Balloon arches

I came to L.A. as a pre-teen who rarely smiled. By the time I left for college, I was mostly a different person, much stronger both physically and emotionally. Looking back, I credit my healing in no small part to Judaism. Not because I went to synagogue or even understood what Judaism was, but because my new environment was seeped in it. For junior high and high school, I attended a small private school that was roughly 70 percent Jewish. Of my four best girlfriends, three were Jews—though their families were not particularly observant.

Still, today, I’ve come to understand the ways in which my friends and classmates were Jewish deep down, back countless generations. Their ancestors had practiced and passed down that particular wisdom and it had been instilled in them whether they recognized it or not. Their way of being in the world rubbed off on me.

I began that school in 7th grade, just as my classmates were turning 13, and my weekends were filled with a series of bar mitzvahs (called “bat” mitzvah if my classmate was female). The mood of these events was the antithesis of what was going on in my head. I had grown accustomed to feeling currents of shame—somewhere, beneath the surface, I was not convinced I deserved any life much less a happy one. Yet, here, under dozens of helium balloons arranged into archways and atop temporary dance floors, families were conducting joyous celebrations of the lives of my peers. Compared to these festivities, regular birthday parties suddenly looked to me like half-hearted nods honoring the passage of time rather than a person’s having come into being. These was of a different magnitude altogether. The guest list seemed to include every person who had ever known the celebrant, including God.

The bar and bat mitzvahs I attended had a certain format. The event itself would begin in the sanctuary of a synagogue with my classmate being asked to stand up front with the rabbi and read from the fancy scrolls. I remember always being impressed seeing my friend in this new context, speaking a different language, reading from some mysterious text in front of everybody. Until then, I had known the person to be a regular kid like me, but this impressive display revealed a more complex individual and my respect never failed to increase. From the sanctuary, we would move to a second location, often another room in the synagogue or a house. Here, the seriousness gave way to sheer fun: burrito bars and sundae stations and everyone from oldest to youngest shuffling and twirling to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

Looking back, I marvel at how this one-time extravaganza seemed to come just as a young person might need it most, injecting a shot of pure joy not just into the life of the celebrant, but his or her entire circle of family and friends. Today I understand the symbolic significance of the bar and bat mitzvah as the official introduction of a young person to his or her community as a mature Jew. Yet, I also sense how, in a modern context, this ritual might not herald an arrival at adulthood so much as offer a memory that acts as sustenance for the difficult teen years, which have only just begun. The recollection of that fun shines like a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

20 thoughts on “Balloon arches

  1. It has been coming through. I hope you continue to find the meaning in it that was precious to you at the time and simply make some adaptations at the deep level of meaning that you have been looking for.

  2. On a personal note: Sometimes real life asserts itself, and thoughts of helium balloons and one-time extravaganzas seem far less compelling. My 30 year old son Ben is “on the ground” with a pack and shovel fighting a huge wildfire in central Washington State. I am hoping that you all might send comic energy—-or prayers or positive thoughts, or what ever speaks to you—-his way. He is with many other young people who are doing this essential work who could also use that extra energy surrounding them. He is with a trained team of people, and I am not afraid for him, but sending that good energy their way seems to be a good thing to me. Thanks much. Merrill

      • Really! Maybe some helium balloons! This is what he will be doing during the next couple of months…..those of us in the West realize what important work it is and how dangerous it can be! But he is finding this very rewarding, so I am happy for him. MET

  3. Corinna, I love the way you describe the unbridled joy of a bar/bat mitzvah! Conformation doesn’t even come close!

  4. Corinna, I have only been to one Bar Mitzvah, and that was several years ago here where the “synagogue” is a remodeled house. I attended the ceremony as somewhat of an honored guest, as I was the young man’s teacher at the time. It is the tradition and seriousness of the actual ceremony that I remember, not the party afterward. I would guess that is partly because this is a town with a small Jewish population who would not be trying to outdo each other in “extravaganza,” and partly because the Bar Mitzvah (I think this is how you say it) was a serious young man, not given to a lot of social activities! I was also viewing the whole thing through adult eyes…..not those of a 13 year old girl. But I did very much like the idea marking that passage.

    Here in this town we have many quinceaneras for the 15 year old Latina girls….well, from girl to young woman all in one evening. It seems that they often times have some of the same sense about them….often beginning with a Catholic Mass, and then going to the very structured party….the big, extravagant party. I have never attended one of these celebrations, but I know they can be quite elaborate and quite expensive.

