Next Saturday, my grandson will celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish initiation ceremony into adulthood. I love coming-of-age rituals, where young men and women demonstrate their mastery of new skills, learn ceremonial language, chants, dances and stories of their culture. Draped in resplendent ceremonial garb, they stand before members of the community to be welcomed as full members of the tribe.
On that day, the Torah will be taken from the Holy Ark, and my grandson will be called up to chant from the sacred text. He will wear the prayer shawl I wore at my own Bar Mitzvah, and it will thrill me. But in addition, I wanted to sponsor an additional initiation ceremony that had special significance for me, a Warrior Sweat Lodge Ceremony. My grandson, whom I call Red Boy, had participated in Native American sweat lodges before and wondered whether a Warrior sweat was hotter than the others he’d been in. I told him it would be hot, but I thought he could handle it. He wanted to do it, so I invited men I know personally, representing many faiths to join us in this sacred Inipi ceremony.
Yesterday at dusk, we all stood in front of the ceremonial lodge. Red Boy’s father cleansed us with cedar smoke and an eagle feather before we crouched to get in. Sixteen men closely huddled inside the canvas-covered, willow-framed hut.
I welcomed each of my relatives then looked at my grandson and said that in this lodge are men who have a story to share about what it means to be a warrior. Just because there are only men around you doesn’t mean that women are not present. A woman helped gather and bless the stones we are using today. Her blessings for you are with us, and we are sitting in this lodge which is the symbolic womb of the Earth Mother. Women bless us with life and sustain us in life, always respect them.
I gave him the necklace I was wearing around my neck. It had been given to me several years ago from a Masai warrior on the Serengeti Plains in Kenya. He gave it to me with this story: his 13-year-old brother was guarding the family’s cattle, their most precious commodity, when he became aware that a lion was stalking them. As the lion moved closer, his brother positioned himself between the herd and the predator. He crouched down, braced his spear in the ground and when the lion leapt at him, he aimed the spear at its massive chest on which the beast impaled itself. “This is a tooth from that lion,” I said, as I took off the necklace and put it on him. I told him he didn’t have to kill a lion to be a man; what is important, however, is to stand up for something and someone other than yourself if you want to walk the path of a warrior.
Then for the next two and a half hours, around the red-hot lava stones that released “the breath of the grandfathers,” men talked about their heroic exploits and about their vulnerabilities; it was an incredibly intense and inspiring experience.
We sang Hebrew songs, Amazing Grace, Native American chants, and closed with a Grateful Dead tune. But the highlight came afterwards when my grandson walked into my bathroom looking for a T-shirt he could borrow. I said that in the midst of all the singing I forgot to give him a closing blessing and wanted to do it now. Having just showered, the steamy bathroom was not unlike the hot, steamy sweat lodge, but now it was just the two of us. I placed my hands on his head, just as my father (whose name my grandson bears) had done to me, and recited the threefold Hebrew blessing: May the Lord bless you and keep you, May the Lord look kindly upon you and be gracious unto you; May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.
I felt the tears and awesome splendor of this moment, the initiation of my Red Boy.