Only Isaac. For thousands of years, young Jewish boys have been ascending the bimah to read from the Torah, sick with nerves, synagogue packed. And then on to the kiddush and in recent decades a party to look forward to. But not my youngest child. It would have to be something different for Isaac. Of course it would.
As March progressed and talk of social distancing increased, we began to appreciate that all the plans we had made to celebrate our third and final barmitzvah were under threat.
By the time it became clear that it would be impossible to go ahead, it was actually something of a relief. The uncertainty had been worse.
But we still had a decision to make. Should we put the whole thing off until November and then do it as planned? The case for that was obvious. Yet it would mean starting again with the barmitzvah classes after all Isaac’s hard work. And what if we got to November and had to postpone again?
So we decided to do something different. The party could wait. The service would go ahead. Isaac would have a Zoomitzvah.
We are Liberal Jews and I appreciate that what we did isn’t possible for more Orthodox families. It also wouldn’t be possible with a less flexible rabbinical team and a less professional approach to online streaming than the one adopted by Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Even with all these advantages, it seemed unlikely to be a very satisfying arrangement. Our family wouldn’t be in synagogue. Our friends wouldn’t be in synagogue. We wouldn’t be in synagogue. How emotionally impactful could be it be?
Very. That’s the answer.
We kept it simple. We had a lot of discussion about walking around the table with the Torah and cutting back and forward, but in the end we decided on a very straightforward approach.
The Shabbat service would be streamed on Facebook and YouTube, as it is each week. At the beginning of the Torah service, the rabbis would pass over to Isaac, appearing on Skype (it was actually a Skypemitzvah but I decided that Zoomitzvah sounded better).
We had cleared a big enough corner of the dining room to make it look immaculate and so that no one could see any mess (I learned from an online appearance on Newsnight that, if you have anything behind you, that’s all anyone concentrates on).
Isaac might have found a classic service intimidating, but he’s quite used now to online events. He has had online barmitzvah lessons, and maths lessons, and English lessons. He’s had art classes and drumming and Liberal Jewish Youth events all over Zoom. He is a master of the medium.
Any nerves he might have had were allayed by playing stone, paper, scissors with the rabbis before the service. Isaac worked out that Skype had introduced a tiny delay that allowed him to win each time.
So he looked down the camera and was word perfect and nerveless, despite being watched by what must have been more than a thousand viewers. We had support from our family and friends, from his teachers and from our lovely synagogue community. My American relatives joined in from home. Some others found out about it on social media, when a tweet went viral and was seen by three million people.
People left nice comments under the streamlining video, which were fun to read and made us feel we were surrounded by love, even though strictly speaking we were by ourselves.
And then, at the end, people signed in on Zoom and it was possible to speak to some of our friends.
It was all very moving. Far from getting in the way, the technology stripped the occasion back to what really mattered. Isaac and what he had to read, and what he had to say, and what the moment represented. There was an atmosphere of calm and an intimacy that was very special.
I can’t say we didn’t miss anything. My sister Tamara made us an Erev Shabbat meal and her husband dropped it round. And we were online with them when Isaac unwrapped the needlepoint tallit bag Tamara and our friend Alexis had made, completing the series started by my late mother. I’d have loved to have had them physically present. And the rest of our family.
But, still, it was special. Of course it was special. It was Isaac.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times