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First Place - "Mitzvah"

1999 Anne Horton Writing Award
First Place
Jeremy Hartzell

As I was walking down the aisle, it felt as if my throat had an apple shoved down it and was choking me. I looked to both sides and I found myself surrounded by just about everyone important in my life. There were friends, family, and more than a few people that I didn't know. It was supposed to be the most important day of my life and I didn't want to let them down. Most of all I had one person that I felt a great obligation to impress, my rabbi.

My rabbi had spent every Sunday for four months drilling my Torah portion into my head. He made it most evident to me that my Bar-Mitzvah was the most important day in my life as a member of the congregation. It would be the day that I proved to all the members of our small Jewish community that I was to be a worthy asset and member of the adult majority. I guess you could say that after a while I got tired of hearing about this. I was only thirteen. I had more important things on my mind. As far as I was concerned my Sundays could be better spent. I would much rather be sitting in front of the TV or wasting my time some better way than trying to memorize a dead language.

One would think that the opportunity for a thirteen-year-old boy to prove himself an adult in the eyes of his elders would prove to be more of an exciting challenge. I don't know what my problem was. I just wasn't interested. Thinking back on it now, I believe that I was hoping that it would be a quick fix for my teenage angst. I thought that I would be in and out. I wasn't prepared for four months of excruciating studying. It was like being in school on the weekends. I had no idea what was in store for me.

The months wore on and I was starting to get a little impatient. My rabbi knew and related to this. When he would see my mind starting to wander, he would do a professional wrestling move on me. Not only was he a man of God, he was probably the world's biggest Hulk Hogan fan. There is no sight more terrifying than a middle-aged-rabbi giving me an elbow drop off the top of the kitchen table.

I started to see another side to him. I found that I could relate to him. Usually I was just afraid of him. I had always just seen him as an authority figure. After all these Sundays I had gained a great amount of respect for him. I finally realized the impact of this event in my young life. I started to take his tutelage more seriously. I spent countless hours reading and memorizing passages written in a language that most people don't even know which direction to read it in.

All of that studying had finally come to a head on that day. I stepped behind the podium in front of a synagogue full of the ones I loved. I was suddenly overcome with great pride and joy. All of these people sitting in front of me had come to see me shine that night. I couldn't bare to make a mistake and disappoint them. I unrolled the Torah in front of me and smelled its aged parchment. I ran my hands over the smooth texture and felt the slight rising of the sheep skin where the ink had been hand printed with the beauty of the Hebrew language. It was at that moment that I truly realized what a great honor was being bestowed upon me. I was being given the opportunity to read from the sacred scrolls of the Torah. Beads of sweat began to roll across my forehead and my hands began to shake. I looked behind me to my right and saw the rabbi. He stood there with a look of complete confidence and gave me a little wink. I could not let him down. I turned back to the Torah and craned my neck to get a better look. I found my mark in the Book of Esther. I glanced over it quickly and started reading.

Without a doubt these were the most beautiful words I had ever spoken. I was speaking the literature of a proud tradition. It was at this moment that I truly embraced my heritage and realized my appointment as an adult male in the congregation. I spoke every word without a mistake and truly felt the meaning behind them. As I finished I turned back to my rabbi, looking for the approval I so desperately needed. He stood tall and soldier like showing no emotion. I found no strength in him, no smile, and luckily no wrestling move. The only recognition of my achievement and job well done came in the form of a single tear of joy that he wiped away from his cheek. He leaned over my shoulder and whispered in my ear, "You're a man now. Start acting like it." I've been trying hard everyday since.