My son Eyal was 12, and preparing for his bar mitzvah. He had to spend an hour a week after school working with a tutor who was teaching him what’s called “trope,” the ancient melody used to chant from the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.
He and I were heading home from one of those meetings when he asked: “Do I have to be Jewish when I grow up?”
Eyal was one of those kids who liked to ask a lot of questions, and sometimes I knew he asked certain questions just to “get my goat,” but this time, I heard a quiet urgency in his voice that told me, he was sincere, he really wanted to know. I wondered, was someone at school trying to convert or taunt him? Or was he anxious about standing on the pulpit in front of his family and friends at his bar mitzvah ceremony?
It took me a while to form an answer, but when I started, it began, “Sweetie, your great grandparents would roll over in their graves by what I’m about to say.”
And here’s the gist of what I told him.
“I believe that each of us is on a unique spiritual path. No two are completely alike. I can’t force you to believe what I believe, and you can’t force me to believe what you believe, but being Jewish has been the way our family has chosen to live our lives for as far back as anyone knows.
The Jewish religion is one way, among many, that people have followed to help them answer questions that humans have asked for a long time, questions like, why are we here? What happens to us when we die? Why do bad things happen? How can people get along? How do I treat a stranger? Why do we pray? Does God exist?
I still don’t have all the answers to those questions, and others that I’ve been asking, yet by engaging with the Torah, and praying in synagogue and at home and celebrating the holidays, week after week, year after year, I feel like I have a safe place to explore and have doubts and learn. I also feel I belong to a special community. It’s not better or worse than other religions, it’s just mine. Jewish prayers and customs have also helped me celebrate the good times and comfort me during the bad times. Maybe being Jewish will help you, too. For now, it’s the tradition I can offer you: it’s the one I know best, but you will create something that’s yours, alone, something that gives your life meaning, something that will help you answer those tough questions about life and death, and about how you live in between the two.”
Eyal’s now 15 and he tells me he believes in “rubber band-ism,” which he attempted to describe on the way to a varsity soccer game, his other religion. That’s his unique spiritual path, the one only he can walk.