son. Our boys were in the same preschool class together at the JCC, back when they smelled like fingerpaint and graham crackers.

“How’s the planning going?” we chirped. “Good, you know, busy. Still waiting on all those late RSVPs.”

Then we looked at each other and cried.

This is the part of bar mitzvah planning I did not anticipate. I had been so worried about the details, the cost, the time: How are we going to fit in cantor lessons along with everything else? Do people prefer kugel or knishes, or both, at the Kiddush? How will our indifferent almost-13-year-olds, who procrastinate months-long projects until hours before they’re due, possibly buckle down to learn an entire haftorah?

While I fretted, the earth moved. I didn’t feel it at first. Then when I started to notice — my son’s eyes a good 2 inches above mine, his voice deepening, his angles sharpening — it seemed novel and fun, like when he’d first rolled over as a baby. Look how he’s grown! Isn’t it something?

He was changing, but I was still operating under the old rules because those were the only ones I knew. I volunteered to chaperone the middle school field trip to the environmental center after we’d had fun on the same trip last year. When he learned I’d signed up, he begged me to pull out, insisting that there was “no reason” for me to go.

I still ask him to tag along with me on Sunday afternoon errands, but the answer is always no — he’s in his room on Instagram. And why would he care about that free sprinkle cookie at the grocery store, anyway?

When I bought tickets recently for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party at Walt Disney World — an event our family looks forward to every fall — he refused to come because there was a high school football game that night and he’d already made plans to attend with friends.

“Sorry Mom,” he said, and he meant it. “But I’ve got somewhere to be.”

All along, Judaism knew what I didn’t. Judaism knew that my son — my first baby, my oldest child — wasn’t simply “becoming a man,” he was becoming his own man. That in stepping up to the Torah, he was stepping away from me. That I needed to let go, just a little, before I need to let go a lot.

And so I cry. I cry at every bar or bat mitzvah I attend. Because I remember when the young man in the new suit leading the Shema was blowing bubbles in a stroller. Because I know his mom and dad remember, too, and that we all feel the swell of pride and the loss of time. Because I remember standing on the bimah myself in a polka-dot dress, and how can that possibly be so long ago when I can still feel the slender weight of the yad in my hand from that day?

“I cry just to cry,” confessed the mom I bumped into recently.

I told her my son had surprised me by diligently learning his haftorah, no nagging required, but that he had started pulling away, and that was hardest of all for me.

“Thank God mine’s not doing that yet,” she said. “I’m not ready.”

I’m not ready either. But my son is. When my son is called to the Torah, I will taste love and loss and the insistent pull forward. And when I see other parents with tears in their eyes, I’ll know they taste it, too.

Michelle Tauber
is the head writer for People magazine. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and four children. This piece was written for Kveller and distributed by JTA.

J. Staff