Celebrations as Passages

by Patricia Goldblatt February 27, 2017


Joseph Campbell writes that our lives are marked by rites of passage. And it is true that if you reflect on your life, the moments that burble up from all the days and the nights are the ones that have afforded the most intense joy or sorrow. Usually those reminiscences return to you accompanied with sights, sounds, and smells that can overwhelm, even years later.

Some of my happiest days concerned my children’s simchas, their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Days of delighted, focused preparation culminated at the synagogue where each of my three children chanted their portions as family and friends witnessed their endeavors. My mind’s eye still passes over my elder daughter as a confident young woman in a starched white dress with puffed sleeves, facing the entire congregation who waited expectantly, fearing a missed or garbled word. We held our collective breath, but there was no need.

Her father and I stood beside her, proud at the person she was becoming, the person we knew she was: beautiful, humble, and passionate.

So much goes into the making of a child. I think the first born has it hardest of all as parents foist their own personal dreams or missed opportunities on the child they want to give everything. The beaming girl celebrating her confirmation is merely the outer face, the radiant façade before the congregation.

At such celebrations, transformations between child and adult may not be totally evident, as unruly hair, gawkiness, unexpected burps often mar the slick appearance assumed by the adolescent. Yet rites of passage mark an official beginning and ending.

People once chortled, “Today I am a fountain pen,” gently mocking the once favored gift to the Bar Mitzvah, and underlying the fact that no 13-year-old is truly ready to traverse the world and commence their travails as an adult. Whether in Africa or America, the prescribed rites of passage are built into a societal need to monitor the education and development of its children.

This is the way of celebrations. They can assume the on-stage fantastic and lavish production that only occur when the backstage arrangements, the heavily thought out, worried-about, well-planned arrangements and overwhelming details have been carefully attended to.

For my son’s Bar Mitzvah two years later, he again performed his portion flawlessly and when the after-lunch moment arrived to give his speech, thanking our guests, he started well, but then faltered. He had written his own words carefully, practiced, and was accustomed to public speaking. He decided to speak about my father who had passed away several months earlier. And yet, unlike his perfect recitation from the Torah, he was now stymied. He commenced his speech, but at the mention of my father, his words stuck in his throat. And so he paused. We smiled our encouragement and he tried again. But once again when he reached the section concerning my father, he gulped, had to pause, tears now rolling down his cheeks. And once more, he cleared his throat and made a valiant attempt.

And so, he dropped his paper, glanced at me, mumbled some thanks and abruptly sat down. The guests who had suddenly become one with the intense relationship between grandfather and grandson experienced an unexpected closeness with this man-child few really knew. Later one person confided, “Everything was perfect until Jordan spoke, but his emotions made your simcha human.”

Our younger daughter, when her turn came, effortlessly chanted her part as flawlessly as her siblings had, and the events of the day were as choreographed. The flowers were extravagant, the invitations again hand produced, the luncheon at the top on the thirty-third floor of the hotel delicious.

And just as I had hoped to reflect the attributes of my other children through the planning of the minutiae, I had encouraged her talent and passion for music.

Recently, I inquired of my youngest child, now 35, “What do remember about your Bat Mitzvah?” She wrote, “Getting my hair done, wearing a flowered wreath, singing at synagogue and feeling like a rockstar. I kind of felt like a rockstar all day. It was a huge celebration for me, about me. People I didn’t know knew me. For a Type-A extroverted teenager, it was a huge deal and I loved it. I remembered enough from my sibs’ that I felt it took forever to come. It didn’t disappoint.”

When my son married his sweetheart, my husband and I created a chuppa. I researched Jewish art, prayers, marriage symbolism, and designed a pattern, taking council from a woman who had created several for synagogues. I drew the pattern; he used graph paper to enlarge with fine sharpie pens while meticulously enshrining the Hebrew words of commitment on a backdrop of grapes, lions, lambs, doves and does. Then, every night after our work day for four concerted hours, my husband and I cross-stitched the six foot long pattern in silk and merino wool from September until August! In the end, it was one of the accomplishments of my life, and it has passed from my son’s marriage ceremony to my elder daughter’s, to her sister’s.

The simcha or celebration is the fulfillment of dreams that signifies an extreme moment of accomplishment. It shines brightly alone against the flurry of the ordinary, the hard work that has contributed to that “stand-alone” performance before loved ones.

This is the paradox of all things. We are part but also apart in our simchas. Individuals stand with their loved ones, but also alone: at the bima, but also in the arena with a congregation. These passages since the very beginning were established for an important purpose and that is why they have been handed down and endured until today. But intrinsically the ceremony itself is a proclamation of sorts with deep significance, for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, wedding, bris, baby naming or funeral underlines difference from ordinary everyday activities, indicating the occasion as significant in the life of the participants.

Simchas are the most treasured and most recalled moments of our lives because they move our inner lives out onto a larger stage, joining the secular with the sacred. So we

stand together with our family and friends and demonstrate how our world, our community, our society will be taken forward with joy and confidence, with religious tradition but also with the knowledge that life changes and we must adapt, just as our parents and grandparents did before us, that change is good and we have contributed to the process. These simchas are the productions that comfort us when we are sad, the times we look to that brighten the darkness and remind us of the life cycles that mark our beginnings and endings.


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