You came into the world on your own schedule and terms. Dad and I had waited 2 years, 41 weeks and a lengthy induction for you to arrive. So as you might imagine, when the doctor finally announced “It’s a boy!” we cried tears of joy.
But you laid silent. In protest, I think. As if you knew life on the other side of womb service would prove to be far too inconvenient.
I watched the nurses pass you from the edge of my bed onto a table, where they fussed over your lanky, naked, ruddy body until you gave up the goods. It was only after a hearty cry the professionals felt ready to place you on my chest. They let us visit long enough for a feeding, then whisked you away to the intensive care nursery.
Hours passed before we were together again. Each time a nurse showed up in the recovery room, I’d ask, “Where’s my baby?” And each time I got the same line, “We’re monitoring him. I don’t know when he’ll be ready to leave the NICU.” A brand new, wiped out and hesitant mom, I didn’t know I was allowed to go to you.
In time, I found my way down the hall. The NICU wasn’t a traditional nursery where babies lined up on display behind a viewing window. This nursery had a holding room. And protective gear hanging from hooks. There was a window, but the newborns were camouflaged by incubators, IV bags and monitors. I scanned the room and spotted you resting under lights. Oxygen affixed to your nostrils, plastic lines jammed in a foot.
A nurse instructed me to put on a yellow, paper robe and pointed toward a rocking chair on the other side of the door. I sat until she returned with a swaddled bundle. My arms maneuvered around the tubes, tugging at your limbs. Once we were settled, the nurse disappeared. It only took a few seconds; you looked in my eyes, raised a fist and ripped the oxygen straight out as if to say, “What took you so long? Get me out of here!”
I called for help. No one came. We were on our own. So I took a calming breath and did what mothers do; shoved the tubes back in your nose and sang the only song I could muster up, “You are My Sunshine.” The protest ceased. A nurse looked over and smiled. “Now that’s what I like to see.”
This was the moment you became My Sunshine. My Bubbe. My son. I’ve been singing a version of the song to you every night, ever since. As we rocked, I felt like nothing could break our bond.
Until 10 days later.
Before you were born, Dad and I had decided to raise you in his Jewish tradition. I was raised in a Catholic one. Just after your bris, controversy ensued as to whether or not the bris was valid. Talk of dipping you in a ritual bath to legitimize your Judaism began to swirl about our home. The focus on commandments and religious law caused me to question whether you’d really feel like my child if your faith identity and experiences were different from my own. I was scared that as you grew up, this Catholic mom would feel alienated from your Jewish life.
Desperate for professional advice, Dad and I went to our former rabbi. She explained what we already knew about Reform Judaism; one parent being Jewish was enough to make the child Jewish. Still, she suggested we take you to the mikveh to play it safe. “Think of it as a rebirth,” she said.
I thought of the long induction, NICU visits, your protests and our rocking chair and told Dad there was nothing wrong with your original birth. There would be no ritual bath.
Life went on. Daily routines quickly usurped my interfaith anxiety. Between dirty diapers, bedtime stories, early morning feedings and playground outings, Dad and I found a way to integrate Jewish customs, share my holidays and create new traditions. And I figured out being Jewish didn’t make you any less my son.
I was all in. From nudging the Temple preschool director until she confirmed your enrollment and accepting a teaching job from said director a few years later, thus allowing me to learn more about Judaism, to you starting Hebrew school in Kindergarten and attending a sleep away camp which embodied Jewish values, I made sure you were surrounded by people able to give you the Jewish education I could not.
Alongside the other mommies, I schlepped you to class, conferenced with teachers, filled out mountains of forms and helped with homework. Dad stepped up whenever the religious school curriculum turned toward Hebrew, Israel or Jewish history.
For 12 years, I’ve watched your connection to Judaism blossom and become a source of pride.
Now you’ve reached the stage Dad and I have speculated about since you were a little guy clapping along to “Shabbat Shalom” during the children’s service. In less than a year, you will become a Bar Mitzvah, an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community responsible for carrying out God’s commandments. You’ll stand on the bimah alongside the rabbi and cantor and do what Jewish teens have done for close to a thousand years; read the Hebrew blessings and prayers shared at a Saturday morning service, carry the Torah scroll around the sanctuary for congregants to see and chant a passage in ancient Hebrew from one of the first 5 books of the Bible.
Bar Mitzvah prep is way out of my league. At our first orientation meeting with the rabbi to discuss how it all works, I was happy to relinquish the keys to you and Dad and listen in silent support.
My silence was quickly broken when the rabbi asked each attendee to stand up, one by one and share details about when he or she became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I was the first person in the room to explain that I had never become one of these. As I sat back down, I dropped my head. It felt as if the NICU nurse had again whisked you away.
I thumbed through your red B’nei Mitzvah binder filled with instructions, timelines, Torah portions and Hebrew blessings. Inside was a blank family tree. Part of your homework was to write down which relatives were Jewish and not to help Temple staff plan the ceremony.
You’ll have to label me as “Not Jewish.” This means, when I stand beside you on the bimah, there will be certain prayers I’m not permitted to say even though I can recite them by heart. I also won’t be allowed to hold up the Torah scroll despite my strength or dress it in ceremonial garb even though I learned the tradition as a Temple preschool teacher. That’s just how our synagogue interprets Jewish law.
While I respect the rules and appreciate how your coming of age is a spiritual connection to over 5,000 years of culture and community, as a mom, it stings not to be able to fully share in my son’s experience.
But not converting to Judaism was a choice I made. One I stand by. And so, I closed the binder and turned my attention back to its rightful place - you.
The rabbi addressed the room. “The B’nei Mitzvah is one thing Judaism really does right.”
He told us becoming a Bar Mitzvah is not only an opportunity for a 13 year old going through a period of self-consciousness, insecurity and significant physical and emotional change to learn how to take on a large task, break it down into manageable parts and present in front of an audience, but also a chance for him to experience the sense of accomplishment, empowerment and confidence realized when one goes out of his comfort zone and tackles a scary task.
When the rabbi said these words, something clicked. I’ve done those things. I know those emotions. During these coming months, I will connect with you through your journey, the process and the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to.
Today, the red binder lays open on your desk. You sit over it chanting prayers in Hebrew, stopping every few lines so Dad may offer guidance. From down the hall, I stop what I’m doing to listen to you sing. The afternoon sun streams through a nearby window. Its beams warm the tears caked upon my cheeks as My Sunshine’s sweet, determined voice warms his mother’s heart.
Photo credit: Lynda Shenkman