Laura Davis, interfaith mom, author of The Courage to Heal, discusses her inner-struggle over whether to bar mitzvah her son and how the wounds of growing up Jewish informed her decision.
I’m not sure why, but two years ago, the question of whether or not my son, Eli, should have a bar mitzvah broke through the surface of my mind—a thrashing, tormented sea monster flailing this way and that in a sea of shame, guilt, and ought to’s: “But you can’t let the tribe die out.” What was I, a Buddhist, lesbian nature lover doing sending my child to Hebrew School—an alternative, radical Hebrew school to be sure, but still—Hebrew school?
“What am I doing?” I asked myself repeatedly, “And why the hell am I doing it?” I could feel the weight of all those centuries of tradition pressing down on my shoulders. As an assimilated Jewish child of the 50’s and 60’s, I grew up with PBS documentaries of the Holocaust—lampshades made with Jewish skin, piles of hair, shoes, and gold extracted from teeth, gas chambers with Cyclon-B showers, piles of corpses, ovens, skinny refugees carrying battered suitcases and then being forced to dig their own graves, haggard near dead “survivors” wearing filthy striped pajamas, faces that haunted me for years with their gaunt cheeks and empty eyes. My mother, who lost her whole extended family in Europe, saw it as her job to educate me about what had happened to our people. She drilled it into me: “Never again! Never forget!”
Friday evenings, we lit candles, had Shabbos dinner, then drove our brown Plymouth—later a yellow Dodge Dart—to services at a Reform congregation where the focus seemed to be on who had the newest Lincoln Continental, the longest fur coat. As a girl I was shut out from the secrets of Hebrew, I was denied the pleasure of study. My brother’s bar mitzvah was a given, but as a girl born in 1956, such a ceremony was seen as an unnecessary indulgence. I was a Jew by birth, by culture. My mother urged me to marry a nice Jewish doctor or lawyer (“It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man.”) As a teenager, I joined a Jewish youth group and attended Mitzvah Corps. I knew how to eat matzoh ball soup, kasha n’varniskes (bow tie noodles and kasha), and gefilte fish with the best of them, but I never once in my life felt inspired by Judaism, never once believed it could be a religion that could fulfill my longing to know God.
Yet for the last thirty years, I have made a seder every spring, delighting in the charoses and the seder plate, the Four Questions and Elijah’s cup of wine. And in the past few years, we’ve enjoyed many Shabbos feasts with family and friends, lighting candles, tearing the challah, drinking a cup of Shabbos wine. Still, my relationship with Judaism remains tentative and ambivalent. I have always felt like an outsider, locked out of my own religion through sexism and assimilation, though in my cells, there has never been any doubt that I am Jew.
Before Eli turned ten-and-a-half and I helped start the Chadeish Yameinu Community School, neither he nor his younger sister, Lizzy, had ever had any religious education. I was on my own spiritual path and Judaism had little to do with it. I did Vipassana meditation every morning, walked to the beach at 5 AM, recited the Buddhist metta prayer. I was married to a former Baptist who studied Sanskrit and was dedicated to yoga. With a non-Jewish partner, it was clear to me that passing on the lineage of Judaism was on my shoulders—and what did I know? A watered-down Judaism that didn’t speak to my soul or my heart. I was a bagel and cream cheese kind of Jew. Who was I to insist that our son study for his bar mitzvah? What kind of hypocrite was I to say, “Eli, this is what you’re going to do,” when I have never gone to Judaism to fulfill my own spiritual longing, never seen it as a way to find my way home?
Yet there is something in my cells that remembers. When Eli comes home from Hebrew school singing Hebrew prayers and chants with so much pleasure, passion, and joy, the tears that come through my eyes are not my tears. They are the tears of my great, great, great grandmother and my great, great, great grandfather. They are the tears of all the Jews that ever lived and died behind ghetto walls, murdered by Nazis, slaughtered and raped by Cossacks, conscripted to certain death in the Russian army, burned at the stake, murdered, killed, scapegoated, dead, dead, dead. “Dirty Jew. Kike. Kill the Jews.” All my dead, mistreated ancestors rise up and clamor for my attention. They are the ones pushing tears from my eyes. “This tradition must not perish,” their voices tell me. “It sings on the lips of your children and when their voices break the silence of the air, our deaths and sacrifice are not in vain.”
This bar mitzvah is bigger than me, bigger than the sun, bigger than the moon, bigger than my ambivalence, bigger than my watered down Jewish upbringing, my attraction to Eastern religion, bigger than my rational brain and the limitations of my thinking. It is the tug of my ancestors whom I will never know except in my dreams, whispering, “Give us this boy. Give us this girl. Let us bless them with peace, with life, with holiness, so we can rest, so we can finally be at peace.
Laura Davis is author of The Courage to Heal, Allies in Healing, and Beginning to Heal and co-author of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Her newest work is I Thought We'd Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation, which teaches the skills of reconciliation and peace building, one relationship at a time. She has built an interactive online reconciliation community at LauraDavis.net. Originally from Long Branch, New Jersey, Laura Davis now resides in Santa Cruz, California with her partner, her two youngest children, and with cherished members of her extended family.