The Bat Mitzvah
At the bus stop before school, Moushumi learned from Becky that Jewish girls were thrown a special party called a bat mitzvah for their thirteenth birthdays. Becky’s older sister, who was in college now, had a wonderful bat mitzvah, before their mother got sick. Becky’s father and sister had managed to cobble together a much smaller affair for Becky. They almost weren’t going to throw her a bat mitzvah, but now maybe they were. Moushumi was having trouble following Becky’s story. Was she or was she not going to have a thirteenth birthday party?
At last, Becky’s conclusion was clear. “Will you come to my bat mitzvah? I thought you would be interested.”
“I am. I’m very interested,” Moushumi said.
“You’re my only non-Jewish friend who is interested in Jewish people.” It was true that in the last few months, Moushumi had watched Fiddler on the Roof with Mrs. Chakraborty and read the diary of Anne Frank, as well as the All of a Kind family series that Becky had loaned her. She was touched that Becky wanted to share her thirteenth birthday and her Jewish culture with her.
Moushumi would not turn thirteen until July 6th. She wanted to do something special for it, and invite Becky to the celebration, but there was no one who could help Moushumi plan her celebration. Her mother was never coming back from India, that was obvious now, and her father didn’t care about birthdays. He once said he didn’t believe in celebrating something so factual as the day of your birth. It was too much to ask the Chakrabortys to throw her a party. They were already kind enough to take her in, and Buri’s sweet sixteen was coming up, and they were not her parents, and Buri was not her sister, so the long and short of it was that Moushumi’s thirteenth birthday would probably pass without fanfare.
The bat mitzvah was held on a Saturday morning. Moushumi wore her Jessica McClintock gunne sax dress and tied a bow in her hair. Maybe Becky would think she looked like Ella from All-of-a-Kind family. Since Buri now had her learner’s permit, she drove with Chakraborty Kaku sitting in the front passenger seat, and dropped Moushumi off in front of the synagogue. They would be back after Buri’s driving lesson to take her to the lunch reception at Becky’s house.
She felt nervous going into the synagogue by herself. She didn’t know any of the customs. Moushumi had little experience with religious rituals. On a few occasions, her family went to Manhattan for Durga Puja, which was usually held in a school or community building. All Moushumi remembered about Durga Puja was that it was loud, hot, and crowded. The kids all ran around on their own while the adults watched the priest perform a ceremony in the cafeteria or gymnasium. Moushumi was expected to join the other kids, whom she did not know, but she would always sneak back into the cafeteria to look for her parents. The image of the idol, the goddess Durga with her many arms, made Moushumi slightly uncomfortable. Since second grade she’d been worried about going to hell for not celebrating Christmas. When at last it was confirmed, at Moushumi’s first Durga Puja, that in her religion they worshipped a lady with many arms instead of Jesus, she was terrified. “We are going to hell,” she thought. But her father explained to her that there was no heaven or hell, that all of these were just stories you believed depending on where you were born. This was a comfort to Moushumi, though not enough to make her embrace the Hindu gods and goddesses. It wasn’t anything in particular against Hinduism. Pictures of ghostly Jesus also frightened her. His eyes haunted her, daring her to deny that he was all that stood between her and eternal damnation. Sometimes at night, she imagined his terrible eyes watching her.
The inside of the synagogue was modern and spacious. It looked like a large auditorium. She was handed a prayer book, which she carried to a seat in the back row. The rabbi, wearing a cap and shawl, came to an altar and welcomed everyone. Becky and family — her father, mother, and sister — were sitting on the stage, her mother in a wheelchair. She was very thin, with a beautiful blue scarf wrapped around her head. She didn’t appear to have any hair.
The ceremony began with a song. The rabbi did a good job of explaining everything, always giving page numbers so that they could follow along in their prayer books. The audience only had to sing a la la la part, which they did quietly. After the song, Becky went up to the podium and read a prayer in English. “May I love God above all, and my neighbor as myself.” Then her father and sister stood up and pushed her mother’s wheelchair next to the podium. Becky continued to say something in Hebrew, then moved over to stand between her mother and father as they held open a long cloth. They draped the cloth over Becky’s shoulders. Her father kissed her cheek. Then Becky knelt down so that her mother could kiss her too. The rabbi presented her with a golden cap to pin to the top of her head, and then the ceremony continued with more prayers and songs in English and Hebrew.
