Life cycle rituals are not fixed experiences—even when the text and ceremony stays the same.
We bring different energy, emotions, and family dynamics to each event because we are always growing and changing ourselves. I was aware of this when my family recently celebrated the bar mitzvah of our youngest child. Noah is three years younger than his older sister, and five years younger than our oldest daughter. These don’t seem like very large numbers, but in the context of family calculus they can be quite significant. In our case, Noah’s place in the family line-up assured him the status of “baby brother” long after he left babyhood behind. The big girls constitute one unit and Noah is a universe of his own, struggling to keep up with dinner table conversations, movie plots, and punch lines that are just a little bit over his head. None of this has suddenly changed since Noah’s bar mitzvah, but something important shifted when he was called up to the Torah for the first time. He joined my daughters, my husband, and me as a responsible member of the Jewish community. Becoming a bar mitzvah meant he joined the fellowship of Jewish “adults.”
None of us expected this. We knew that Noah’s bar mitzvah would have its own character. Children are different—they bring unique fears and desires to life cycle moments. But we thought that Noah’s coming of age ceremony would roughly parallel those of his sisters’ before his. We did not anticipate the joy our daughters radiated as they witnessed their brother teaching Torah and leading the community in prayer. My husband and I could not have imagined the particular delight we felt seeing this joy. Our pride and pleasure in this event was no greater than what we felt when we celebrated the girls’ b’not mitzvah. But the experience was different, the emotional gloss was different, and the properties of joy were different, too. Noah’s new status in the Jewish community brought him to a different place in our family as well. He crossed a threshold, and we were there to meet him on the other side.