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This Would Have Been the Time of My Firstborn's Bar Mitzvah
By Meredith E. Friedman
To me, Rosh Hashanah has always been a holiday about hope -- hope for a sweet new year. When my water broke during a Rosh Hashanah luncheon, hope and excitement filled the air. Jonah would be the first grandchild on my family's side and, for my in-laws, their only son's first son. No one knew, not even me whose body he'd inhabited for nine months, that 24 hours later my baby would emerge quiet and still with the umbilical cord tangled around him.
I'd known grief and struggle before, but never had I experienced or imagined anything like my son's life ending just as it was beginning. Lying in a darkened room hours after we buried him, I turned my tear-stained face towards my husband, Josh, and whispered, "There will be no Bar Mitzvah."
I had no idea then how I would get through the next day, let alone the subsequent 13 years.
But I did.
It has been said that losing a child is like losing the future. Last year, I found myself standing in that future wishing I could look into Jonah's eyes on his Bar Mitzvah day. I would have declared my love for him, my awe of his accomplishments, my hopes for his future. I would have relayed how he was lovingly named in memory of his maternal great-grandfather, Jack, and his paternal great-grandmother, Esther. And I would have spoken of the wonderful family members and friends who had gathered to share this proud day and those whom I wished had lived to witness it.
The morning of the 13th anniversary of Jonah's Hebrew birth and death fell on a Saturday -- Shabbat "Shuvah" or "return." I almost didn't return to synagogue to meet Josh and our two children who had already left, but Jonah's name would be spoken as one of the remembered beloved. There is something so powerful about hearing his name, especially since I have shielded his existence from people who did not know me then. Not because I want to keep him a secret, but rather, as the Roman philosopher Seneca once said, "Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb."
When I arrived at the main doors, my precious 8-year-old daughter, Orli, ran out with her arms open to embrace me.
"Mommy, I was waiting for you. Were you crying?" she asked.
I said, "Yes, but now I feel much better." Holding Orli made it true.
Hand in hand, we entered the sanctuary. Before we could sneak into seats, Josh rose and whispered, "Don't sit down. We've been given an aliyah ... for the yahrzeit."
My legs shook. How could it be that I was about to chant the blessings that I would have recited if today had been Jonah's Bar Mitzvah?
As we approached the Torah, I wondered if some invisible beam connected us to Jonah. His younger brother, Solomon, believes that Jonah was having a Bar Mitzvah in heaven surrounded by his great grandparents, grandmother and uncle. I hoped that, if so, our prayers reached his celestial ceremony.
There was a Bar Mitzvah that Shabbat at our synagogue, so we stepped aside to make room for the Bar Mitzvah boy's parents. Standing alongside the lectern, for a moment, I pretended that the young voice chanting the Torah that Shabbat was Jonah's voice, that the hand holding the yad was Jonah's hand.
As we descended the bimah, a congregant who is a Holocaust survivor extended her hand to us. It seemed so fitting that she congratulated us first. She had endured unimaginable loss and learned to live on.
When we returned to our seats, I wondered what aspects of Solomon's and Orli's personalities would have overlapped with Jonah's. Would Jonah share Solomon's passion for animals and birds or Orli's sense of humor? I'll never know. But I'll always know how fortunate I am to have Solomon and Orli, and knowing that Jonah exists somewhere within them comforts me.
At the end of the service, the rabbi read Jonah's name and we recited Kaddish. Although Jonah will never have the Bar Mitzvah I envisioned for him, I hope that he had the one his brother imagined. I know that on every Rosh Hashanah, I will continue to imagine the son Jonah may have been and to hope and pray that I will be the mother he, Solomon and Orli deserve.
Meredith E. Friedman, a member of Har Zion Temple, is the human resources director at a nonprofit agency in Plymouth Meeting.