    There seems to be a need in many cultures to mark that passage from child to adult…….I have never thought of these experiences in the way you mentioned….a memory which can sustain a person through the tough teenage years. Are you still friends with any of these girls…. who are now REALLY women? It would be interesting to get their perspective on this event in their lives.

    • Hi Merrill, Well, this was L.A. after all…and the Jews were more on the “reformed” side of the observant spectrum. However, I do think being one of the kids at one of these celebrations is a different experience. I recently went to a Bar Mitzvah (as a grownup) and it was amazing to watch the kids dancing and eating cupcakes and just generally going bonkers with fun. It brought back some awesome memories.

      I am still friends with some of the Bat Mitzvah “girls” and I really should ask them their perspective. I imagine that they might not have seen it quite like that, but they would probably agree.

      I wonder about the Quinceneros and, similarly, “Sweet 16’s” that may have started to introduce marriageable girls to the community, but may have evolved into something more that sustains its participants until adulthood.

  5. Oh Merrill, that experience — although hard — will be so good for Ben! Who knows what good will come from it? I can’t send any COMIC energy (that typo made me laugh) but I’ll join my whatever with everyone else’s for protection and good for Ben.

    Corinna, thanks for giving us another glimpse into what makes you You. “Their way of being in the world rubbed off on me.” I’d like to know other ways that the influence of Judaism has affected you. I used to wish I’d been born Jewish, to be connected to that ancient family…what a sense of belonging. No wonder they throw these big parties when you’re 13. Being reminded you have this deep down heritage, that you belong, right at the age when you most need reminding of that!

    • Shelley,
      I have just been back on “Crumbs” reading an interchange between Tim and Aaron… of the things they weighed in about was humor. Apparently they have not been clued into the Great and Holy COMIC energy that exists in the Universe. It is truly powerful and very good for the soul and all that ails it! It never fails to lift my spirits nor to span differences. Good that you reminded us about it!

      • I think the ability to see humor may be one of His greatest gifts, or curses, for one not blessed with it. Moments when anagrams are recognized, or typos are read are times when I think God says, “Hello,” and then hits a rimshot. Those marvelous moments when He says, “I’m here, and so are you . . .and so is everything and everyone , together. Now go help some others to be happy.”.

  6. Hello. I am having one of my rare fits of insomnia and thought I’d at least be productive during my sleeplessness. So I tuned in here. 🙂 Merrill….it’s funny that you should ask for ‘energy’, and one of the things I was doing just before I gave up and got out of bed was praying for Ben. I think he must be getting quite a surge of positive energy right now…what with Shelley and Corinna and me and you!

    Sunday there will be a candle with his name on it at St. Michael’s.

    I’m going to go over the the last post and see if I can catch up on what I missed. It will give me lots to think about as I try to go back to sleep. Love to all.

    Yours in Christ

    • You should have come to Stations of the Cross, Patti! The fellowship at our house afterward was great, and I’m sure a couple glasses of wine would have helped you sleep!

  7. Hello. Tim, I really wish I COULD come to your house for fellowship after! I’m telling you, we all either have to invent teleportation or find a state where we can all meet. Somewhere in the center. Kansas??

    I can guarantee it wasn’t the same one, lol. Bye the by, we are Anglican Providence of America. One of those that broke with the Episcopalian Church back in the 70’s, sigh. Sometimes I wonder if the splinters will ever be so small that they become microscopic, and then will they splinter into atoms?

    • Good Morning, Patti–
      I hope you were able to sleep. It would be great to meet. Kansas might work, but maybe after summer, when the humidity and the temperature aren’t the same?

      I checked the Internet a while ago, and think there at least a dozen variations of the Episcopal/Anglican church in the U.S. It truly is sad; maybe one day we’ll all wake up and talk about what we have in common instead of what divides us–like we do here. Most of the time, we go to a “mainline” Episcopal church for Mass, but we also maintain ties to our former church, which is still in the national Episcopal Church, but is much more Anglican/Anglo-Catholic. That’s where we do Stations and I serve as an Acolyte for the traditional Missal Mass on Thursday nights.

      Sorry to everyone else if Patti and I are slipping into “shop talk” about the Anglican tradition!

      • We are also “High Church” Anglican Catholic at St. Michael’s. Do you know how I have decided to handle the whole in/out/not in/not out of communion question? I simply take communion. I don’t argue. It’s along the lines of “If you walk in like you own the place, no one will tell you to go away.” I figure that God knows what we are doing, and that is the only thing I care about.

        Ok. No more shop talk. 🙂

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