Bnei Mitzvah ceremonies during pandemic are unique, often surprisingly beautiful events. Each of those I’ve conducted have had a tinge of sadness for the fact family and friends can’t gather to celebrate in person, which over the course of the ceremony seems to get absorbed into the pride and joy of the young person in question and their parents, and the love and excitement that somehow cuts through the screen from those not physically present. That sense that we have all witnessed something important take place inevitably fills the space; what I sometimes call the arrival of God, and other times think of as collective human intention. Or in simpler terms: ritual.
Of all these special events, the first one I led, last May, stays with me in particular because of the sad circumstances that surrounded it. The Bar Mitzvah boy’s beloved grandfather died from Covid not long before the event. The Bar Mitzvah became an opportunity for the family to gather, carefully, feel each other’s love, and the continuation of the family tradition; to find peace and happiness even in the shadow of death. And it underscored something that is a part of every B Mitzvah, but even more so during Covid: that these young people are doing an incredibly brave and loving act for their families.
During that time I was taking the Pandemic Poetry workshop with the wonderful Joanie Fritz Zosike, and wrote the following poem about that first Covid times Bar Mitzvah, which I share with you now.
Jack, Hero of Time
On her deathbed she took her son’s hand and commanded:
“Make sure my grandson gets Bar Mitzvahd.”
Then she said:
“Do Jack’s Bar Mitzvah.”
And again. And one more time,
Now the boy receives his father’s Talis
Bought by his grandmother
And steps up to the Torah
In the shadow of death.
It is the timeless time of the Great Pandemic of two thousand and twenty
Which took his grandfather’s life
And the family cautiously gathers
In Grandma’s back yard
But really on Jack’s shoulders.
Grandma spoke as death moved in her
And that speaking continued
Her words echoing in the silent
Death of her isolated husband.
He has been gathered to his people
And his grandson has gathered his.
Hallelujah, he sings
Praise the God of Truth!
She who can no longer speak
He who can no longer sing
Find their voices through their Grandson’s
Sweet notes that emerge from his
Growing, changing body.
They who no longer change thank God
With the mouth of him who is transforming.
“Can dust sing? Does it speak Your truth?”
A living challenge from the ancient hero
Who carried his people on his shoulders
And his poems for thousands of years
Carry us even today
As we stare at the dust particles
Gleaming in the sun
And know we are alive.
Instead of the finished poet
We have a new young hero
To live out the words of his grandmother
And her grandmother
And all the generations of dust
Who know they can no longer speak
Words they have not said.
“I am only half me,” says the young man to his people.
“The other half is them that came before me
And you who live with me.”
We speak the names of the dead.
In their name we praise The Presence.
“Yitgadal veyitkadash sheme raba,”
He speaks the ancient words
With his clear, sweet, changing voice.