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.