So I just looked at the calendar and realized today is the 25th anniversary of my bat mitzvah.
If I had a working scanner, I’d upload the ginormous 11 x 18 portrait I have on my desk of my family and I standing in the requisite pose on the bima, but you’ll just have to settle for the following description:
My father stands to the far right, with not a whole lot of hair but certainly more than he has now, wearing the tallis he received at his own bar mitzvah and holding the upper arm of my mother, who resembles a Jewishy Joan Collins with her floofy hair and monster shoulder pads; both of them are lookin’ pretty darn good for 1984.
My brother, at 11, looks like he’s 8, and with the glasses and grin, looks a heckuva lot like his nephew. It’s funny that there was worry that he was so little back then — if you saw him now, as tall as our dad with big shoulders that could break down a door, you’d never know he was the 98-pound featherweight on the wrestling team his freshman year of high school.
Standing on the left just a shade behind the rest of the family is me, the bat mitzvah girl. Bad perm. Chubby cheeks. Braces. Wearing a peach-colored linen dress I loved but grew out of a month after this simcha. Slouching to throw attention away from a recently-grown set of gazongas that I sure as hell didn’t ask for. Smiling in a flat, uncomfortable way that I recognize from the mirror as my fake smile, which never fools anyone.
I don’t remember much about the day – maybe I was nervous? Surely this was taken after I delivered the Saturday service and its accompanying parsha and haftorah, so that wouldn’t have been the problem. While I do remember enjoying the party afterwards with my friends (my little brother entertained everyone with his fly breakdancing skills), I do not remember at all the subject of my Torah portion. I suppose I could look it up, but it probably won’t jog my memory. Perhaps I was hungry? Tired? Irritated by gladhanding with friends and relatives I barely knew? Just stuck in the encompassing, self-absorbed gloom of adolescence? I just don’t know.
I do have an inkling that I was a little pissed off that I didn’t feel any different. I had spent six or seven years attending Hebrew School twice a week to prepare for this ancient ritual, to cross the threshold into adulthood in the eyes of my Jewish community, but of course, at 13, I wasn’t even close to having the kind of freedom being a grown-up should bring. My parents didn’t even raise my allowance. I’m pretty sure this might have been the moment I decided I didn’t believe in God, which lasted about seven years (the epiphany that reversed this belief is another, long story.)
Looking at that person I was 25 years ago, I wonder what I would say to her if could. Surely, she’d be appalled that her older self had settled down and had children instead of living amongst the Bedouins with a camel of her own and worse yet, — kinehora! — become a Sunday School teacher. “Hypocrite!” she might scream at me, because back then I thought everyone who didn’t live their lives by my own peculiar understanding of Marxism was a hypocrite, and she’d be doubly furious that I was participating in the fraud of educating Jewish children only to lead them up to the bima at 13 and then abandon them.
But it was better than nothing, I’d tell her. You did read from the Torah that day, even if you don’t remember it. The prayers are still branded on your brain, and when you sit down in synagogue and hear them, they touch a deeper place that you weren’t even aware of back then. Your children love Sunday School, and the pride and wonder you feel when your son sounds out the V’havata from Hebrew must explain the dreamy smiles on your parent’s faces in this photo.
And I may not have my own camel, but I’ve led a pretty adventurous life so far. And you might not have believed in God for a while, but I’m quite certain God has always believed in you.