Coming of age. Rites of passage. This brings to mind images of a boy in a loincloth, holding a sword in one hand and a sack of grain in the other, going off into the woods to kill his first bear. Or someone breaking out a bottle of bubbling champagne and drinking to a young man’s right to party!
Last month we celebrated my middle son, Netanel’s Bar Mitzvah and his rite of passage was nothing like that. When a Jewish boy comes of age and becomes a Bar Mitzvah, it is not done when he is alone and the focus is not on materialistic pleasures at all. Netanel celebrated his 13th birthday and became a Bar Mitzvah – the stage where his status changes and he becomes responsible for his actions, for adherence to Jewish law as an adult. It is a spiritual, solemn and joyful time in a boy’s life, both as an individual and as a privileged part of a history, a community and a people.
Netanel needs very little, and even the things he asks for, are such a pleasure to get for him. When he realized that his favorite teacher in school was also a scribe, he asked us if we would mind if this rabbi would be the one to write the text for the parchment of his new tefillin– phylacteries. Tefillin are two square, black leather boxes which contain Torah verses, written with ink and quill on parchment by a learned scribe, which speak about G-d’s unity, the obligation to observe the commandments, and the responsibility to pass Judaism on to our descendants. Attached to each box are black leather straps. One of the boxes is worn on the upper arm and the other, just above the forehead, to focus and guide our thoughts and actions. Upon reaching 13, a boy has the obligation to put on tefillin every day as part of the Morning Prayer service. G-d willing, Netanel will remember this rabbi and the influence he had on him every time he puts on the tefillin.
For his first prayer service with his new tefillin, we asked Netanel if he wanted to do something cool like travel to Hebron to the Cave of the Patriarchs. He said “No. I live in Samaria. I want Samaria.” He wanted Ramat Gilad– Karnei Shomron’s very own little outpost community. And that Friday morning, in the pouring rain and freezing cold, we drove up, just our immediate family, walked through the mud with thermoses of coffee and chocolate milk and some cookies, stepped into the modest mobile-home-made-synagogue and Netanel had the privilege of being the tenth man in the prayer quorum in a very special place. We celebrated the status of his becoming a man in a most modest and moving way.
On Netanel’s actual birthday, the actual day he would be able to be counted as a “man” we decided it would be very meaningful to go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for prayers. Netanel read from the Torah Scrolls in a loud, confident, clear voice. I was flabbergasted at his confidence. He had never done this before, but he sounded like he had been doing it all his life. Netanel takes his prayers very seriously and from the time he was little, enjoyed saying from the synagogue pulpit any portion that was allotted to the youngsters. His eyes still light up when he describes getting the chance to help roll up the Torah Scrolls or even just open the Holy Ark.
Shabbat services are the culmination of the Bar Mitzvah celebration. I made sure to stand right near the partition that modestly separates the men’s section and the ladies’ section, so I could get a good view of Netanel putting on his prayer shawl and standing proudly near the podium where the Torah Scrolls were spread. He started the complicated chant, the sound carrying beautifully through the whole congregation. You would think that since he knows how to read Hebrew and knows how to sing, it would be a simple matter. But the Torah chant has a specific traditional melody and there are many different notes to be learned and memorized. The holiness of the Torah Scrolls demands that every syllable be pronounced exactly right, and while you can practice from a book that shows each symbol note and vowel, once you read from the Torah, there are no reassuring notes, no symbols, no vowels and no punctuation! I followed the words in my Bible until he reached the end of the close to 40 minute reading of the Portion of the Week, and I felt my hands unclench. Proud? That doesn’t come close to what I was feeling. He picked up the Torah and carried it to the Holy Ark and gently and lovingly placing it inside, then, matter-of-factly returned to the podium to lead the rest of the prayer service.
At the celebratory meals, my mother, brother-in-law, son-in-law and nephews stood up to speak, offering traditional learned discussions of Torah readings and blessing the Bar Mitzvah boy with a long, G-d-fearing life, filled with faith and good deeds.
Then Netanel stood up to speak, elaborating on the tractate of Talmud he had taken upon himself to study throughout the year, completing it right before his birthday. I love how Judaism encourages the celebration of reaching different stages of our lives in a solid, spiritual, meaningful manner. I’m not saying that Netanel’s not a normal 13 year old boy, who wanted a new ten speed bicycle for his birthday. But he also knew he wanted to study and present this tractate of Talmud at his party, and he also knows which books of Bible and Talmud commentaries he wants to receive as presents.
Netanel spoke and mentioned that he has learned so much from his older siblings. Well, his sisters have told me, in no uncertain terms, that he is one of my biggest successes! (I don’t think they’re giving me the credit for it.) He also mentioned in his speech that he hopes to live up to the responsibility of being a role model for others. Well, if you ask my youngest son, Elitzur, he says simply and not begrudgingly at all, but very matter-of-factly—Netanel? Netanel is the King!