A quiet moment came when the rabbi took a large scroll called the Torah out of a special cabinet. It was almost as tall as Becky. She held it while the rabbi explained that the Torah contained the teachings of God through Moses. Moushumi thought it must have been thousands of years old and very valuable. Then a procession began in which Becky walked the Torah around the auditorium while everyone sang to her. After she returned to the stage, the Torah was laid out on the altar and Becky read from a little Torah, which looked just like a regular book. Becky read in Hebrew, her voice dipping up and down almost in song. Moushumi was impressed with Becky’s Hebrew. She had no idea that Becky could speak another language.
Becky gave a speech in English about the lesson she learned from one of the Jewish stories. She chose the story of Noah, a story from the bible that even Moushumi knew, and talked about the lesson of not only saving yourself during a tragedy, but saving all of God’s creatures around you. She talked personally about the tragedy of her mother’s illness and using it as an opportunity to help her mother, father, and sister and to think about the needs of others. Instead of being angry with God for making her mother sick, all this helped her love and serve God better.
After her speech, her father, sister, and mother gave their blessings. Her father said she should never change, that she should remain the strong, kind, generous girl she’d always been. Her sister made everyone laugh, saying how unhappy she was when she learned she was going to have a little sister, but how happy she was now to have one, with some general words of advice about being willing to ask for support and for help, how this was not a weakness but a strength. Her mother was the last to confer her blessings. In a soft voice, she told Becky to never forget that family and love was everywhere, not to ever look to only one person to provide it, even if nothing could replace her mother’s love. Her mother said she would always love her, even if she couldn’t be here to show her. This was astonishing to Moushumi, not only the words but the openness with which everyone was sharing their emotions. She could not imagine her own family participating in anything like this, even if it had been a part of their culture, which as far as she knew, it wasn’t. Maybe Jewish people had to be that way with each other, because they had been through such hard times. Sort of like how Black people had such expressive music. Maybe Indian people, or at least the Bengalis like her family, had not had any terrible things happen to them and had little to be emotional about. If so, she had come from very lucky people. Still, what would her mother have said if she were forced to publicly and ceremoniously compliment her? Moushumi couldn’t think of anything. Obviously, there was nothing she liked about Moushumi enough to stick around. What would her father say? He’d probably tell everyone how Moushumi didn’t feel sorry for herself even when her mother left, and this would be more embarrassing than encouraging.
At the end, Becky helped to wrap the valuable Torah and put it back in the special cabinet. Some more people came onto the stage, including a lady with a guitar, and they sang a festive song with clapping. Her father thanked everyone for coming for the abbreviated ceremony, which he explained they had managed to pull together despite their recent challenges. He invited everyone to the buffet lunch at their house.
As people went up to the stage to congratulate Becky, Moushumi escaped to the parking lot to find Chakraborty Kaku’s car. Buri was sitting at the driver’s seat, her fingers tapping the steering wheel. “Can you wait a little while?” Moushumi asked. “I don’t want to be the first one there.”
“Why don’t I just drive home and you can walk to her house? She lives in the neighborhood, doesn’t she?”
“Can’t you just wait five minutes?” Moushumi complained.
“Learn to be patient, Buri,” Kaku said. “Mou, you enjoyed this Jewish ceremony?”
“It was very interesting. The prayers were in Hebrew.”
“Mmmmm. The Jewish religion is very old, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes it must be. I don’t think I want to go to the lunch actually. Her mom is really sick. I don’t think she can handle much more excitement. Everyone looks really tired.”
“Do you want to go or not?” Buri asked.
“My stomach hurts.” Moushumi didn’t know what was wrong with her suddenly. She felt queasy and out of sorts.
“Well it’s not like they’re canceling the lunch. It will be rude if you don’t go.”
“Are you feeling vomit?” Kaku asked.
“No, I suppose it’s not that bad.”
She saw Becky come out of the synagogue with her mother and sister. Her father had pulled up to the curb with the car. Becky and her sister helped her mother get out of the wheelchair and into the backseat. Suddenly Moushumi felt like crying. It seemed she had not learned any of the lessons of strength and resilience that Becky’s bat mitzvah was supposed to teach her. It was so unfair for Becky’s mother to be so sick. Would she ever get better? Who would take care of Becky if her mother didn’t recover? Would her sister have to quit college? Would her father have to hire a nanny? Moushumi was so worried about Becky’s family, she was sure it would show on her face.
In the meantime, Buri had learned to be patient. Once most of the cars had streamed out of the parking lot, she pulled out slowly and followed the caravan. Only once did Kaku yell at her to slow down.
