Published April 28, 2020 on Medium
Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Even though my knowledge of the Old Testament is limited to what I learned from Mel Brooks in History of the World Part One, I knew enough to know that this was a biggie. But as Mel’s Moses reduced the fifteen commandments to ten when he dropped one of the tablets (“oy”), few are aware of what may have been the Eleventh Commandment:
“In A Moment Of Global Health Pandemic, Thou Shalt Broadcast Thine Bar Mitzvah via Zoom.”
Saturday was my son’s Bar Mitzvah. A tradition where he becomes “a man” in the Jewish faith, but on the surface, there was nothing traditional about this ceremony. Instead of being called up to the bema to lead the congregation in prayer and celebration, my son was called from his bedroom to the living room to stand in front of a $49 podium purchased on Amazon and a strange confluence of electronics and furniture assembled to create the facade of a sanctuary. Due to social distancing guidelines, even the rabbi was conducting the ceremony remotely, reduced to one of several small rectangles on a laptop screen.
We’ve all had to make profound adjustments to our lifestyles to flatten the COVID-19 curve. For my son, his sacrifice proved to be most unusual. Where many of his friends in his Bar/Bat Mitzvah class had dates later in the Spring or Summer, my son’s Bar Mitzvah training was so far along, his torah portion so well learned, his momentum so firmly established, that to push everything would have involved a restart of sorts. If we moved his Bar Mitzvah to a later date, he would have had to learn an entire new torah portion, which would likely have casued him to violate the Commandment thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy god in vain. We had come this far. The calculation became if everyone can buy whatever they need on Amazon, recreate the restaurant experience via Postmates, and communicate with work colleagues and friends via teleconference, maybe a Zoom Mitzvah wasn’t so far fetched.
At first the idea seemed so easy. Fire up the laptop, let’s go! However I quickly felt like the stage manager from the Merv Griffin show. How are we going to get the lighting right? How does everything sound? Getting the framing of our family in the master Zoom shot just right involved a fair amount of arrangement and more blocking than the Rams offensive line last year. Oy gevalt! To make everything look nice we utilized an amalgam of technology and furniture stacked like the junk in the back of Fred Sanford’s garage. So if you had Merv Griffin, the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive line and Fred Sanford on their Bar Mitzvah Recap Bingo Card — congrats, you’re a winner!
Finally, showtime. My son was anxious, the rest of us just trying to roll with the punches. But something amazing actually happened — this most unusual ceremony in a most unusual setting proved to exceed our wildest (or tamest) expectations. We suddenly had loved ones from the UK, Mexico, the 310 area code and beyond beamed into our living room. Some of the gentlemen in attendance even wore suits. Suits! I figure we are a week or two away from burning all formalwear for fuel if this lock down continues much longer.
My boy, er, man shone in a way that a proud father can comfortably kvell about. As anyone who has realized half way through a Zoom staff meeting only to realize they had a giant booger in their nose can attest, there isn’t much room for error when you are asked to chant hebrew prayers, sing traditional hymns, and read from the torah. On a webchat, only one microphone can be heard at a time, so he had to do everything essentially a cappella. My daughter harmonized with him beautifully in spots, having gone through the rite of passage almost exactly 4 years earlier, but as a collective we aren’t exactly the Pips to my son’s Gladys Knight.
As the ceremony came to a close, I asked our rectangled bretheren to smile for a selfie with us. You don’t see that every day. And then every one was asked to stick around and give our son a special greeting and congratulation one by one. To have a moment of connection with everyone during such an isolating time in our existence was so overwhelming. It’s not hyperbole to say that the connection we felt from miles around was truly life affirming. In hindsight, I wish we would have invited more of our friends and family to attend, but originally it seemed like a stretch to think that people would actually want to attend a Zoom Mitzvah.
We’ve all spent so much time focused on the things we can’t have and do during these surreal times, but believe it or not, a Bar Mitzvah of all things reinforced everything that we still can do, thanks to technology. We can still can communicate. Connect. Give and receive love, support and encouragement. Some day this will all be over, or close enough for us to gather in a room and honor my son, throw him up and down on a chair, eat some pigs in a blanket. “Normal times” still feel like a long way away. But on this day it felt so much closer.