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Jewish Journal

How Can We Celebrate Now?

by Wendy Belzberg

October 11, 2001 | 8:00 pm

It is hard to look. My insides ache for the boy whose father never came home, for the office workers who watched men and women plunge to their deaths and for the little girl -- now homeless -- whose doll collection is buried under mountains of dust. It is so hard to look at this new world. I find momentary comfort in my son's wish to give his toys to children who have nothing left. I wonder how my 6-year-old can understand so much when a 13-year-old expresses anger and disappointment at the disruption of his planned bar mitzvah ceremony and party.

My nephew had been preparing his Torah portion for months when a bomb went off in the Sbarro Pizza shop in Jerusalem. The mood changed overnight. No one wanted to fly to Israel, certainly not to celebrate. The fear was as much for the innocence of the group as it was for its safety. Parents worried that their adolescent children would witness something from which they would never recover.

The date and location changed, as did the Torah portion. And so my nephew began to learn a second Haftorah, this time with only weeks to prepare. New invitations were sent out. Daniel was to be called to the Torah in New York City on Sept. 15.

Jewish Law may define our 13-year-old sons and daughters as adults, old enough to observe the mitzvot, to fast on Yom Kippur and to be called to the Torah, but any parent of a bar mitzvah knows that the mere coming of age does not transform a boy into a man. And, as I learned on Sept. 11, standing just miles from Ground Zero, no matter how old you are, there can be no preparation for such an awakening.

I spent hours trying to make sense of my life in context of the bombing itself. Any sense. There is no logic, no path to follow, no leap to take. I am enveloped by a sense of dread. I fear going across town in case a bomb strikes, and I am separated from my children by Central Park. I fear the sound of sirens, any siren, one siren in the streets and what disaster -- once imaginary and now all too real -- it might signal. And above all, I cannot articulate how one day, one hour, has changed me so immutably, or ascribe meaning to the mundane activities that once occupied my days. With 5,000 people missing, how would I go about dressing my two young sons, suddenly at risk of being blasted into adulthood, to celebrate a more traditional route to the same end?

But Daniel's bar mitzvah had been canceled once before. And so his parents say "yes" to the bar mitzvah, but "no" to the party. Daniel protests and pouts. His is a different kind of loss; his memories of his bar mitzvah, of the first time he is called to the Torah, will be forever intertwined with the destruction of New York's skyline.

The phone does not stop ringing: parents afraid to leave their children alone, children afraid to leave their parents, families afraid to drive across town. It is too soon. No one is ready to celebrate, no one can even pretend. The venue changes from a large auditorium to an intimate room that holds less than half the number of people originally expected. The rabbi speaks of the men and women lost, and the entire congregation stands to chant the mourner's "Kaddish." The parents of the bar mitzvah thank those who come for venturing out; Daniel delivers a speech that could have only been written in the past 36 hours. The bar-mitzvah boy is only briefly the center of attention. During the luncheon that follows, the talk is of death and near death.

I know that, as a New Yorker, I am playing catch-up to the residents of Oklahoma City, Bogota and Jerusalem. When bombs exploded in those cities I paused, but I did not stop; I rode the train, went to the post office, met friends at a bar. I know that in other parts of the country my new sentiment may be foreign. I wonder if it takes a bomb in one's own backyard before one can experience the terror and the vulnerability. I suspect it does.

Three weeks after my nephew's bar mitzvah, my husband and I load our car and drive to Boston for the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a close friend. The foliage has transformed the countryside and transported us, however temporarily, to a world where beauty still exists. The rabbi welcomes the congregation and the invited guests. I find it almost profane that he does not mention the bombing or the lost lives in his opening remarks. Is it possible that in such a short time the world has begun to allow the trivial to be important again? Or am I wrong? Perhaps there is nothing trivial about bar or bat mitzvahs, or about any of the rituals of our daily lives. The singing and the cries of Mazal Tov sweep me up when the Havdalah service ends. The party follows, and I watch the dancing with joy and wonder.

Every night, after my children have fallen asleep and the house is still, I try not to think about the horrors my family -- every family -- has witnessed. Each night since the bombing I have put my children to bed and recited with them the "Shema," as if nothing has changed in the world. I don't want my children to know that I have gone from feeling safe in my home to feeling vulnerable; from wondering how their talents and lives will unfold, to wondering not how they will be called to the Torah, but if they will. Overnight, I went from being my children's protector to being a mother who failed to shield her children from danger, destruction and devastation.

The ground has shifted. But as I shop for a bar-mitzvah gift for my nephew, I am also aware that life, in all of its mundane splendor, goes on.

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