Growing up and saying sorry
Somehow it only took two weeks away at summer camp, but I didn’t notice the change until my parents visited and were visibly shocked. My first kiss wouldn’t come until later that year, and I hadn’t started dying my hair yet. I was concerned about the environment but I wouldn’t begin my real political awakening until later in middle school, after 9/11 and several Rage Against the Machine albums. I had always been tall, hitting 5-foot-3 in fourth grade and declaring I was tall enough for the NBA because I was the same height as Muggsy Bogues. I was still sporting a round face, dandruff and acne, and it wasn’t until I opened my mouth that my mother’s disappointment set in. My voice had dropped. What my mom still describes as a beautiful singing voice had given way to deeper tones, and like many people, the transition was filled with voice cracks that seemed to be perfectly timed for peak embarrassment. Better yet, my bar mitzvah was coming up first thing in the fall. The only thing I remember well about the rite of passage was how uncontrollably my right leg was shaking as I gripped the podium with both hands, reading along mostly as back-up for my memorized Torah portion and subsequent speech. Decorated with clip-art images that I had probably added as an excuse to procrastinate while writing it, my speech explained what I had been reading and chanting about in my new voice. It’s customary to read the Torah from beginning to end each year, so my assigned portion was a matter of lottery. I lucked out, getting to deliver a short speech on the importance of caring for the poor and oppressed, a speech that I still have a copy of and was surprisingly eloquent for someone who was excited to write a paper about Limp Bizkit later that school year. Cory Ravelson and I shared Sept. 16 as our day to become adults, as the tradition says, but the only new rights I received was the power to decide whether I wanted to continue going to temple. After being forced — yes, I mounted a serious resistance — to go to Sunday school, then Hebrew school twice a week and eventually private meetings with a rabbi before my big day, I was eager to call it quits. Being brought up Jewish never felt like indoctrination; my parents were ambivalent about God and seemed most concerned with exposing me to my heritage and Jewish values. While I resented being required to have a bar mitzvah and participate in other religious events — like when I wasn’t allowed to see Against Me! because they played on Passover — the experiences left me with more than a craving for matzo-ball soup. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, falls on the anniversary of my bar mitzvah, but I’ve always been more interested in the concept behind its sister holiday soon after, Yom Kippur. Designed as a day to reflect on the previous year, Jews are supposed to take time to apologize for their mistakes and make up for their wrongs. It wasn’t until I was older and voluntarily disengaged with institutionalized Judaism that the holiday meant anything to me. When I was a kid it was just a chance to dip apples in honey and swim in a relative’s pool. I try to learn from my mistakes as I make them, but there’s no harm in taking a full day to intentionally examine your behavior and try to become a better person, and sometimes it’s necessary to see the larger picture to identify patterns. I have apologized in fights with friends and partners even when I felt like I didn’t do anything wrong, because sometimes it’s the easiest way out, but often it is a challenge to realize when you’ve made a mistake and admit to your faults. Looking back over the last year I can think of numerous things I regret and want to learn from, some that I’ve apologized for and others I haven’t. I can rattle off a list of times I acted selfishly, didn’t communicate well, wasn’t there for people when I should have been, caught myself reinforcing oppressive systems and said hurtful things behind people’s backs and to their faces. For those who I haven’t apologized to yet, this is a chance to keep my errors from slipping into the abyss. I’ve never interpreted Judaism strictly, instead pulling out the parts that are most important to me but still claiming my heritage overall, always wearing a silver Star of David around my neck and planning to get a tattoo in Hebrew. This September, I’ll be remembering myself standing on the bimah in the suit that I can still almost fit into and analyzing the ways I can be a better person than I was last year.