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05/27/2020 04:19:04 PM


Gavri Butler

The Last Bar Mitzvah

"Did you really just spend $800 at Gourmet Glatt?!?" 

It was February 18th, the day we got back from our quick trip to Israel for my son Isaac to put on tefillin for the first time. My wife Shani had become completely engrossed in the news about this crazy virus in China that was beginning to spread. We've always been news-obsessives, but when you have a child with a chronic illness, you pay a little bit more attention to the medical stuff. I had gone straight from the airport to the city for back-to back-to-back meetings, but happened to open the American Express app mid-afternoon to check our credit limit. Because we were making a bar mitzvah. 

I hadn't slept in 36 hours. I was dealing with multiple fire-drills at work. I was already annoyed because I needed to put down some massive deposit or pay some obscene bill. No recollection of whether it was the florist or the caterer or the balloon guy or the guy in India who was sending us the hand-blown glass... I don't even know how to describe them - all I know is that I was told they looked great with the flowers. And the app said Shani had spent $800 at Gourmet Glatt. 

Let me be 100% clear: She's the smart one. She’s ALWAYS the smart one. I'm the one who always forgets that she's the smart one. This was one of those times. 

"You don't get it," my prescient wife said, "the world will have to shut down! They already started in China. Soon we won't be able to leave the house. Soon there won't be any flour or yeast or cleaning supplies, and we need enough supplies to be stuck at home for weeks!"

Right, I said, sure, whatever. But what about Isaac's bar mitzvah? 

"I've been watching the models." Remember, she's the smart one. "I think we're still 3-5 weeks away. We should make it. But after that we are on full lockdown."

That night as I was repackaging bulk-size meat and chicken for cold-storage I may have muttered some choice words under my breath. I forget sometimes. But she was right.  Almost. 

So began some of the toughest weeks of our lives. Shani had already been in full-on bar mitzvah mode. Logos had been designed, footballs with custom logos had been ordered direct from a guy in China for 1/3 the price – was that even safe? – along with the aforementioned glass things, which were actually really cheap other than... why again? Oh right, the flowers. Sure. 

I think the next week was when we started having trouble sleeping. The week we got back from Israel we were still fighting over whether the list was too long, could we really add that cousin, why are we having nearly 275 people, how are we ever going to pay for all of this?! No, we said at the time, if we don’t have a huge crowd it just won't be nice. It was the next week when we began going through the list at 2 a.m., trying to guess the ages of certain senior relatives. Should we tell them to stay home? It’s fine, we said, we still have a couple weeks until the virus hits New York. We'll make it. And it will be so beautiful. 

The next week SAR closed. That was when we started saying things like, "What if [relative X] comes to the bar mitzvah and then dies? He's old and has all kinds of health problems. Can we tell him to stay home without insulting him?" That week was also when the cancellations began. By Friday we had lost the vast majority of our out-of-town guests. And we started asking ourselves if we should just cancel everything. No, our friends were grownups, they could make their own risk assessments and decide whether or not to come.  And we still have 200 people, it will be a beautiful event. 

The stress kept building. Were we going to be "Patient Zero" for the Five Towns? People kept dropping out. 

That Shabbos was Yosef Solomon's bar mitzvah. It was beautiful, and, besides the elbow bumps, normal. It was like a preview of our son's bar mitzvah. It was at Sephardic Temple, just like ours. It was a massive crowd, just like ours would be. The davening was beautiful and the leining went off without a hitch, just like ours would be. (Ok, not exactly like ours. The setup and menu were the opposite, because, without telling us, the Solomons refused to make any plans at Sephardic Temple until ours were finalized, because they wanted our simcha to be perfect too. They're incredibly special people.) 

The week of the bar mitzvah. 

No sleeping. You know you look bad when you get multiple unsolicited calls from local doctors asking if you need any prescriptions.  Should we cancel our friends? No, they’re grownups, they can make their own risk assessments. Should we cancel Isaac's class? No, everyone says it doesn’t hurt kids. But do we really want all of those "disease vectors" from all over the Five Towns? 

Monday, my daughter's doctor called. "We know it's your son's Bar Mitzvah this weekend, but you should probably keep her at home, too big of a crowd, you never know..." We’ll be careful, we said, and we'll try our best to keep her away from people.
On Tuesday we emailed the school. We know the rule is you have to invite the whole class, but we're considering cancelling all the kids but the ones from North Woodmere.  We sent an email to all our friends, "We know you're grownups, please make your own risk assessments." Almost everyone said they were coming. 

Wednesday we started calling doctors. They said the virus wasn't here yet, wash your hands, don't touch your face, tell anyone who isn't feeling well to stay home. We'll have 165 people, it will still be beautiful. 

Thursday morning. Isaac got his first aliyah at HALB and read from the Torah for all of his friends, since most of them would miss his real bar mitzvah.  Oh right, Isaac. The bar mitzvah boy. I’m still not sure how he was so cool. How he took it all in stride. How he never, not once, complained about what was going on. About losing his bar mitzvah. His great grandfather called him Thursday night to tell him about his own bar mitzvah in Bergen-Belsen. We knew this was way better. But still, it wasn’t fair. Isaac deserved more. 

