The Wall Between Us
At his bar mitzvah, my son took his place in the men’s section of the shul—a place where mothers can’t go
Though it almost always rains on the Shabbat we read the Torah portion about Noah and the flood, we awoke on the morning of my son’s bar mitzvah to a gloriously blue, cloudless sky. The sun had blessed us, but a furious mingling of nerves and excitement unsettled my stomach nonetheless. After all, I had both awaited and feared this day since he was born.
We strode to shul as a family, the bar mitzvah boy together with my husband, our younger sons behind them. I fell back and walked alone into the women’s section after they settled on the men’s side. Before I knew it, my son was standing there at the amud, reading from the Torah. As his chanting made its way over to my side of the mechitzah, I felt the anguish that had lain dormant within me for years begin to bubble to the surface like scalding lava. This was his day, his simcha, a formal, public statement that marked the beginning of his Jewish manhood. But for me, his mother, it was undoubtedly an end.
I saw that fact mirrored clearly in the mechitzah itself, which rent my heart in two just as it did the sanctuary where we stood. Once an innocuous, architectural given of my Orthodox life, it had suddenly transformed into a rampart delineating a before and after in my relationship with my son. From that moment on, it would be unbreachable and we would stand on its opposite sides. While he leyned the story of Noah to the congregation, to me he recounted a more private, heart-wrenching tale: that of a son who had encamped in the world of men and had set off for his future.
I remembered the first Shabbat I brought him to shul, when he was just weeks old. I felt his perfectly timed breaths on my neck, and my davening that day teemed with such awe and gratitude that I never once looked over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of time in hot pursuit.
Before long, though, he was old enough to get restless in shul, leaving my side to make excursions to the men’s section of the sanctuary. His fleeting absences distracted me, but eventually he’d be back on the women’s side with his mother, eager to search the siddur for letters he recognized, longing to place his finger atop mine as I followed along with the ba’al tefilah. We were lost together in our shared focus on the words in front of us.
Reading, in fact, had tethered us one to another from the very start. I often read aloud when I was still pregnant with him, longing for him to know my voice as the one that would never fail him, secretly hoping the endeavor would secure his intellectual curiosity. Once he was born, I’d pacify him with the Seussian rhymes of Horton Hears a Who! when he cried. In no time, he grew big enough to pull stories off the shelf himself—many of them favorites from my own childhood—and beg me to read them in a constant loop until he could recite them word for word. We laughed together at Amelia Bedelia’s misunderstanding of household idioms and marveled at K’ton Ton’s tiny adventures. Through the less-venerated classic The Gas We Pass, he dulled my sense of disgust at body humor, desensitizing me in preparation for the parenting of a household of boys.
One spring, we took a train into the city, just the two of us. We snuggled together on the cushions in the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Jewish Museum and read In the Night Kitchen until closing time. We caught a case of the giggles that made me remember what matters and helped me—if only for that day—to forget everything else. On the train home, he fell asleep, his head on my shoulder, and I caught a glimpse of our shared reflection in the window. Yes, I knew better, but I naively allowed myself to believe that evening that this would last forever, that we would never meet on the battlefield of his adolescence, that he would always remain by my side.
Soon after that excursion, he began to read with ferocious independence—overnight, like the onset of a fever—though there was a brief window during which he would occasionally return to me with a story we could read in tandem. The last book of its kind was a yellowed, dog-eared copy of All-of-a-Kind Family. He found it on the shelf in our library, high up where I keep the titles I read myself as a little girl. When we closed the cover at the story’s end, I heard that chapter in our lives sigh its last sigh.
As more time passed, my son rarely sought even a recommendation. At my urging, however, he did read Little House in the Big Woods, before enjoying the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder oeuvre of his own volition. It was its realism, its historical hand print, that fascinated him, and he hardly cared that its heroine was a girl. On a family car trip to Mount Rushmore when he was 10, he alone joined me when we stopped for a tour of the Wilder homestead in De Smet, S.D. But that same summer, his reading was already exclusively of his own selection. I failed to pick up on the nuance, though, until he less subtly chose soccer, friends, and the hypnotic watching of professional football over anything that had to do with me. Not since I taught him to ride a bicycle without training wheels was I able to project forward so clearly to a time when our daily worlds would not be entirely engaged. Yet it had already come to pass, as if a soft wind had flicked the leaves off a tree in autumn—one by one, silently, until the branches were left bare. I had simply chosen not to see.
The last leaf fell to the ground on the morning of his bar mitzvah. As my son read from the Torah—a scroll from which I do not read—I realized that reading itself, the very thing that had long tethered us, is what finally severed our shared world in two. It seemed that the mechitzah, that wall of separation between the men and the women, between those who read from the Torah in our shul and those who do not, would be the defining symbol of this next leg of our individual journeys.
Soon after his bar mitzvah, he staged a literary rebellion, during which his reading habits mutated beyond recognition. Fiction, the last of our shared loves, was no longer deemed worth reading. He preferred sports journals and the daily paper to every tome I dangled in front of him. His individuating was entirely normal for a teenager, I knew, but it was still painful to bear.
This fall, two years after my son’s bar mitzvah, the annual cycle of Torah reading brought us, once again, to the Shabbat when we read Parashat Noach. Prodded by his father, my son agreed to be our shul’s ba’al koreh—literally, the master of reading—a meaningful way to mark a moment that had quickly receded into the past.
That Friday evening, as it poured outside, my son developed an unexpected curiosity about my recent reading. I feigned disinterest, silently jutting my chin out in the direction of the book pile on the coffee table. Perusing the titles, his eyes landed on a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
“Fiction?” he asked.
“No. Just an incredible story,” I replied gingerly.
Taking the book in his hands, he shrugged, said goodnight, and went to bed.
The next morning, I took my place among the women in shul. My son approached the amud, standing seven inches taller than he had at his bar mitzvah, his voice a full octave deeper. He once again read flawlessly, confidently, though not quite as ceremoniously as he did the first time around. I listened while I pondered the beauty of the ark’s construction, how its design carved out a designated place for everyone on board.
When he finished leyning, my son firmly shook the hands of the gabbaim who flanked him before turning to gaze at me over the mechitzah, just like he did on the day of his bar mitzvah.
Smiling, awaiting my approval, he was a man, but somehow—deep down and on his own terms—still my boy.
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