It was not at my grandson Benji’s bar mitzvah ceremony two weeks ago that I first dissolved into tears (although then, too). It was on the Thursday before, when he read part of his Torah portion at the morning service. He lay tefillin for the first time in the synagogue, and that’s when I felt the lump in my throat and the tears welling. It was, of course, a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment. The little boy I once carried looked so grown up; wasn’t it yesterday that we celebrated his brit? (I’m grateful that he still wears braces on his teeth; at least some vestiges of childhood remain.)
It was much more than that, though. Seeing him with the black bands tied around his left arm evoked the famous Chagall image of a bearded man at morning prayers, bedecked in his tallit and tefillin. And that image evokes others through the centuries of men (and now women) at prayer, their arms wrapped in black leather straps that seem to anchor them and tie them together, like boats secured in their harbors.
I teared up because the black straps on my grandson’s arm link him to all those images. In my mind’s eye, those straps form a long line going backward over the ages. The line meanders, curling around ghettos and shtetls, crossing oceans from the Old World to the New, then back toward the Land of Israel. Sometimes the line disappears, as people discard old traditions and try to blend into the places where they live. But then it appears again, that long black line connecting the Jewish people one to another.
In earlier days tefillin were at the heart of becoming a bar mitzvah. Upon reaching the age of 13 a boy was expected simply to assume the obligation of observing the commandments and rituals, including wearing tallit and tefillin; celebrations for the event did not exist. Even in my father’s time, celebrations were rare. As a youth in Russia, my father studied at a yeshiva all day. When he turned 13, he received a pair of hand-written tefillin his father had ordered from a local scribe. On his Hebrew birthday, a Thursday, he went to synagogue, as he did every day, and was called to the Torah for the first time to recite the blessings. Neither his parents nor siblings attendcd, but a teacher said a few words about obeying the laws. “I gave the sexton a quarter as a gift, and it was over,” my father wrote in a memoir he composed for the family. Yet he remembered the day all his life. “I was so proud of my shiny, hand-written tefillin and my ability now to be counted in a minyan with my elders.”
Becoming a bar mitzvah has acquired a mixed reputation since those days. Back in the 1940s a well-worn joke portrayed the bar mitzvah boy as beginning his speech with the words, “Today I am a fountain pen,” because fountain pens, along with Swank cuff link sets, were standard bar mitzvah gifts. (I doubt many kids today would know what either of those things is.) In our more affluent age, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations have often been excessive, with loud disco-type parties after services and other over-the-top shindigs that have nothing to do with the meaning of the event. And it’s frequently taken for granted that the newly minted young Jewish adult will rarely step foot into a synagogue again. According to the most recent Pew Research Center report, more than 50 percent of American youth have bar or bat mitzvah commemorations, yet the numbers of young Jews who describe themselves as having no religion has risen precipitously.
Most of my own friends define themselves as secular Jews. Still, as successful as they may be professionally, I find in many of them a hunger — an emotional hungering — for a deeper Jewish knowledge than they will ever have. As I listened to Benji chanting his Torah and Haftorah portions and watched his sister, Eliana, (who celebrated her bat mitzvah three years ago) lead early morning services, I thought about those friends and the young Jews today who shy away from religious identification. In contrast, my grandchildren’s Judaic skills result directly from such identification and the day-school education that nurtured it. I don’t know where my young descendants’ lives will take them, but I do know that their Jewish knowledge will always be part of them, always there to enrich them. Wherever they go and whatever they do, they will never feel left out of their own tradition, never hunger for a connectedness with a past beyond their reach.
Like the long bands of the tefillin Benji wrapped around his arm so confidently, they will be tied to earlier generations and able to stretch forward to those yet to come.
Francine Klagsbrun’s book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.