Our Grandson’s ZOOM Bar Mitzvah

Adam and Jodi blessing Jonah

Yesterday we had a wonderful family celebration. Our oldest grandchild, Jonah, celebrated his bar mitzvah, the initiation as a Jewish adult (with all religious rights and responsibilities), which traditionally takes place at age 13.

In ordinary times, a bar mitzvah is celebrated in a synagogue or temple in the presence of family and friends in addition to the normal Sabbath gathering of the synagogue’s congregation. In the current COVID-19 environment, however, Jonah’s bar mitzvah took place at home (in Kensington, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.) and was carried by ZOOM to members of the congregation sheltering at home as well as to family and friends as far afield as Poland, Colombia, Hawaii, California, Colorado, Michigan and several East Coast states.

The key moment in a bar mitzvah is when the young man is called to read a portion of that day’s portion of the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). In a synagogue or temple, the Torah is a heavy, greatly revered, carefully hand-inscribed parchment document wound between two large wooden scrolls which is read in small portions from beginning to end at Sabbath and holiday services over the course of a year.

Owing to COVID, none of the synagogue’s several Torah scrolls was taken to our grandson’s home, so Jonah read this week’s portion from a conventionally printed-and-bound book. He did admirably, impressing me greatly with the evident fluency with which he read the Hebrew text.

While the reading of a Torah portion is the heart of the bar mitzvah ceremony because Torah reading is a privilege reserved to adults, the event affords several other opportunities for Jonah and other family members to participate in the Sabbath service. Jonah also read a “Haftarah” portion, which this week was taken from the book of the prophet Jeremiah (the guy whose dire prophecies and warnings about the wages of sin gave us the term jeremiad), and he composed and delivered a talk (d’var torah) linking the lessons from his readings to observations he has made about contemporary problems and concerns.

Jonah’s sister Sophia also fluently read the Shema (the declaration that there is but one God that is the centerpiece of the Jewish faith) and the prayer that follows it. Adam and Jodi spoke movingly about Jonah’s growth and accomplishments as they gave him their blessings and expressed their hopes for his future. And thanks to ZOOM, Sandra and I, jointly with Jodi’s parents (at home in New Jersey), were also honored with a Torah reading. However, in consideration of our lack of training in reading from the Torah, we were given a sort of “free pass” — all we needed to do was recite short Hebrew prayers that “bookended” the recitation by an experienced Torah reader of another portion of this week’s text.

Following the conclusion of the Sabbath service and a short break, Jonah’s family and guests reconvened on ZOOM for a party. Unfortunately for the attendees, food and drink cannot be transmitted and served electronically, but what was shared was a bounty of good wishes and endless memories — from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends — and a slide show with dozens of evocative photographs from Jonah’s growing-up years.

Adam, Jodi and Grammy (Grandma Martha) hoisting Jonah on a chair at the party afterwards. Chair hoisting of the honoree at a party is a joyous Jewish tradition. (Brides and grooms are hoisted at weddings.) Credit for these screen shots goes to Natalia Kunowska in Poland. Thank you, Natalia!

In all, a lovely, memorable morning, the recounting of which I will wrap up with the wishes I bestowed on Jonah when it was my turn to speak:

“Let me conclude with our people’s ancient blessing, which I gave to your Mom & Dad at their wedding …

May God bless and protect you
May He cause His light to shine upon you and bestow His grace upon you
May He turn to you, gaze upon you and grant you peace.

“Traditionally, Jonah, we say to a bar mitzvah boy — ‘Now you are a man.’ My wish is that you keep growing to be not just a man, but a mensch.”*

Sandra and I think Jonah is well on his way to becoming such a man.

***

* In German, mensch means man or person. In Yiddish, the vernacular of the Jews from Central and Eastern Europe (including our family) who constitute the majority of America’s Jewish population, the word mensch signifies a person of great integrity, honor, responsibility and strong, admirable character.

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