I stood there next to him as we both walked up to the bimah for his first aliyah ever. He was nervous and unsure of what to do next as he looked at me with worried eyes, imploringly trying to mouth words to me seeking guidance and help. This was all brand new to him and, honestly, with this being the bar mitzvah of my only son, it was brand new to me too.
The two of us were surrounded by other men in Nizanim, a beautiful beit knesset in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem that could not have been more welcoming to our Teaneck, NJ family on this special day. In our immediate circle, stood the ba’al koreh, the gabbai, the guy who just had Shvi’i, and others. Further out, the entire kehilla. Behind the mechitza, sat his mother and sisters, and a cousin who had just made aliyah to Israel. But, as far as I was concerned, he and I were standing there alone.
My son started his tentative “Barchu et Ha-shem Ha’Mevorach …” The Torah was read, he said the concluding bracha, and then the scrolls were lifted high in the air and subsequently wrapped as they have been every Shabbat for generations – this time accompanied by bags of candy being tossed at us. Now came the moment he had been preparing for: he was to read his Haftorah – all by himself.
Amazingly, the shul became quiet, his voice at first very low and soft. I knew he knew what he had to do. I knew he was more than ready. I told myself, “trust him, step back and live in this moment. Relish it so you can remember it.” I closed my eyes. The sweet, sweet voice of my dear, only son – b’ni yikari – rose to the heavens. I could almost see the sounds spiraling upwards like a thin and straight pillar of smoke ascending from the mizbeach of old that was our bimah. “Va’yelchu ziknei Gilead la’kachat et Yiftach …” he sang. Up, up it went.
And then, they joined us: my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and one-by-one, all the neshamot, the souls, of all of our male predecessors were assembled for my son’s bar mitzvah in that small shul in the middle of Yerushalayim. They were there in a vertical line, almost hugging the plume of “smoke” that was my son’s – their grandson’s – beautiful, angelic voice.
I need to step back briefly here with a word about when I was 13 years old. My own father never made it to my bar mitzvah. Five months before I was officially supposed to “become a man”, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly, and I was forced to grow up a lot faster than I ever thought I would have to, or that I thought could be humanly possible. I can’t be certain – memories fade and blend into each other – but I remember walking to shul on my bar mitzvah day alone. I put on tefillin a few weeks earlier for the first time, alone. I had to do that whole thing by myself. Alone. A child in a man’s world with nothing but his instincts and gumption to guide him. There simply was no one there who could step in for my dad. I had no older brothers. My mother was grieving and dealing with the aftershocks of losing a husband and father to her four children at her tender age of 42. And other family members … well, they just didn’t show up.
And here I stood, 37 years later at the bar mitzvah of my only son in the Holy Land listening to his holy voice somehow summon his ancestors back to earth. I could see my father’s face closest and first. Then his father, my Zeida Ya’akov, in the line of smoke above him. Then I saw my great-grandfather Yitzchak, who I was named after, and of whom I only saw one old picture. Higher and higher they went. I couldn’t recognize any more faces – I didn’t know any more faces. But I could see them, feel them, in their incorporeal form – souls of all the men who brought me and my son to this moment.
I screamed up – no one heard me but them: “I am here! I made it! I am standing here with him. He does not have to be here by himself like I was.”
It felt as real as anything. I was with them and I was with him. I had to force myself to come “back” into the room – “what if he needs me?” “What if he needs my help?” I have to come back. I have to be there for him. I opened my eyes.
He was doing just fine. His father was at his side. His grandfather, who he was named after and who he never met, was looking down at him, actually from not very far away. And generations of Stelzers who lived and died were there as well, hanging on to Abie’s every word.
* * * * *
A few weeks earlier, my son put on tefillin for the very first time. That too was a special morning. He and I arrived early to his school so we would not need to feel rushed as I would show him how to put on the tefillin that ties him to his people and to his family heritage. It also happened to be the day of my father’s yahrtzeit, or the anniversary of his death. My wife and I picked this date in particular because my son wanted his Hanachat Tefillin to be in school and, with the academic year coming to a close, this was one of few days left on the calendar. It also just felt like that would be the right day.
