Over the course of 10 days this month, one Toronto family (my husband’s cousin Nomi and her husband Adam) made the difficult but unavoidable decision to relocate their son Arlo’s bar mitzvah from Israel to their house and then online due to the rapidly changing circumstances around the spread of COVID-19. Postponing was not an option because Arlo had been preparing a specific parashah for over a year.
This dramatic shift in plans actually enabled my family (not scheduled to go to Israel) to participate in the simchah, along with some of the bar mitzvah boy’s close relatives recently facing medical challenges that forced the cancellation of their Israel trips, regardless of the coronavirus. Having a planned event (and a reason to change out of pajamas) was also a welcome respite to long, unstructured days as March Break became homebound void of playdates or museum outings.
As we logged onto Zoom for the Thursday morning service, I put out our kippah basket. We each plucked one from the colourful catalogue of simchahs past, flipping them over to read the names on the inside. A teal one from a bat mitzvah dated 1990, a grey suede yarmulke from my husband’s friends’ 2005 wedding. My step-daughter always selects the orange knit kippah from our wedding. Memories of those moments and people enter the room as we cover our heads. The basket also contains kippot from simchahs we never attended, salvaged from a drawer in my grandparents’ house when we mournfully divided their belongings. Sandra and Gordon married in 1987, presumably in Montreal. A souvenir from their nuptials joins the crumpled and folded archive of celebrations spanning three decades – a collection of friends, family and strangers crammed together in one small space.
By the dining room table, the four of us faced a large monitor relocated from my office. Another screen displayed the booklet that Nomi and Adam created for the service, beginning with a 1935 poem by Russian-Jewish writer Osip Mandelstam (persecuted and presumed murdered by Stalin’s regime) that speaks to persistence in restrictive times: “Having deprived me of seas, of running and flying away, / and allowing me only to walk upon the violent earth, / what have you achieved? A splendid result: / you could not stop my lips from moving.”
Cancelled flights, quarantined guests, but you could not stop his lips from moving. Arlo stood behind a make-shift shtender in his living room facing a computer and led a beautiful service, sharing a thoughtful dvar torah after chanting from a borrowed Torah. Huddled by the screen, we kvelled and watched Arlo and his family move through the service with love, grace, humour and elbow bumps – surrounded by little rectangles filled with images of relatives from over six countries and 22 cities (including St. John’s, Haifa, Düsseldorf, and Oaxaca). To limit interference, the family muted the sound from all computers. We heard them but they couldn’t hear us. Still, you could not stop our lips from moving. From the solitude of our home, we sang along and responded “amen” at the appointed times. We stood when they announced, “Please rise” – and the little boxes on our screen became filled with midriffs replacing the up-close, eager gazes peering out.
People are meant to be together. We are meant to congregate. In fact, Arlo’s parsha – Vayakhel – is about a gathering. It begins: “And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 35:1) Assembling is so central to Jewish tradition that it is mandated; certain practices are only possible with a minyan. On that Thursday, we numbered many more than the requisite quorum with over 60 devices joining the broadcast. Despite the strangeness of the setting, we entered the familiarity of the blessings and melodies. Despite the distance, we were brought closer to fellow Jews around the world – a collection of friends, family and strangers seemingly crammed together on one small screen.
Arlo’s bar mitzvah was a moving and certainly memorable experience. While an online ritual was an adaptation to an unusual reality, we were still connected – not just across geographies but reaching back in time, continuing enduring traditions at times practiced in difficult conditions at different moments in Jewish history.
Nomi and Adam promised to share Arlo’s custom kippot when exchanging objects returns to acceptability. It will join our kippa collection. And in the coming years, when we dig into the basket before lighting Shabbat candles, beginning a seder or making havdalah, we’ll remember when Arlo became a bar mitzvah and, with the aid of technology, we assembled as a congregation of the children of Israel.