Becky’s sister was in the foyer greeting everyone and directing them to the back where the food was. A round table by the staircase was piling up with gifts that were wrapped like birthday presents. Moushumi was embarrassed just holding an envelope, but she had followed the instructions on the invitation card, which said to make a donation to the American Cancer Society in lieu of gifts. When she asked her father to write a check, she could tell it was a lot to ask. He wrote a check for $25.
Becky was sitting in the living room with her parents, surrounded by a lot of adults. Most of the younger people were gathered around the kitchen table, which was covered with bagels, smoked salmon, cream cheese, slices of tomatoes, red onions, lemons, and little green berries called capers. Moushumi put half a bagel on her plate and copied the person in front of her, spreading cream cheese all over it, putting a slice of salmon on it, then a slice of onion, and a pile of capers on top. She sat down with some of the other kids in the den. Some of them were cousins from Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey, and some were friends from the synagogue. Moushumi concentrated on her bagel, which was chewy and salty. The salmon felt smooth in her mouth. It tasted a little like butter and a little like fish. It was maybe the strangest delicious thing she’d ever eaten.
After she finished her bagel, she went to the kitchen to throw her empty plate away when Becky caught sight of her from the living room and called her name. Her mother was sitting next to her on the couch. Moushumi wondered what she would say as she walked up to them. Up close, she could see that Becky looked like her mother. They had the same smile. Her mother reached out and took Moushumi’s hand. Her fingers were bony and light. She looked intently into Moushumi’s eyes, as if she’d seen her somewhere before.
“Becky has told me so much about you. Come and sit.” She asked someone to bring a chair for Moushumi and place it there next to them. All the while, she never let go of Moushumi’s hand. Her other hand was holding on to Becky’s. “See how we’re connected?” her mother said. “Like a chain.”
Becky looked embarrassed. “Did you try a bagel?” she asked Moushumi.
“Yes, thank you. It was delicious.”
“Did you think it was going to be sweet like a donut?” Becky asked.
“I didn’t think of that.”
Her mother explained. “When Becky was little, she always got bagels and donuts mixed up.”
“Oh, right, because of the hole,” Moushumi said.
Her mother wanted to go back to talking about their chain. “Do you feel the energy flowing through us?”
“I’m so happy that God has brought you girls together. From everything Becky has told me, I don’t think it can be a coincidence.”
Becky blushed. “Mom!”
“Just let me say this. We don’t hide anything from Becky. We’re trying to prepare her, you know, but still when it happens, she’s going to need her friends. And you’ll understand a little bit already. She’ll be able to talk to you.”
“Of course,” Moushumi said. “She can always talk to me.” Actually, Moushumi didn’t know what Becky’s mother could have meant. Her mother didn’t die, after all. She just went away. How could Moushumi know what to say to Becky about death? Death was forever.
“You girls must never lose each other. Because it’s God that brought you together, you understand? When you graduate from high school or get married, I want to look down and see you two together, okay?”
Suddenly, Becky's mother let go of their hands and broke the chain. She doubled over, clutching her stomach. Immediately Becky called out to her father, who appeared quickly and carried her mother out. The other adults also left one by one, to help clean up or get their kids ready to go. Moushumi and Becky sat together a little longer. Neither of them spoke, which felt fine, until Becky's sister came looking for her.
“I guess I should be getting home,” Moushumi said. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“Next time you come, I can show you my room.” They walked together to the front door. “See you Monday.”
Becky walked a little further with Moushumi, out the door and down the stoop.
“Sorry about my mom. She used to be a kindergarten teacher.”
Moushumi wanted to give Becky a hug, but she didn’t know how. She was out of the habit of hugging anyone, much less someone she wasn’t related to. “Happy Bat Mitzvah, again. See you Monday.”
Moushumi walked home slowly, thinking about what an unusual and memorable day it had been. The Jewish people certainly took growing up very seriously. She realized with some regret that she had not made any promises to Becky’s mother. She was about to before the grip of their hands went limp. Maybe she ought to write them a thank you note, for including her in their celebration, and there she could promise to be Becky’s friend for all time.
What if when your mother leaves, you stop growing up? This idea felt real to Moushumi as she walked back to the house where her parents didn’t live. She couldn’t imagine that she would have a thirteenth birthday, a bat mitzvah of her own. She could only imagine that she would remain like this, twelve years old, for the rest of her life.
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