Last Friday, Child No.1 celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. Regular readers will know that we are not particularly religious and Child No.1 shares my views on these things. Nonetheless, she elected to do this and got a lot out of it.
I have one piece of advice for Jewish parents out there: get your child some singing lessons. I have sat through a number of these and when it comes down to it someone was playing a very cruel joke on 13 year old boys (in particular) when they asked them to come of age by singing publicly at that age. For those of us in the audience, the joke is very much on us. Your default position should be to bring earplugs.
I don't mean to boast, actually, yes I do, but Child No.1 has had singing lessons and can really sing. Of course, I am biased but it was just wonderful to hear. I only wish we had been in Canada longer so I could have coaxed more parents to this thing so more could bathe in the beauty of it. I cringe at the thought of Child No.2 doing the same thing next year. He's had no singing lessons and I must admit I wonder if they could possibly do any good. We'll see.
Anyhow, Child No.1 also had to make a speech speaking to the portion of the Torah for that week. I'm going to reproduce her speech here because it was very much in her style of irreverence and I loved it. (It is slightly censored to leave out identifying names).
Thank you everyone for coming today. While I am sure you all delighted in my angelic voice, you can be forgiven for not knowing precisely what I was singing about. As this is a Friday night, what I had was a basic plea to treat children well and live a good life. Fair enough. Can do. But what I was asked to speak about tonight was not this but this week’s portion of the Torah.
Now usually what this is is an important story where someone faced a grave choice, looked into their heart and did the right thing. Or perhaps it was a juicy bit where they didn’t look into their heart, did the wrong thing and were punished for eternity. Those stories make you think.
But not this week. No seerie. What have I got? What I’m supposed to speak to tonight is Moses ‘lo abiding in the field’ and then being ‘spake’ at by the Lord in what amounts to one big nag. And this isn’t the sort of nag that you might expect such as “can you get people off the whole golden calf thing.” Instead, it is a nag in the form of an instruction manual. A really detailed one. Let me give you an example:
“As for the tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and with a design of cherubim worked into them. The length of each cloth shall be twenty-eight cubits …”
Blah. Blah. Blah. Seriously. Whole reams of the Torah, the holy book of the Jews, with an instruction manual more detailed that assembling bookshelves from Ikea. It goes on for like weeks. And somewhat ironically is all about building something to keep the instruction manual in. This is what I am speaking to.
That said, it kind of resonated with me. What God is doing is being a classic micromanager. “Ten strips of cloth.” Why 10? “Nine is too few.” “Eleven is too much.” “Twelve is way off” Only 10. And you may think there is some symbol to this but no. It is just plain instructions without rationale.
Personally, I’m used to this. I get instructions like this all the time. It has pretty much been my life up until today. You must read this passage. You must show your working even though you have the answer right. I mean right is right, right?
My parents do it. My teachers do it. My computer constantly wants me to update software. There are people who enjoy being the micromanagers, and I’m willing to bet that god is just another one. Moses must have thought so.
I have been told many times to speak about what I think being a Jewish adult means to me. However I personally don’t believe that the Jewish part of my life is going to change at all after today. It’s the same as when I woke up on the day I’ve been dreading my entire life; my thirteenth birthday, and thought to myself; ‘you know, this doesn’t feel much different to being twelve…’ and the only thing that changed was the fact that people said ‘happy birthday’ to me more than they did on any other day all year. Although if this is the end of my fun searching for the Afikomen each Peseach (and I always win!) I’m calling this event off right now. You can take away my youth but you can’t take my hidden matzot!
But if you are going to do so perhaps, just maybe, you can lighten up on the whole micromanagement bit. I must admit this week’s parshah does not give me confidence. How old was Moses when he got the instruction manual? How old were the scribes who decided this had to be preserved for the ages?
I know that being an adult and not being micromanaged actually requires me to do more. I’ll have to fill in the details myself. And my Bn’ai Mitzvah study really does help you appreciate the need for effort. However, would it really be the end of the world if we used something other than “twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns”? Maybe all one colour. Maybe a splash of green. Being a child has meant receiving directions without rationale. It annoys me and folks, it is time to put it to an end. I worked hard for today and that shows you something.
In this crusade, I hope I can gather support from my many new friends I have made in Canada. You know what’s hard. Meeting people and getting along. God tells us to try and do that but doesn’t provide detailed instructions. I’ve learned that over the past few years. But I am thankful that here in Toronto I haven’t had to do it alone. I am grateful for the kindness of my classmates. I have honestly never made friends at a new school so quickly. That might give us all hope that free of micromanaging we can all get along.
