Sunday, June 14, 2015

Bar Mitzvah in Boulder a Rocky Mountain high

Snow-capped peaks, crystal-clear lake at RMNP.
I was out west recently, in and around Boulder mostly, for a fun and festive weekend. The focus of the trip can pretty much be summed up with a joke. Four middle-aged Jews from Atlanta found themselves in an SUV with a Reconstructionist rabbi, high atop a mountain, after it began to rain.

Here's the punchline. When the storm passed we all made our way to a nearby amphitheater with a million-dollar view and took part in my grand-nephew Josh's Bar Mitzvah, a delightful and emotionally satisfying affair.

Truth to tell, the entire weekend was memorable. It began with dozens of friends and family winging their way to Denver, then spending a few days exploring the ups and downs of the region -- it's not called "Rocky Mountain High" for nothing! A few hearty souls headed south to Pike's Peak and the Garden of the Gods; others journeyed north to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

The trekkers zigged and zagged their way around hairpin turns and staggering vertical inclines that topped out at over 15,000 feet or so. They were rewarded with breathtaking vistas filled with snow-topped mountain peaks and verdant meadows, the occasional antelope and squadrons of marmots.

The less adventurous -- that would be me and the always lovely Miss Wendy, my brother Gary and his wife JoAnn -- stayed busy checking out the hippie vibe of Boulder and the nearby community of Louisville, the Bar Mitzvah boy's hometown and a community often found on lists of the best places to live in the U.S.because of its schools, historic downtown and 1,800 acres of open space.

We wandered about the foothills outside both communities and visited the restaurants, coffee shops, retails stores and boutiques that filled the downtown areas. We serendipitously stumbled across a Jewish festival that drew a thousand or so folks to the Pearl Street Market, a happening pedestrian Mall in Boulder and even managed to make it out to Celestial Seasonings' factory for a tour and tasting of the company's iconic herb-infused teas. Little known fact: There's no actual "tea" in most of Celestial Seasonings herb-infused teas.Go figure!

Amy (l-r), Josh, Rabbi Yitzhak Nates and Greg 
But I digress. We eventually made it to Josh's Bar Mitzvah -- even got a tiny taste of the mountain scenery, both its joys and thrills -- high atop a peak, at the end of a long and twisting road.

I like to think of the pristine setting we discovered, at least on this day, as the "Shul of the Great Outdoors," an amphitheater chiseled out of rock, overlooking Boulder and the campus of the university of Colorado.

Mother Nature, unfortunately, wasn't cooperating -- at least initially. She greeted us with cloudy skies, falling temperatures and a petulant drizzle. We found comfort -- and the Reconstructionist rabbi -- in our rental car; spent a few moments saying howdy and playing Jewish geography, then collectively prayed for a miracle.

Someone was listening. The rain stopped, the sky cleared and 150 or so guests made themselves comfy as Rabbi Yitzchak Nates offered up a warm welcome and began the service.

I've attended hundreds of B'nai Mitzvot over the years, many of them featuring production values rivaling those found on Broadway, others filled with the sort of attention to detail and precision performances you might witness on the stage at Carnegie Hall. Some of these coming-of-age services and parties were joyful and uplifting, some felt spiritually adrift and emotionally flat. 

Josh's Bar Mitzvah was unique, sort of a jazzy riff on Judaism that -- at least metaphorically -- could have easily found a home in Newport or New Orleans; a laid-back affair that touched all the bases in a soft and gentle fashion. It left me feeling spiritually centered and emotionally enriched.

The Bar Mitzvah boy and his parents, Amy and Greg, set the tone at the late-afternoon gathering, standing together on a makeshift bima, sharing the instant when Josh stepped into manhood as he was called to the Torah. It was an emotional moment and the setting was perfect.

The sky had turned a pale blue as the sun began its slow descent behind a massive range of mountains. Mother Nature, perhaps chastened by her earlier misstep, offered up a double rainbow that spilled across the horizon, a cosmic apology that touched my heart. 

That's not to say all was perfect. Some family health and relationship issues had most everyone in a melancholy and reflective mood. A "white elephant" was stomping about the amphitheater and it took a couple of youngsters to quiet the beast.

Special gift from Mother Nature
The Torah portion touched on Moses stepping up and doing the right thing, being both courageous and fearless when called by God. Yitz -- that would be Rabbi Nates -- asked if anyone could recall such a moment in their own lives.

My first thought was, "bad move, rabbi! Nobody is going to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and bare their souls." I was wrong.

After a moment, a boy stepped out, introduced himself, then set about telling us of his battle with leukemia when he was a baby. Ian mentioned how tough the disease had been on his family; details about hospital visits and medical miracles and his fight to stay alive. He not only won the battle, but the war; and now he was here on this day, with Josh, happy to be alive!

A second boy, Dylan, then took center stage. He took yet another whack at the elephant when he announced that his parents had divorced several years earlier. Life, he made clear, had changed for him but, after a time, he came to understand that there simply was a new normal, that life continued and it could be good. After all, he said, he now was friends with Josh.

I don't know the Hebrew word for "grace", but I'm pretty sure I felt it after these two brave kids opened their hearts.

The ceremony was drawing to a close when Yitz called up a dozen or so of Josh's friends, all members of their school's choir. I expected them to close the service with the traditional singing of "Eyn Keyloheynu". Silly me!

In keeping with the tenor of the service and the afternoon, the kids found a much more meaningful and jazzy fashion to end the Bar Mitzvah, offering up a memorable rendition of Bill Wither's 1972 hit, "Lean on Me"!

It was rousing and delightful, a great way -- on this day, in this place -- to add an exclamation point to a perfect ceremony. It was also a nice reminder that sometimes in our lives, despite pain and sorrow, "We know that there's always tomorrow"!