We Celebrated My Son’s Bar Mitzvah Via Zoom — Here’s What I Learned
BY SUSAN GOLDBERG
Photo © photovs/123RF
Sep 15, 2020
My younger son turned 13 in June. We’d been planning his bar mitzvah for months: an outdoor service with a friend, a joint party with a pizza oven and klezmer music, homemade desserts (so many brownies, my mother’s famous pecan flan) and dozens of friends and family members flying in from out of town.
And then, the pandemic hit.
"Would a postponed ceremony, at age 14 or 15, hold as much meaning?"
“It’s postponed, not cancelled,” we told my son, once it became clear that a June celebration wouldn’t be feasible. I assumed we’d wait a year, and throw the party then. No big deal.
In March, that seemed like a reasonable assumption. But as the weeks wore on, it seemed less and less reasonable to assume anything, ever, about future plans. What if we wouldn’t, in fact, be able to gather in a year? In two years? Ever? Pandemic or not, my kid was turning 13 and becoming, officially, a Jewish adult. Would a postponed ceremony, at age 14 or 15, hold as much meaning? In the uncertainty that swirled around every aspect of daily living, I began to grieve the lost opportunity to celebrate, to mourn the hole in the calendar where once there had been a joyous gathering of loved ones.
Then, my father called from Toronto.
“I have an idea,” he said.
“You want to do a Zoom bar mitzvah,” I said. We’d been thinking the same thing.
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We decided, why not? We could do a small, intimate service, for family only. It would give my son a chance to be welcomed officially into Jewish adulthood. It would give everyone a sense of togetherness, some kind of normalcy. Later, once we were able to, we could have the “real,” in-person ceremony and celebration, pizza oven and klezmer music and all.
And so, in the parlance of COVID, we pivoted.
In the void of school closure and the disaster (despite many of his teachers’ best efforts) of online learning, bar mitzvah preparation became the focus of our daily homeschooling. As we studied his Torah portion, my son put together a speech that related the ancient text to the present moment, integrating the Black Lives Matter movement into his interpretation of his Torah portion and deciding to donate a portion of his gifts to #BLM. We talked about rhetoric, pacing and how to structure a compelling speech. My son in Thunder Bay and my father in Toronto held regular FaceTime sessions to practice (“Slow down. Breathe. Emphasize this word.”). My dad mailed a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, to us for the occasion.
"My son did have a real bar mitzvah. It wasn’t entirely traditional. It wasn’t at all what we had planned. But it was real, and moving and meaningful."
From the East Coast, my son’s father solicited photographs from everyone and put together a slideshow of pictures documenting our child’s life, from babyhood until now. We held a Zoom meeting with non-Jewish relatives in British Columbia to explain the concept of a bar mitzvah, walking them through the ritual so that they could participate more fully. We put together a virtual service, complete with animations, music and photographs. The Friday evening before the service, we gathered on Zoom for Shabbat services, and my son recited the traditional blessings over wine, candles and challah.
And the next day, at the appointed time, we all gathered at our various computer screens across the country and across the world, and we had a bar mitzvah.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a bit worried that it would feel hollow, stopgap, inauthentic.
In actuality, it was lovely. In the bubble of my home office, with my son, his other mom, and his godmother, we watched as the computer screen began to fill with familiar faces, smiling and encouraging. My son welcomed everyone to his service. He put on the tallit that his grandfather had sent and recited the blessing over it. My father called him to recite his Torah portion. My son gave a heartfelt, moving talk about his responsibilities as a Jewish adult in this increasingly confusing world. We recited together the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish blessing for beginnings.
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“You’re not off the hook,” my son told everyone at the end of the 40-minute service: “We want to see you here, in person, as soon as we can.”
And then, we went out for ice cream.
And, of course, I want to see my family come together to celebrate my child in person. I want that party. I want the pizza and the brownies and the pecan flan. I want to hug my cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and hold hands with them as we dance the hora in joyful, concentric circles. If we can, when we can, we will.
At the same time, though, I’m also left with the gnawing realization that, in fact, my son did have a real bar mitzvah. It wasn’t entirely traditional. It wasn’t at all what we had planned. But it was real, and moving and meaningful. And it’s the wave of the future.
"A key part of maturity, of functional adulthood (Jewish and not), is accepting and adapting to the unavoidable circumstances that life throws at us."
In pandemic times, more and more milestones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals — are moving online, and that’s where they’ll stay for the foreseeable future. There is grief in that, for the loss of the party, for the cancelled flights, the missed chance to welcome so many of my relatives to my home for the first time. For the hugs, the quiet, shared moments. But there’s also opportunity: capacity for joy, learning, connection, action, growth.
Through the virtual rituals of his bar mitzvah, I learned something valuable, something I hope both my sons come to understand one day: that a key part of maturity, of functional adulthood (Jewish and not), is accepting and adapting to the unavoidable circumstances that life throws at us. Instead of focusing on and railing at what we couldn’t have, we chose to focus on what we could do, in the present, with what we had. We didn’t quite know it at the time, but we were creating a real, meaningful event out of pixels and bandwidth and love — while also holding space and hope for an in-person celebration, and a better, healthier future for everyone.
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