A barrier of a different color
On liturgy and ambiguity

Coming of age

My rabbi is fond of saying that a b'nai mitzvah is a lifecycle event not merely for the kid who's becoming bar or bat mitzvah, but for the entire family. That seems true to me, especially when I think about the next bat mitzvah I'll be attending -- and facilitating! I've alluded before to tutoring my niece Emma toward becoming bat mitzvah. We've been working together for nine months, and the culmination of that work is almost upon us. She's getting a great Jewish education at Rashi, so we've been able to study in an advanced way. Using a seven-chapter curriculum I've written over the course of the year, we've worked together in person, via telephone, and via email and Google chat. I've been surprised, moved, and challenged by her questions and her insights.

I may write more about that process at some point. What I'm thinking about lately, though, is the sense in which this bat mitzvah is a kind of coming-of-age not just for Emma, but also for me.

Seven years ago, when my sister was pregnant with her son, she asked me to create and officiate at a customized naming ceremony for him. I had done that work for and with friends, but never for a family member before; I was honored and thrilled. I'm not sure now how many people gathered in my sister's living room for that ceremony -- maybe forty? I know it felt like a big deal to me. It was my first chance to do for and with my family the kind of work I already knew I wanted to do with a wider community.

Now I'm a rabbinic student with a lot more experience leading a community in prayer. Good thing, too; this time we'll be 125 people, spanning the spectrum of Jewish practice and observance. We are affiliated Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and Renewal. Some of us are unaffiliated. Some of us are alienated from religion in general and/or Judaism in particular. Some of us are non-Jews. Some of us have a regular davenen practice; others dread their rare visits to synagogue because the experience is so opaque. What we have in common is a love of my niece, and the desire to be present as she formally marks her entry into a new phase of her life.

Leading a transdenominational community in prayer -- especially an ad-hoc community that has never gathered in this form before, nor will gather in this way again -- using my own homegrown siddur -- and, while I'm at it, sharing guitar responsibilities with another family member, with whom I've never before played -- and doing it in front of my parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins...? It's a little overwhelming.

It's also incredibly exciting. Leading davenen is something I deeply enjoy. There's a kind of alchemy that happens sometimes, when the combination of people and intention, music and words, creates something indescribable that's far beyond the sum of its parts. I hope I can facilitate that.

And I hope I can maintain awareness of what really matters here: not my feelings, but helping my niece stretch herself in a space that's safe and comfortable enough to feel nurturing, and challenging enough to help her grow. This mincha / maariv / havdalah service will be a havdalah writ large in Emma's life, a moment of sacred transition from one sweet thing to the next. If I feel strong emotions -- at seeing (helping) my niece come of age religiously, and at showing my family a different side of who I am and what I do -- I guess that goes to show we're never really finished with coming-of-age.

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