It was surreal for me to stand there in the empty school beit knesset – just me and my son – as I assisted him in putting on his tefillin for the first time ever. My dad did not have the same chance to help me with mine. He didn’t make it. But with G-d’s blessing, bli eyin hara, there I stood able to guide my son on the beginning of his path to manhood.
I knew it would be an emotional morning, but I did not quite expect how it would all turn out. The students filed in a few minutes later. “Mazel tov!” High-fives. There were his Sabba and Savta, his mother’s parents, shepping nachas, and soon came his mom and sisters and tefillah began. Since it was my father’s yahrtzeit that morning, I was supposed to say kaddish for him, l’zecher nishmato, in his memory. There I was, so proud of my boy, enjoying this moment, looking at him with wonder – “when did he become so big? so mature?” Snap out of it. Back to business – its yahrtzeit day.
“Yisgadal v’Yiskadash Sh’mey Rabbah …” I have experienced many yahrtzeits over the years since my father left this earth. Most of the time, it was just me needing to “check the box”, fulfill my obligation as his only son because there was no one else who was going to be able to do it. Yahrtzeits always made me anxious: make it to shul on time (three times!), beg (sometimes) or negotiate (often) to daven for the amud, light a candle, learn Torah, go to the cemetery, run, run, run. There was never time to feel anything. I was usually just glad when the last mincha kaddish was concluded because that generally meant that I had checked all the boxes. This time was going to be different.
“Yisgadal v’Yiskadash Sh’mey Rabbah …” My voice started to crack. “B’olmah d’vrah cherutei, v’yamlich malchutei ….” Emotions poured over me. Today was not going to be a check-the-box day. Today, there were no boxes to be checked. I am thankful that there were a couple of other men saying kaddish that morning for their own loved ones. I like to think they drowned out my trembling voice that almost didn’t make it through to the end. When I finished, I had to run out into the hallway because I was not ready or willing to let anyone see me in that raw state.
* * * * *
Back in Jerusalem, I’m standing there listening to my son finish the Haftorah. He crushed it. I was so happy for him. He concluded with a slightly louder “Baruch Ata Hash-m … Mikadesh Ha’Shabbat!!” I hugged him. I kissed him. People came over – total strangers – “mazal tov! Mazal tov! Naim me’od. Very beautiful.” Apparently, my son also told me then that he was feeling lightheaded. But somehow, I didn’t hear that. I was just so flooded with joy and emotions.
Then Musaf. We walked back to our seats. He started breathing normally again. He was a bit hard on himself because he thought he made mistakes. (He didn’t). Silent Shemoneh Esreh. Chazarat ha’Sh”Tz. Kedushah. I still felt my forefathers in the room. Then, as is done in Israel, came Birchat ha’Kohanim.
The kohanim approached the front of the shul. I covered both of us up with a tallit as I do every time the kohanim ascend, whether in Israel or chutz l’Aretz. Then and there, I had visceral memories of being under my dad’s tallit as a young boy. Abie rested his head on my shoulder – likely out of exhaustion and the drain of adrenaline. Whatever the reason, I was glad to have him so close.
“Yivarechecha. Ha-shem. v’Yishmarecha …” chanted the kohanim. I was embracing my boy. I was being embraced by my dad. We were wrapped in the tallit of the Shechina, of G-d’s Divine Presence.
“Ya’er. Ha-shem. Panav. Elecha. v’Chuneka…” they continued. And then my great, great, grandfathers started to depart. I felt them slowly drifting upwards.
“Don’t GO. Don’t LEAVE. I AM NOT READY FOR YOU TO LEAVE! Please stay just a little bit longer with us! Please stay with me.“
“Yisa. Ha-shem. Panav. Ey’lecha. v’Yasem. l’Chah. Shalom.” The kohanim concluded. A tap on my shoulder. A startling recall back to the moment. It was the gabbai asking me please to remind him again of our name for his announcements. I am there with flooded eyes. For the first time in years, I had just seen my father. He was there. With me. In the room. He came to be with me on this day because he couldn’t be there so many years ago. He came to be with my son, his namesake. And he didn’t just come alone (which would have been more than enough), he came with Everyone. And then, slowly, he and they all left, back up to Shamayim. And my world returned to its axis.
The gabbai, likely surprised at seeing a grown man in tears, asks “are you okay?” And I responded “yes, I am alright. Our name is Stelzer.”