Canva

Passing Down the Scroll

What traditions young people choose to keep, and what they leave behind

“Atem nitzavim hayom—You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d . . .

 

ASCENDING THE MAROON-CARPETED steps, I took a deep, steadying breath. I’d swapped my baby grunge thrift-store flannels for a white skirt suit, itchy stockings, and pumps that made my feet wobble. My ears stuck out from my wispy ash-blonde hair; my voice was reedy, but mostly in key.

Though it’s been thirty years, I still have those verses mostly memorized. I still recall the click and whir of the cassette tape being flipped over countless times in my boombox that spring and summer as I prepared. 

On the Jewish calendar, I was born at the midpoint of the Ten Days of Awe, suspended between Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This accident of birth handed me a particularly weighty parsha, or Torah portion, to learn and chant when I became a bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen. 

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life—so that you and your children may live—

The same verses are repeated during the traditional Yom Kippur service, and for a few years after my bat mitzvah, I was invited to chant it again in front of my childhood congregation on this holiest day. That was when I first felt that my coming of age had meaning; it made me of some service to the community. 

Bar mitzvah literally means “son of the commandments.” The ritual marks a Jewish boy’s coming of age. This traditionally means they take on the full responsibility of Jewish law, and demonstrate their learning by being called to read the Torah. The ceremony and its rituals, of course, keep evolving. The first bat mitzvah for a Jewish girl was held just over a century ago, and the practice is now commonplace in the more liberal denominations of the religion

Here in 2024, my family hardly swallows Jewish law whole. We mix wool and linen freely in our house, use electricity on the Sabbath, and many of our loved ones lie down with men as they would with a woman. Still, as a mother, and someone who writes and thinks about parenting, I’ve grown to appreciate the bar/bat mitzvah more over time. 

Mainstream American culture lacks rites of passage, especially around the time of puberty. Teenagers, without a public and positive alternative, tend to explore their drive for independence furtively, often by taking risks with peers. More and more, they do so in dark online alleys. The bar/bat mitzvah, as cluttered with materialism and hoopla as it can be, remains defiantly analog. Our Western country’s culture places a lot of emphasis on individual achievement, but this day is about belonging to each other. And responsibility to a community, as much as independence. 

We guide our children to sacred texts, full of ethical gems, startling images, and enduring mysteries. We exhort them to understand what’s being asked of them, and then try it on for themselves. 

As they approached their coming of age, our firstborn was coming into their own in more than one way. Sometime after they turned eleven, L. shortened their hair and their name, and requested “any” pronouns. They dressed differently than before, in thrifted trousers and vests and oxford-cloth shirts layered under camel-hair topcoats. I found them dead chic. They were now headed for somewhere between bar and bat.

Everyone rolled with it. My beloved eighty-year-old aunt visited from Maryland and took them to menswear stores to find an ornate patterned button-down shirt for the big day, one that fit their new aesthetic perfectly. Our community, Lab/Shul, was the perfect home for all of this, focusing on personal and creative interpretations of the Torah, as well as on social justice and inclusivity. Not to mention singing and celebration. Plus, the rabbi is queer, and L.’s tutor used “she/they” pronouns too. I couldn’t wait for the rest of the family to see how my child was emerging.

Then October 7 happened.

Someone in my community was killed by Hamas on the 7th. Another acquaintance lost multiple family members to Israeli bombs in Gaza. Children are dying by the thousands at the hands of Jewish generals, paid for with American money. Anti-Semitism is on the rise globally, and I am seeing the Jewish community—families, friends—bitterly torn apart in a way I’ve never experienced in my lifetime. 

It suddenly became a very hard time to invite our beloved child into a public celebration of any kind, let alone a Jewish one. Part of me wanted to shield my child from our heritage. I kept thinking, Do we really need to pass all of this down? Is it going to be more of a burden than a blessing? 

 

BUT WHEN THE DAY finally came, I stood on the bimah (platform) next to my husband and our parents, as we passed the Torah scroll slowly from one person’s arms to the next, and finally to our twelve-year-old.

Arms open to receive, I felt like I was entering a portal, stepping into the same timeless moment that contained my own birth, my own bat mitzvah, wedding, and the birth of my children. A moment of connection that extended forward, through generations of births and deaths, to an unknown future.

