“Not a man of words”: Our First Martin Shabbat

Categories: Inclusion, Not a man of words, Religious School

As part of our Bar Mitzvah preparation plan, we have scheduled Martin to attend a number of Shabbat morning services over the coming months and to participate in some small way during the service. We haven’t planned out exactly what he will do each time, although an official name for these Saturday morning practice sessions seems to have emerged: Martin Shabbats. A Saturday morning earlier this month was our first one.

It’s hard to bring Martin to shul. It’s not that we feel unwelcome—members of our Beth El community, especially regular Shabbat service attendees, go out of their way to smile and greet us. They want very much to make a place for Martin in their midst. But this is when it gets hard. Martin does not often smile back; indeed, I think it’s fair to say that he never smiles back. He does not respond to “Hello,” let alone “Yasher Koach!” He does not understand how to shake hands. This leaves even the most well-intentioned person at a loss—how can one engage with someone who gives no indication that he understands our social cues or even wants to play along?

My relationship with social cues is exactly the opposite of Martin’s. I’m what you might call a people pleaser. I worry over much about what other people think and spend more time than is practical reading the room and trying not to offend anyone. When I’m with Martin, I find myself trying to be his social conscience, as well as my own. I reply for him. I prompt him to make eye contact. I prompt him to shake hands. I worry about what everyone is thinking. It is exhausting.

It is also unnecessary. Martin gives every indication that he is comfortable in the sanctuary, if sometimes a little bored (what 12-year-old isn’t?). He may not be there the same way you and I are there—he’s not tuned into the social world we all worry about—but he is there. As we stood on the bima at the start of the Torah service that Saturday, I suddenly understood this in a new way.

Our plan was for Martin to say the Shema using cards with transliterated Hebrew words and simple pictures. We stood with Merril, Martin’s teacher, and watched as others removed the Torah from the ark and said the required blessings. Martin seemed restless. He began laughing, which is sometimes a sign of overstimulation. He started to rock back and forth and flap his hands. Was all of this standing and waiting while others chanted prayers starting to wear on him? I braced myself, as I often do, for something awkward or inappropriate to happen.

But then I noticed the davening. Rabbi Alex and Sam, who was also on the bima, had both turned to face the ark and were praying quietly, fervently, in a distinctly Jewish way.

I used to feel uncomfortable when others davened. I converted to Judaism in my late 20’s and had little or no experience with this style of prayer until Jeff and I joined Beth El. Now, after many years of attending services with those who daven, the practice feels familiar and even comforting to me, but in the beginning I felt alienated. When others suddenly turned away and lost themselves in the recital of a ritualized, rhythmic language I didn’t understand, I simply could not relate. They rocked and muttered and disappeared totally into themselves, and because I didn’t pray this way, I felt that I did not belong—or worse, that I was not welcome.

Standing on the bima that Shabbat morning I wondered, Is this how others feel when they see Martin rocking and flapping and muttering?

Davening, it suddenly occurred to me, is a lot like stimming (the word used to describe a range of self-stimulatory behaviors autistic people use to calm, center, or otherwise regulate themselves). Davening allows one to shut out the distractions of the secular world and immerse oneself in the act of prayer. Stimming serves a similar purpose: repeated phrases focus the attention—hand flapping shuts out everything except the hands—rocking soothes and comforts. Both acts are restorative. Both quiet the mind and calm the spirit.

It’s all in how you look at it.

I took a deep breath and leaned in as Martin quietly read the words of the Shema.  It was going to be a good morning.


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