On Jan. 25, 1997, my oldest son, Zachary, became a bar mitzvah, a ceremony that inaugurated him into the Jewish community as a responsible young adult. It also catapulted me into the world of Jewish journalism as a family columnist.
Call it writing therapy. Call it black humor. Dealing with the bar mitzvah preparations -- from the trivial to the transcendent -- sent me scrambling for books explaining the ritual's history and meaning. I found myself jotting down notes and thoughts, wondering why we so warmly and lavishly welcomed these hormonally challenged teenagers into our community instead of sending them on extended solo vision quests like our Native American brethren. And why -- just because the bar mitzvah fell on Super Bowl weekend -- we needed to have two-foot-high glitter-covered plasterboard football players as centerpieces.
On the one hand, I was awed by the knowledge that when Zack read from the Book of Exodus (Parshat Beshalach) about Pharaoh's soldiers pursuing the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt, every congregation in the Jewish world would be reading that same passage. Zack, standing on the cusp of Jewish adulthood, would become spiritually connected to them, to his grandparents and great-grandparents and to his 5,000-year heritage.
On the other hand, I was overwhelmed by the myriad mundane details -- who do I invite, who do I have to invite, where do I seat them, what do I wear and how many maracas and blow-up saxophones must I purchase? And I was almost paralyzed by the major issues: Why are we doing this? Do we have the strength and the finances to repeat this three more times for Zack's younger brothers?
I began my research. I learned that Moses, who had a speech impediment, never had to embarrass himself in front of his adolescent pals. I also learned -- and felt validated by the fact -- that the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law, actually commands the father to host a festive meal in honor of his son. Most important, I learned that I could combine the history of the bar mitzvah with my own angst and amazement, some comments by my sons and husband, description of family activities, humor and -- voila --a column was born.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), an international Jewish news service headquartered in New York, accepted the story, launching my career as a personal chronicler of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events. Like some Jewish alchemist, I could magically convert the chaos and confusion of my life as the seemingly deranged mother of four sons into edited copy that captured those few transcendent moments and made our family life look organized, purposeful and, yes, Jewish.
For almost a decade, writing for The Jewish Journal as well as JTA, I have circled and re-circled the Jewish calendar, from Rosh Hashanah to Tisha B'Av, writing about the history, rituals and personal experiences of the Jewish holidays. I have passed through multiple life-cycle events, from birth to bar mitzvah to burial. I have also taken a look at some secular holidays, such as Mother's Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and some secular issues, such as vegetarianism, gun control and family dinners. Always, I have looked at these subjects through Jewish eyes or, more precisely, through many pairs of Jewish eyes since consensus among Jews is rare -- a boon for a journalist since, for even the quirkiest story, there's invariably a venerated resource to quote.
Writing has always been important to me. It's given me a means to record and try to comprehend the world around me. I don't videotape. I don't scrapbook, but I have boxes of journals stashed away and file cabinets filled with fiction and nonfiction in various stages of completion -- and quality.
Writing as a Jewish columnist originally provided me with a "hook" for my articles, and the concomitant research served as a pleasant way to compensate for my less-than- adequate 1950s Reform religious school education. But quickly I realized it wasn't the article that was hooked; it was I who was hooked as a strongly identified Jew, as someone rooted in and morally guided by Judaism's multimillennial way of viewing, participating in and repairing the world.
Over the years, I have survived not one but four bar mitzvahs and moved on to high school and even college graduations. I still continue to write occasional columns, despite the protestations of my sons, now 22, 19, 17 and 15, who claim, "I'm too old to be quoted in your articles." But I have also moved on to more reportorial articles in which I hope to now and again make a difference or affect a discussion. And where I can continue to write about the Jewish issues and Jewish subjects that I deeply value. l
Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.