The Rite Stuff

A bar mitzvah represents an enormous challenge for one boy and his family, and spirits soar when he succeeds.

Sunday Boston Globe Magazine, October 19, 2003

I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, and my husband had not been raised Jewish. So why was I insisting that my firstborn son, who happens to be autistic, have a bar mitzvah?

No one could understand it at first. Not my parents, who in their own way had rebelled from their Orthodox Jewish upbringing. First-generation Brooklynites, they’d moved to refined, grassy Connecticut to get away from the smell of gefilte fish and the El, only to experience the new constraints of Reform Judaism. They had jumped into life at Temple Shalom, complete with Manischewitz wine in paper cups on Friday nights. But they drew the line at the big- ticket bat mitzvah that all the other children in my Sunday school class were having.

“You don’t have to be like everyone else,” they insisted. Instead, they sent me to Israel for six weeks.

It seems I have ever been the Jewish misfit. I consider myself a spiritual Jew but not a religious Jew. We don’t belong to a temple. My parents’ religious ambivalence had seeped into my bones, making Jewish activities feel like manicured nails on a chalkboard.

So why was I intent on doing this? The autism is such a wild card. It gets in the way when we try to do things that most families take for granted. Outings to the movies require great planning, fortitude, and a lot of candy. He goes through cycles, good periods and bad periods, like seven years of famine, seven years of feast. During “feast” times, he emerges, talks to us, offering tidbits from conversations inside his mind. We, starving to hear from him, eagerly pounce on his words. Then, just as mysteriously, he retreats — back to talking to himself and to sitting on the couch for long periods of time, an unopened book in his lap.

I, too, go through phases, of strength and courage and then withdrawing again, in dealing with him. When the bar mitzvah idea hit, I was buoyed by strong feelings of derring-do. And the more my Jewish friends began planning their children’s bar mitzvahs, the more I became determined not to miss out again. A feeling of rebellion propelled me forward. We would do this. We only needed a Torah — and a plan.

We researched the key ingredients of a bar mitzvah and whittled them down so that my boy could manage them. We noted each practice session on his calendar; he will do anything as long as it is written on his calendar.

As the date approached, I put us to the test one afternoon at my parents’ house. Without warning, I asked him to speak his lines. “Let’s do your prayer,” I said, cuing him with the first Hebrew syllable: “Bar _.”

He turned toward me, paused, and then began a perfect: “Barchu et Adonai hamvorah … ” The phrase dangled tentatively in the air. I shouted encouragement, and he finished, rocking gently to the archaic rhythms and his own autistic frequency.

My mother wiped tears from her eyes. My father dug up an old prayer shawl to give to my son; who knew he owned such a thing?

And just like that, we were like everyone else. My different child was like all other bar mitzvah kids, with the skinny body and erupting acne, struggling over the ancient Hebrew words. Something very old and stuck dissolved inside of me. I was now a bar mitzvah mother. A misfit no longer. My son had, by dint of his tremendous efforts, succeeded in reattaching an entire family to a big, mysterious, and arduous tradition that had eluded us all before.

Aside from the obvious religious significance, it’s really about doing this thing that everyone else has always done. A Torah, a family, a good effort. It took my family three generations and an autistic boy to finally get it right.