Before I leave, I would also like to thank some other people for attending this event, ...Let me end this post by indulging you in the speech I made. As you can see I was very proud of 'B' for what she has achieved. I also started in a place designed fully to embarrass her.
About thirteen and a half years ago, Natalie and I were attending birthing classes where they showed us a video of a birth. The idea was to sanitise us to the whole endeavour. At the conclusion, they announced “and now Daddy can cut the chord.” And that was pretty much all he had to do with the matter.
I thought of that moment today because, just like pregnancy and childbirth, for this event, I have to tell you that I had absolutely nothing to do with it. All of the PCN -- the planning, coordinating and nagging -- has been done by B’s mother. She deserves mine, B and all of our thanks for getting this together. Especially in the short time and in navigating a new country. Not only could none of it been done without her, indeed, apparently, none of it could be done with anyone else. But I know in the background that our neighbours who brought us to this place and all of the folks here made it all possible too. Thank you all.
That’s enough of that. Let me get back to what I need to focus on exclusively today and that’s B. One problem with the whole “and Daddy can cut the chord” business in that birthing video was that Daddy thought that was lame. Having watched a video of a birth and seen what an obstetrician did, he realised that that didn’t seem hard. He came up with the idea that he could surely “catch.” Now let’s leave aside the awkward fact that, as his own parents were well aware, catching was not really part of his core competencies. His loving wife and future mother of his child saw through this. She believed that the medical system had her back. So she said, “that’s a great idea. IF the doctor agrees.”
Well, I can tell you she almost had the baby then and there when the doctor actually agreed! And, so it came to be, that I was the first person in the world to hold B outside of the womb. It didn’t last too long, however. New borns are kind of slippery. You all know how B walks kind of funny ... well, umm, sorry about that.
When it comes down to it, that is what this day is all about. Fumbling. No catching. For the most part, when you are growing up, parents may fumble but they are there to catch. When you hit your teenage years, they aren’t there as often any more. What’s more, it is pretty obvious to me that you don’t want them to be. That is why Judaism presents us with a formal acknowledgement, a license to step away and gives you the power to point to this as evidence of your right not to be caught.
When it comes to B, boy, has she earned that right. Most kids have to bust their guts to get through preparation for one Bat Mitzvah. For B, today’s was her third one. Thanks to family circumstances, she studied for two previous portions. With today, she only has 49 more and she’ll have a complete set!
One advantage B did have, however, was she was no stranger to dealing with large audiences. Indeed, today barely rates a mention in her life. She has performed in musicals -- as a future president no less -- and I have sat and watched her sing “Imagine” with other parents sitting next to me brought to tears. And about a year or so ago, B managed to be interviewed on radio in front of 13 million NPR listeners and talk about parents, pocket money and candy. Suffice it to say, public performances do not phase her.
I could spend some time regaling you of B’s fine qualities. She rose to the challenge of a hearing impediment to become a beautiful singer. She rose to the challenge of a dearth of accessible information to become the world expert on the folks who cured us of ulcers. And she rose to the challenge of physical contact to become a black belt in Taekwondo.
And then there is the really unusual stuff. Did you know that B once forced her brother to drink water to game a potty incentive system? Did you know that she can remember every meal she has ever had? Try her. She’s like Rain Man that way. And did you know that she once grilled the Treasurer of Australia, at Age 8, on Australia’s climate change policy and in order to get out of that he picked a physical fight with her?
So B has achievements but she also has values. She has a strong sense of equality. B believes that no one should get more than her. Well, I guess mathematically that’s inequality. But it is a strong value.
I’ve also noticed changes in her behaviour over the years. For instance, when I used to ask her to do something, she’d say “what?” because of her hearing problems. Now when I ask her to do something she says “what?” [NOTE: it is all in how it is said.] So the problem has moved from her ears to her eyes that can do a considerable amount of rolling. Correspondingly, in the past, I would do this [hold out hands] to help her as she decided something. Now I spend alot more time doing this [bury face in hand].
Ultimately, I know B is capable of anything she puts her mind to. Her mother and I can no longer put her mind to it. We will always be there. We will always try to move your mind. But, for so much important stuff, your life is in your own hands. Just where it should be.