There might have been actual psychedelics in the air. Lab/Shul doesn’t have an address. So instead of a suburban synagogue, we had rented a fabulous, everybody-welcome nightclub in Bushwick called House of Yes for the service and party. An artistic projectionist who usually works with circus artists created a glowing backdrop, with my kid’s adorable baby face appearing in the center of geometric flowers. The bouquets matched that dark floral shirt their great-aunt bought them. 

The weekly portion of the Torah L. had landed on was as momentous as my own had been: Shemot, where the burning bush appears to Moses. 

God is there to tell Moses that he needs to go to the pharaoh and demand he free his people.

Moses balks. Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

This reminded L. of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which they learned about in Social Studies last year. Specifically, the hero’s “call to adventure,” which is followed by “the refusal of the call.” 

For months, they wouldn’t show me or their dad what they were writing. They consulted with their tutor over Zoom with the bedroom door shut. When they finally needed our help with last-minute edits, we found out they had decided to explore this question: 

Imagine climate change as the burning bush of these times. Why do we refuse the call, and how can we overcome that resistance?

When it was time to speak, L. stooped a little at first, unaccustomed to the several inches they’ve added in the past year, and shifted from foot to foot. They started out rushing. In my seat, I made unconscious smoothing gestures like a conductor: legato, adagio—smoother, slower, please. Gradually, they hit their stride. 

Here’s an excerpt from their d’var Torah. 

We, like Moses, have been born into a world with a problem. We, like Moses, have gotten used to it. We may even have benefited from the problem—at least in the short term. And our attempts to fix this problem are halfhearted at best. Until one day we are reminded.

The burning bush is a wake-up call for Moses.

What do you think of when I yell FIRE!? That word can mean a lot of things, but in our world the most obvious meaning is danger. So, the question is: What is that fire? What is that danger?

What I was thinking about when I read this is climate change, global warming. My generation, and also the one before, were brought into a world with rising temperatures as a problem. Most of us have been educated or at least made aware of this. Somehow, we’ve accepted this as reality. That we are destroying the world we live in. That soon enough, we’ll kill ourselves off. It seems obvious that something needs to be done, right? So, what gets in the way?

Remember, Moses doesn’t accept the bush’s assignment immediately. Something is holding him back. 

We too may have things holding us back from doing what we need to do. What are those things? 

[Audience responses: we’re too busy; self-doubt, feeling inadequate; someone else would be better at it; fear of failure . . .]

Moses is scared. He hides his face from God. He does not want to shoulder the responsibility of saving his people, and even more, he does not want the blame if he fails. So, he comes up with an excuse—that he is inferior and incapable. 

He thinks, Why should I have to be the one to put this fire out? Can’t this superpowered divine being do it instead? Can’t the fire department? It’s not even my fault that there’s a fire. I am unqualified. I can’t make a difference anyway. Make someone else do it instead. Have someone else accept responsibility. 

That’s the thought process that I think Moses goes through.

So how does Moses reassure himself that he is capable?

I think the first step is to realize that you don’t have as much of a choice as you think you do.

Just in case you didn’t hear me the first time, I’m going to say this again: I need you to realize that you don’t really have as much of a choice as you think.

Scary, right? For Moses, there’s a high chance that God will punish him if he doesn’t agree to talk with Pharaoh. For us, our fire is very much actual. Fires, floods, droughts, famines, rising oceans–need I go on? Many people have died. Will die. Are dying. We have nowhere else to go if climate change isn’t fixed—sorry, Elon—and time is running short. Action is required, whether or not we like it.

So, in some ways, it’s a relief because your feelings of self-consciousness or inadequacy are actually irrelevant. The only thing that qualifies anyone who sees a fire to yell FIRE!! is that they have vocal cords. It doesn’t matter who you are or how good you are at giving a speech; it matters that you noticed that the bush is on fire! You don’t need to be capable; you just need to be there. Hineni—I am here.

 

IN THESE TIMES, it can feel like all of our joys are tempered. In these times, it can feel hard to know how much reality our kids are ready for, or how to prepare them, and if we even can. 

In the end, we trusted the process handed down by our ancestors, which is to surround our children with care, and teach them not to accept our answers, but to love the questions. We pray they take what they can use from the past and leave behind what they can’t. We shine a light on them, even as we take steps back so they can stand up and sayI am here. 

Anya Kamenetz is a journalist, author, and climate advocate who writes the Substack The Golden Hour, from which this is adapted.