The Bar Mitzvah: A Universe of Fountain Pens

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Next month, Forward contributor Mark Oppenheimer will be release his second book, “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America”(Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Below are excerpts from three of its chapters. The first is devoted to a thoughtful girl from New Haven, Conn.; the second, a bar/bat mitzvah tutor from Tampa, Fla., and the third, a pair of converts to Judaism, a 65-year-old man and a 61-year-old woman, from Lake Charles, La.

In the season of her bat mitzvah, Annie Bass chose to obey religious strictures that most of us would find onerous. Annie was raised not to watch television or check e-mail on Shabbos. Those were her parents’ rules, but it was her own decision to begin praying every day while wearing tefillin, the small black boxes containing scraps of Hebrew that are traditionally worn only by Jewish men at prayer. Tefillin, in particular, were simultaneously an example of Annie’s independent thinking and of her willingness to suspend independent thought. With this religious devotion, she was choosing to accept that there are things one does not choose.

“I like keeping Shabbos,” Annie said. “It feels weird if I don’t. It feels weird when I turn on the lights by accident. I have to follow some rules” — the ones her parents enforce — “and I choose to follow others. I just stopped writing and it feels better. It feels cleaner.”

Annie’s explanation of why she had given up writing on Shabbos is unusual for a girl so young. We tend to think of budding adults as eager to leave behind some of the insistent cleanness of early childhood, to trade innocence for something grittier, we might even say dirtier. And Annie still might turn to the dark side — rather, she will turn to the dark side, in that even the most childlike do grow worldlier. What was unusual about Annie’s response to Shabbos was her preternatural sense that cleanness is to be held onto, a precious commodity whose scarceness she will mourn when she is an adult and the world is too much with her.

* * *

Amy Krisher, a twelve-year-old with long brown hair, glasses, and an outside prayer of reaching five feet tall, is sitting in the kitchen of Judi Gannon, her Torah tutor. She is having trouble with her pronunciation.

“I can’t do it,” she says. “My braces were tightened yesterday. My mouth hurts.”

Judi already guessed that the braces were the problem. “I know immediately when the teeth hurt” — one of the many things that Judi, Tampa’s leading Torah tutor, knows about twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. In addition to divining her kids’ orthodontic struggles, Judi can tell when the girls are sore from dance practice and when the boys are nursing bruises from soccer. She can tell when their mothers are lying on the phone, inventing pretexts for canceling a tutorial. She can tell by the way mothers and fathers call to their children from the car window which parents are emotionally abusive, which parents really love their children, and which fathers drink. Judi knows which mothers, on the Friday before the bat mitzvah, when the girls usually want one final lesson to make sure they have Noach or Toldot down just right, persuade their daughters that it’s more important to have a manicure. And Judi knows which mothers patiently come with their daughters, to sit with them during that stressful final lesson.

* * *

Jacob Ecker and Rena LeJeune did not remind me of other converts I had known. They had not come to Judaism through a bevy of Jewish friends, and they had not been enfolded in the arms of the community since converting. When I met him, Jacob was teaching Hebrew at the temple and was the designer and keeper of its web page, but he was not part of the temple social scene.

“I’m not sure what my relationship is with the people here,” Jacob said. “There’s no one here I dislike. There is nobody here other than Rena who has become a personal friend. But somewhere in between are an awful lot of nice people…. We come in, we do the thing we came to do. And we thoroughly enjoy it while we’re here, and then we go back out to the other world.”

Rena, too, felt warmth, but not ardor, for her fellow Jews.

“No one knocked on my door and said, ‘Come join the Hebrews,’” she said. “No one called me on the phone. In other religions there is that revival street-pounding type of search for new members. And it’s good and it’s bad. Because it’s an emotional thing, and you can get emotional in any kind of religion, but I didn’t want to be emotionally led into anything anymore. I had been there and had that.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.