Let’s just get this over with, shall we?
I’m at the Miss Havisham stage of the pandemic. Life has been on hold for so long I’ve stopped noticing. But rather than an old wedding dress, I’ve shaken that Dickensian image with a muumuu to disguise the absence of a bra, and instead of manipulating my teen children, I ignore them by binge-listening true crime podcasts while we pass each other in the kitchen like ghosts. That’s because we, unlike a lot of the world, are still fastidiously trying to avoid COVID.
My husband’s cousin and his wife on the east coast are also hunkered down, but they were recently forced to embrace life’s persistent forward momentum. After several rescheduling attempts, they accepted reality and gently convinced their 13-year-old daughter that it was time have her bat mitzvah virtually. When they shared the news with guests, we finally cancelled the hotel and flight reservations we’d optimistically rescheduled a couple of times since March.
“So what’s the plan then?” I asked my husband. As someone who is charitably only vaguely Jewish, I am accustomed to taking my marching orders on issues related to ritual and family gatherings from him.
“Zoom,” was all he said as he blocked out a two-hour window on the family google calendar, as if that was all I needed to know. Which it was.
Like most bat mitzvahs in normal times, this one was scheduled on a Saturday morning when many observant Jews are already, conveniently, gathered at temple. We never are, even without the excuse of a pandemic, so the night before, we reminded our own two teens that they were expected to be with us on the couch in the living room at 8:30 the next morning. After months of empty calendars and my benign neglect eroding our domestic civility, they did not react well to suddenly experiencing obligation. Having totally abandoned their religious upbringing beyond explaining that we are Jews and Santa isn’t real, this sparked a lively conversation about why the festivities were occurring so early on a weekend, and what they might be expected to wear.
“I really don’t care what you wear, and I don’t think anyone else will either,” I said, nearing exasperation with them both, and realizing we only had ourselves to blame. I could have insisted they follow in their father’s footsteps and driven them to Hebrew school from birth until their own thirteenth birthdays in order to bind them more meaningfully to the traditions of their extended family. But he never pressured me to do so, and as a result, it simply never happened. I’ve often wondered if this bothers my in-laws who more dutifully tended to their children’s religious upbringing than my own parents did, but any time I’ve even considered asking them it’s clear it either doesn’t, or they have other hills they’d rather die on when it comes to my parenting.
“Just set an alarm and conjure a smile goddammit,” I said, assuming that was instruction enough for pandemic-era Judaism.
The next morning, my husband and I, along with our two beagles, were dutifully present in the living room at exactly 8:28 fiddling with the big screen and logging into Zoom. I’d put on a fresh muumuu and a face full of Zoom-ready makeup, along with some really big jewelry intended to really make me pop in a crowd of dozens of teeny-weeny virtual family members. I was determined to score any available points for being present for whatever this was.
“Any sign of our children?” my husband asked after quickly muting the line. Our daughter had popped out of her bedroom moments before in workout clothes, but once she saw us, quickly retreated and threw together something slightly more appropriate for the occasion. I hopped up and went out in search of our son. I found him, still in bed, sleeping very deeply under his weighted blanket, next to a fan blaring white noise. I shook him awake, snarled a suggestion that he move his ass, and retreated before I could hear his groggy and probably hostile response.
By 8:32 we were all gathered on the couch and available on screen just as a lone masked cantor in an undisclosed location was really starting to pick up steam. To my son’s credit, he had removed his nighttime retainers and changed out of one of his rumpled and wry Star-Trek t-shirts, replacing it with a wrinkled polo before stepping into view. Only passingly familiar with the rituals of Judaism, and quickly forgetting we were at a live (though muted) event, the kids and I started peppering the only learned Jew in the room with questions.
“Who is that guy singing?” The cantor.
“Is he alone in the building?” I don’t know.
“Is he going to wear a mask the whole time? Can he read with his glasses fogging like that?” He probably knows what he’s doing.
“What about a minyan? I thought you needed a minyan for this? Does a virtual minyan count?” <sigh>
Eventually my husband opened his laptop, found a Jewish prayer book online, turned to the page where the action was, and started following along while the rest of us continued to ask unanswerable questions about the uncharted waters of an online bat mitzvah. He ignored us until my son made a joke about the complexities of using a laptop as a prayer book.
“Dad I think you’ll have to bury that laptop now. That’s how you’re supposed to dispose of prayer books when they are no longer in use.” I have no idea how my son knew this, considering his total lack of Talmudic exposure. But after a quick google search, it turns out he was right.
“I’m sure that deleting my browser history will be fine,” my husband responded, and quickly scrolled back to catch up with the rabbi, as we in the virtual audience were instructed to stand. As we did, both beagles jumped off the couch, certain something amazing was about to happen and that they’d better be ready. Their faces were full of expectation as we just stood there listening to especially (for them) incomprehensible humans while watching the TV. They pretty quickly decided they’d misjudged the situation, grew bored, jumped back on the couch and resumed their naps.
After a few minutes, I heard my husband mumbling a little Hebrew and carrying a tune that approximated what was going on on-screen. It wasn’t exactly a fit of mid-life religiosity, but it definitely reminded me that these rituals, and, more importantly, the family gatherings that sprouted up around them, formed the memory palace of his life before our life together. I shushed the kids, who had never broken their streak of pithy questions, removed my feet from the coffee table, and obediently started to pray quietly as instructed by the masked cantor filling up the screen. For me, that meant mutely looking around the room and counting my blessings, which seemed the best use of the time. God (or, as I like to say, The Blind Watchmaker)was going to have to consider this massive progress and a major conversion, where I was concerned.
As it turned out, the bat mitzvah girl was an incredibly good sport. She was a joy and was endowed with a great singing voice. She managed to really sell her haftarah portion, reading expertly from the scrolls her parents carefully protected in the corner of their living room, and cleverly weaving together her family’s struggle to pull off this ritual in the age of COVID in her speech. Family members from three generations read prayers, both on screen and in person at a makeshift bimah erected on their far-away dining room table, and though it looked different than anyone had ever imagined, there was no shortage of love and joy for her accomplishment.
“We’re really just kind of SEMI-Semites,” my daughter said just as I started catching serious feelings for everyone on screen, though some I hadn’t seen in years and others I’d never met at all. Her joke cleared my misty eyes immediately and I laughed inappropriately for second, but I then shushed her again while I silently looked for some empty space in my soul to shove the swelling of unexpected emotion. The dogs started to whine to be let out and my son started to wonder out loud about lunch just as my husband announced from the control panel of the laptop prayer book that we were in the home stretch.
As the ceremony wrapped, the four of us gathered close together on the couch, grabbed our languishing, disinterested dogs, put our arms around each other and smiled for the photo we’d been asked to send as part of a memory book for the family. Despite our bumpy start to the day, we found it easy to invade each other’s personal space, look happy, and share in the celebration taking place in another home very far away. And I knew that the next time I was invited to travel a great distance to join in a ritual that meant little to me personally, I’d do so happily and eagerly, without a shred of impatience, and absolutely relish every moment.
We don’t get these days back at the end of our lives. Thanks to The Blind Watchmaker, the clock continues to tick. Find a way forward, and when you do, invite others to join you. Our rusty gears all need to start moving again, somehow.