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Coronavirus is a reminder: Bnei Mitzvah theme is ‘coming of age’

We have twins in seventh grade, so this pandemic hit at the height of Bnei Mitzvah season. My son’s wardrobe these days consists entirely of sweats emblazoned with names and dates: the blue hoodie, Charlie, 11-23-19; the black one, Hannah, 11-25-20; oversized gray pants, Carly, 12-21-19.

We had three on the calendar this Saturday alone. Plus our first grand-nephew’s first birthday party. Plus the reception for a selective statewide art show my daughter’s work was chosen for. A few weeks ago — could it have been only a few weeks ago? Soon time will just feel divided by before and after coronavirus — she was fake-complaining about being so popular, torn between reveling in her personal achievement and witnessing her friend’s.

Was. The Saturday calendar is clear now, of course, yawning even. It’s presenting a new kind of invitation, a much more urgent one: to figure out the essential meaning of all those things we used to be so busy doing, to focus on what matters, to strip away the trimmings, the extras, the stuff and gets to the heart of the matter. The people. The purpose.

Our kids’ big day is not until November 21, so we’ve (so far) been spared the wrenching choices so many are making about canceling Mitzvah parties, and in many cases ceremonies as well. Of our three this week, two were axed altogether, and one will stream the service. We will certainly be tuning in on Zoom, maybe even dressing up for the occasion, and definitely dropping off a gift.


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As we read the sad cancellation messages, my daughter reminded me of something the mohel said at our grand-nephew’s bris a year ago: That he, like every Jewish boy, will become Bar Mitzvah on his 13th birthday — whether he is called to the Torah or not, whether everyone he loves shows up for a lavish party or not.

Whether there is a scary virus scurrying around the world or not.

It’s similar to what I’ve been trying to teach her and her brother as we’ve begun talking about their Mitzvah moment. In a world where donut walls and trapeze artists adorn such events, it can be difficult to stay focused on the meaning of the thing and not the DJ or the menu or the swag. I’ve held firm that we will not have a “theme” like sports or theater or some cartoon; the theme, I keep telling them, is coming-of-age. (This has not stopped them from obsessing over creating a “logo” they can both live with, and I have generally conceded to this branding, to having us add to everybody’s sweatshirt collection.)

This challenge of distinguishing between the essence and the extras is the challenge coronavirus presents our communities. Actually, it’s an opportunity: We are being forced to reinvent the way we work, play, pray, learn — the way we do almost everything.

My old boss at The New York Times, Dean Baquet, said the key to innovation is being able to distinguish between traditions and habits. Traditions are the core of who you are and what you do, the bedrock principles that will never change, the mission. Habits are just the way you express those principles — they can and should change with time, on different platforms, in a crisis.

This is especially resonant in a Jewish context: there’s halacha, our laws, and there is minhag, our customs. Liberal Jews are constantly creating new minhagim, new habits, to keep our halachot, our traditions, relevant and vibrant in the modern moment.

So, this Shabbat, we’ll gather around a computer screen to watch our friend read his Torah portion and deliver his d’var Torah. And we’ll see what new habits we can create to celebrate that sacred tradition.

Meanwhile, it’s been days since either of my kids mentioned anything about their logo.

Jodi Rudoren is the editor-in-chief of the Forward.

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