Bar mitzvah, basketball and Genesis

Backtrack with me, please: Last week I told you about how I had a brand-new, strange yet wonderful experience attending the symphony during COVID-19. And this good thing has happened again! So go forward with me now as I tell you about it …
Shabbat morning, I attended a bar mitzvah. Not virtually, not Zoom or anything like it, but REAL! I sat in the sanctuary of my shul with most of the dozen others present. Already on the bima: the rabbi standing to my right, the bar mitzvah boy with his tutor standing to my left. Scattered about the “virtually” empty sanctuary: the grandparents in front, the parents to the left, the synagogue president toward the back — and just few others, including the person responsible for our bar and bat mitzvah scheduling and all that goes with it.
The rabbi opened with melodic prayers — lovely voice, on pitch, our few much thinner voices joining in. Then the parents ascended to their son’s “high place” and wrapped him in his new tallit. So far: just like any usual Saturday a.m. service, only much quieter, more thoughtful. The few of us had so much to be thinking about…
This young man — for he was both! Obviously no longer just a little boy! — then stepped forward to face his tiny “audience” and read his speech. He began by telling us about a main love of his life — basketball! He plays it. He studies it. He follows it in all possible ways. And he also equates it with his blossoming Judaism. Our faith, he reminded us, has rules too. We cannot just run wild on the playing court of life and do whatever we please; we have an instruction manual: our Torah — and our coaches: parents and grandparents, rabbis, synagogue officers who make decisions that affect us all, based on that greatest of all books. His language was simple but his message was profound, expressed to perfection by a youngster just entering adulthood. We learned that Judaism fits into his life with importance, as do family, friends and basketball. My only regret as I sat there: How I wished his friends from school and shul, plus his far-flung family members, could have been here also, to hear him live, see his confidence, experience his competence in person.
Of course he managed to relate all he said — including basketball — to his portion from Genesis. Through his young eyes, we got a new look at our biblical rule-breakers and the legacies we’ve inherited from them. Here he also proved that he’s already a good and clever speaker, teasing us with easiness until he gets to the heart of things and hits us over the head — gently, of course — with all that’s really important.
The grandma who sat directly in front of me, who blessed the Torah before and after its reading, is my good friend. So I certainly know how sorry she was that big plans for this big life milestone had to be scrapped because of something even bigger. But also certainly, she was thrilled to witness her grandson’s triumph, and to be part of it herself.
When my own son became a bar mitzvah so many, many years ago, the skies opened up with lightning and poured an incredible amount of rain on all of us just as we were arriving, so we all entered the synagogue at a run. And I’ll never, ever, forget my friend and neighbor, the woman who raised her arms, her head and her voice as she ran, shouting loudly: “Enough, Lord! I already believe!” This remains the task of our Judaism: to believe, no matter the weather or COVID-19. There were sacred moments, even secret bar mitzvahs, in Auschwitz, too. We must never forget that.
Our shul president gave the new man his gifts; we threw candy at him; and then we left. It was an inspiring Jewish experience.
Harriet Gross can be reached at

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