I’ve been hiding behind the pages of a book since I first learned to read. Even now, when I’m well-ensconced in middle age, I turn to books for escape and comfort, peace and quiet, and a way to avoid things I don’t want to do. Some days, books even provide the oxygen I need to breathe, and they only expect me to care for their spines in return.
Books also give me a choice: to be myself, or if I’d rather, to be someone else. I get as close as possible to acting in a way I never would, to engaging in conversations I’ll never have, and to nibbling on forbidden fruit without the consequences. For the duration of their pages, it’s as if I exist in an alternate universe, where I live a life not my own. But books can only bring us near an actual experience. They cannot escort us across the border.
I think on some level, I always knew it was an opiate I sought on the shelves of the public library, but I had no name for it until I learned the word vicarious in middle school. The teacher wrote it in chalk on the blackboard and lights went off in my head. Vicarious made sudden sense of my world.
If only my sons were books I could read. A series in three volumes, all annotated.
So much of their thinking and doing is a mystery to me, though I do understand a lot of it after all these years of mothering them. We are programmed in unique code, and according to Jewish law, obligated in different ways. Sometimes, we speak our own dialects. In the thick of those discussions and disagreements, I wish I could step into their sneakers and be who they are, just long enough to figure out how to get things right with them more often.
Nothing else could bridge the divide in full, a reality I grasped during my older boys’ bar mitzvahs. A hollow knob, the tiniest bit of emptiness, began floating around inside me as my sons read from the open Torah. It did not diminish my joy or my pride in them, but it reminded me that no matter how closely I stood to the mechitzah, I was only watching from the bleachers.
Now that my youngest is about to put on tefillin for the first time, I sense the knob moving around again. I needlepointed the bag in which this almost-man will store them. I’ll watch with amazement and gratitude when he wraps himself in the straps. And yet, I’ll be an onlooker living the moment vicariously, a tourist who can get only so close to the cordon around the exhibit. This part of him and of his brothers will remain elusive.
I could ask the boys what it’s like for them to place the bayit (box) on their heads and be bound by the yoke of heaven. I can inquire how it feels to connect with G-d in such a physical way each morning. But I’ll only get what I usually get when I ask my teenagers these sort of probing questions, if I get a response at all: “Oh, I don’t know, Ma.”
I plan to try anyway, because a vicarious moment, when it is actually happening to someone for whom we’d step in front of a moving train, can be fulfilling enough. I’m their mother after all. I’m bound to intuit correctly some of the time. And if I get stuck, I’ll imagine that I’m holding a wise and beautiful story, and at least my heart will understand what I’m reading.