When I stood up to speak I kept my eyes on Netanel and not on the 200 other people who filled the room. I wanted to tell him how special he was… that he had a personality that lit up our home.
Netanel has always been very grown up; he is very mature for his age– and I always found myself counting on him, because he is so responsible and reliable. His teachers say there is something solid about him. He is sure of who he is and feels comfortable enough in his own skin to not hide behind foolishness. They say that when he has something to say—even criticism of his own class– kids would respect him for it. When he speaks, people listen. When discussions in class get heated, kids wait to hear his opinion. Even his counselors in the Zionist youth group say there was always something put- together about him. That he managed to let loose and have fun but also knew how to stay focused and cooperative.
Netanel’s sometimes astounding maturity never turned him into a serious, sit-on-the-sidelines kind of kid. He was the one letting loose and dancing his heart out with the Torah Scrolls and Israeli flags during the celebration of the holiday of Simchat Torah (The Rejoicing with the Torah) in synagogue. He would be the one to roam through the forests during youth group camping trips, loudly and charmingly making friends with kids from all over the country. He was always the one who loved the hardest hikes and never passed up jumping into the iciest rivers. It thrills me to see how much he is part of this land and how much Israel is a part of him. Whether that means that he takes it for granted that Israel belongs to him—and he should—or whether it means he is comfortable enough to climb every mountain, crawl through every cave and swim each riverbed.
He starred in all his basketball league games, racking up most of the points and winning best player year after year, though his wonderful way with people meant that his friends never resent him. They count on him and respected him because he was the ultimate team player. Netanel always makes sure to get the main part in any skit or play because he loves the stage—he must have gotten his mother’s genes!
Netanel has a wonderful sense of purpose. When he starts a job, he finishes it. Everyone in our family helps, but Netanel, from the time he was very little, didn’t leave a job till it was finished. If Kuti, my husband, asked him to help cut the hedges, he didn’t take T.V. breaks or run inside for air conditioning and drinks. He’d cut the hedges, rake up the leaves, bag them, and bring the bags to the curb. And then he’s put away the rake. He likes seeing things done. Last month, he saw me sitting down to organize the 380 pictures I finally printed up from everyone’s cameras from the past few years, and he sat himself down next to me to help. After an hour or so it had begun to get annoying. It was a time-consuming, endless project, organizing and ordering piles of different lightings of the Hannukka candelabras, years of Passover preparations, family trips… He then helped slip them into those much-too-slippery plastic page pockets and made sure to number and date the new albums before putting them back in their place in the cabinet. If Netanel continues like this, he will always have the satisfaction and pride in a job well done!
Netanel takes everything in stride. When he walks through the door at the end of the day and I ask him how his day was, he never—NEVER—says anything less than “sababba”—great! He simply doesn’t complain. When he started his long days at school on Mondays, for extra classes in Talmud study, and he was coming home at 7 o’clock at night after leaving at 7 in the morning, he didn’t complain. When his older brother Avraham was offered the chance to be his counselor in the local branch of the Zionist Youth Club, Avraham was going to turn it down so as not to put him in that difficult position. But Netanel told him, “Go for it! We’re brothers, we’ll be fine.” His ability to go-with-the-flow is a very attractive quality to have and people flock to him. Maybe that’s why he has such a way with little kids. He knows just what each kid needs—some want the attention—the extra playful punch on the shoulder. Some need a more subtle approach and somehow, within seconds, he has them eating out of his hands. From the time he was 9 he was running day camps during the summer for his younger brother Elitzur and his friends. His sensitivity and his natural creativity and his willingness to play with them and not just let them play with each other, makes them love him.
Netanel is a strong kid… a big kid. Ask Alex, his gymnastics teacher, who for years has been telling him that he has the potential to look like the pictures of the body builders he has hanging on the walls of his class. But with all his physical strength, his manly size, he is a very gentle soul… true lovable mush.
After Shabbat we had another party, this time just for Netanel and 60 of his school and neighborhood friends. They danced for three hours to all the popular Israeli and Hassidic music and it was great fun watching the boys leaping and dancing gracefully and happily, taking short breaks to cool themselves off with drinks or to eat the falafel and ice cream we set out for them. Jewish dancing is a wondrous thing. It doesn’t break off into individuals dancing across from each other, or even into couples. Jewish dancing involves circles… people dancing, joined hand in hand, the steps, whether simple or more complicated, done together in joyous (sometimes very sweaty) celebration.
Whether he’s letting loose and learning Zumba dance steps with his sisters in the family room, or he’s curled up on the floor making Leggo creations for Elitzur, he’s a pleasure. It’s a beautiful thing to see—his growing up. He has a wonderful blend of sweetness and modesty, together with the confidence, spunk and sparkle, to use the talents and the good head and heart that G-d gave him.
Netanel means G-d’s gift. And that’s what he is, and my husband Kuti and I are proud and grateful. May Netanel continue to surprise us with more of the many wonders he seems to have in store. Mazal Tov!