As we were walking out of HALB, Rabbi Lebowitz called. The community rabbis were putting the finishing touches on a statement closing all the shuls. "I'm really sorry," he said, "but you need to cancel the bar mitzvah." He put us in touch with the medical experts. They said we could still have just the close relatives. Keep it small. We emailed the friends. We called the relatives. There were tears. One grandmother invoked her dead body, then the other did too. 

We (meaning Shani) spent so much time making everything perfect. The food, the tables, the flowers, the blue glass things. Isaac practiced his leining for what seemed like most of his short life, and knew his speech backwards. We were at 27 people. Would it still be beautiful?   

Here's the thing: It was perfect. It's true, we had 250 fewer people than we expected. But we had everyone we needed. Isaac's leining was flawless, like we knew it would be, and it turned out my cousin's new husband has an incredible voice, so davening was beautiful. The food was astounding and abundant, and it turned out those blue glass things went really well with the flowers. 

And we were never really alone. Countless friends dropped by before, during and after, from a distance, to say Mazal Tov, or just to have a tiny part of our simcha. Rabbi Septimus, Lisa and Avi, made the tremendous sacrifice of saying Mazal Tov without a hug. The Aspirs spent hours making Isaac custom water bottles which nobody received, the last of which was finished this week. Elana Torczyner showed up on Friday afternoon with just the right gift to make each of our kids feel special, including a jar of pickles for Isaac, his favorite. Of course Jordan Hiller, our prophet, had the foresight to surprise us at the Kotel for the hanachat tefillin because he knew he would miss the big show. 

None of you heard Isaac's speech. It was awesome. It was about his Parsha, Ki Tisa, but also about Yizkor. While we’re way past that Parsha, we’re saying Yizkor in a few days, so maybe it's worth repeating something he said: 

In Ki Tisa we read about Moshe having the closest encounter with God ever. After Hashem forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, Moshe asked Hashem 

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ׃

Hashem, show me your glory, which really means "tell me what You do and why You do it."

God responded that people can't ever really understand why He does things, but He will give Moshe a quick peek. If Moshe hides behind a rock, Hashem will pass by, and  

וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃

"I will cover myself, and you will see my back, but not my face"

For thousands of years, Jews have tried to figure out exactly what this phrase means. In a pre-Yizkor speech, Rabbi Norman Lamm (who should have a speedy recovery) quoted his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, who said that during times when we are happy and things are good, people do not appreciate our blessings and how lucky we are. Only later, once the good times have past, do we look back and see that God was there helping us, giving us celebrations, and health, and reasons to be happy.  

Rabbi Lamm explained, "We can only see our good fortune as one looks longingly after a train that has passed by and is already receding into the distant horizon." Ah, if only we had been able to look at our good fortune, our Attributes of Mercy, in the 'face' when they were present, even as we ponder their 'back' as they leave us!" Yizkor is often a time of regret, of looking at the 'backs' of underappreciated relationships. Rabbi Lamm said that we are all guilty of "waiting until the revelation of love is past and only then looking after it longingly." He advises us to dedicate the time of Yizkor to trying to "rectify that failing when it come to the people who are with us now; that we will not only look to the past for [positive qualities]... but we shall live in the present as well. From our feelings of regret as to how we treated the loved ones of the past, let us learn how to act toward our loved ones of the present."

Our massive bar mitzvah probably would have been beautiful. But we certainly would not have appreciated every detail like we did for Isaac’s perfect bar mitzvah. We learned that we didn't need the big crowd or the fancy accoutrements - we just needed our close family. And we needed to look at their "faces." 

In his celebrated viral sensation "Seder ha-Avodah", Ishay Ribo reimagines the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur as a personal dialogue with God. With brutal honesty, he acknowledges that true introspection causes us to be overwhelmed with "all of the flaws, the lacking, the errors." When doing so, however, we can't forget "The kindness and goodness, all the mercies and all the redemptions." But unlike when we list the bad, struggling to make it out of the single digits, Ribo says when we honestly acknowledge the good: 

Certainly he would count this way: one, one and one, one and two, one and three. One of a thousand, many tens of thousands, wonders and miracles, which You have done for us, day and night.

This virus is awful. It's robbed us of parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, friends and neighbors by the thousands. It's given us pain, and heartache, and loneliness, and fear of humanity. But, selfishly, it's also taught me to appreciate how lucky we are for every one of the gifts God gives us every day. For me, it's that I get to take a few minutes every afternoon to play football with my boys, or put my daughter to bed every night, have dinner with my wife (who is much smarter than me) - things I would have otherwise missed. Every day I get to look at a picture of four generations of our family celebrating at the Kotel, a place Jews dreamed of for thousands of years, and we took for granted. And instead of spending Isaac's entire bar mitzvah greeting guests, I got to stand back in quiet awe of the man he is becoming and the countless blessings we have received. We witnessed the last bar mitzvah. What a gift!

By: Gavri Butler

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784