Ok, so I hadn’t done time in prison, I’d just spent one day there.
I’d just covered what was believed to be the first Bat Mitzvah in an American women’s prison for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. It was the only time I’d been in a temple where the person sitting next to me was tattooed with the words “Suicidal Freak.” There’s a saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it should amended to, “and in penitentiaries.” If I am ever incarcerated you can bet I’ll be signing up for every form of religious education available as they serve snacks and the non-denominational chapel at Chino is air-conditioned. (In fact, there is a relatively new organization, Atheists in Foxholes, that does great work in the field, not sure about the quality of their snacks, though.) I figured if that rabbi could handle prisoners, he could do just fine with my son whose teenage years were starting to feel like a hostage situation.
Our son, Ezra, took to calling the rabbi a nickname, Rabbi Nudgey. He had so little experience with Judaism that he didn’t know that many rabbis hover in the vicinity of nudgey — that’s their job, to nudge you away from delicious shellfish and towards God. It would be like I’d started calling my proctologist Dr. Thorough. Ok, I lied, I don’t have a proctologist, but I’m old enough that I should have one. That’s just another thing on my To-Do-Now-That‑I’m‑Aging List that I keep misplacing and re-write every week all over again. Really, my son should have called him, Rabbi to be Expected.
Here’s one thing I hadn’t expected to have to think through — where we would hold our event. Our home, with its temperamental seventy-year-old plumbing, is not ideal, and the rabbi’s congregation meets in a doublewide trailer on the grounds of the Chino Women’s Correctional Facility, so that wouldn’t seem to be the best choice. Ultimately, we snapped up a generous and unexpected offer of the large, airy meeting room at the Episcopal elementary school our son had attended. It was their first and I believe to this day only Bar Mitzvah.
Being an atheist had never stopped me from enjoying the ritual, community singing, gay friendly, and general “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” sentiment of the school’s Episcopal chapel services, plus, the school had amazing camping trips. A camping trip that includes margaritas? Really, what’s not to like? My son and I had also spent many hours volunteering in the soup kitchen feeding the local homeless population there, so to have the ceremony in the same space seemed ideal.
The administration apparently didn’t hold it against us that Ezra held the distinction of being the only kid to ever refuse participation in the annual kindergarten Christmas pageant. It wasn’t because he objected to the message. My son didn’t want to wear his costume. He was assigned to be an angel and he wanted to be a shepherd. If you saw my round-faced, golden-locked cherubim at that age, you would have cast him as an angel. People used to stop us on the street and say, “Your kid would have gotten a lot of work in Michelangelo’s time.” He looked like he’d floated down from the roof of the Sistine chapel. Normally, I wouldn’t have indulged this kind of behavior, but before I had a chance to intervene, his teacher had negotiated a deal with him. As long as he agreed not to recruit other students to boycott along with him and faithfully (as it were) attend rehearsals, he could recuse himself from the performance. That he kept his end of the bargain exhibited a certain maturity that I had to admire. Even during the play, when I leaned over and whispered, “Don’t you miss singing with your friends?” he remained firm and stated, “I’m singing along in my head.” I had to give it to him.
The Bar Mitzvah went off with just a few minor glitches. The only accommodation the rabbi had requested was that any crucifixes be removed or covered during the ceremony, something the church officials were kind enough to agree to. It wasn’t until the service was underway that my husband and I noticed our goof. We’d inadvertently placed him and our son in front of glass windows perfectly framing them between the two life size statues of Jesus in the courtyard garden. Thankfully, no one pointed it out to him and I thought it made a gorgeous ecumenical triptych.
After the ceremony, as I prepared to say a few words, my son leaned over to me and issued a stern warning, “One wrong word and you could ruin my life forever.” I’ve been around long enough to know how to share the spotlight, so I said very little, instead giving the stage to my much-funnier-than-me husband. Plus, we had a surprise up our sleeves. Jeff’s dad was too ill to travel, so we’d arranged for Jeff’s post-college roommate, the brilliant actor Harry Lennix, star of the upcoming NBC series The Blacklist, to stand in and deliver Bob’s prepared remarks. The Internet has been filled with stories speculating that Harry might be the next James Bond, and I hope it happens; I can’t think of a better candidate than Harry. He’s tall, handsome, charismatic and, selfishly, I could always hold it over my kid’s head that we got James Bond to speak at his Bar Mitzvah.
I jumped up and down with happiness that day — so much so that I broke the heel of my Dolce and Gabbana shoe — but it was worth it, because I know that if my kid waits until he’s the age that I was to get married (36), I’ll be 71. I’ve got make the most of every celebratory event while I’m still ambulatory. In fact, many people have deemed my generation as helicopter parents; it’s often said that we’ve fetishized raising kids, but maybe we’re just trying to make the most of every moment because we suspect we might not be around to see our grandchildren. Our children are our grandchildren as well. I am hoping that the vitamin D supplements I’m mainlining are doing something positive for my long-term health, and, in the meantime, I’m going for the joy.
Read more about Annabelle Gurwitch here.
Annabelle Gurwitch is a Thurber Prize for American Humor Writing finalist and New York Times bestselling author of five books, most recently You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility (Counterpoint, now out in paperback) a New York Times’ Favorite Book About Healthy Living 2021 and a Good Morning America Must Read. She was the longtime host of Dinner & a Movie on TBS, a regular NPR contributor, and has written for The New Yorker, New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, and WSJ amongst other publications. She co-hosts the Tiny Victories podcast on the Maximum Fun Podcast Network.