When Josh Hirsh was born with cerebral palsy 13 years ago in Beltsville, his doctor said he might not survive. Josh proved her wrong, but he could not walk until he was 5 and has always had trouble speaking clearly.
And yet, his family and friends learned that those dreary facts had little to do with the essence of the athletic, ambitious and irrepressible Josh. So his mother was not surprised when he began pestering her about having a bar mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for boys.
"When are you going to talk to the rabbi?" he asked her, several times.
"I will get to it, I will get to it," she said. But she was slow to do so. She thought he was having enough trouble speaking the English language. Could he really handle Hebrew?
Josh resolved to prove her wrong, too, and that is what he did yesterday morning, as sunshine beamed down from the dome skylight of the Oseh Shalom synagogue in Laurel and more than 100 people listened to Joshua Raphael Hirsh read a long section of the Torah and thank them for coming.
To those unfamiliar with his unusual cadence, the words were sometimes hard to follow, but those who knew him understood it all, in both Hebrew and English.
In his commentary, he said his reading from the Book of Jeremiah "reminds us that no matter how badly we behave, there is always a chance of redemption. I have been inspired by these readings to be more honorable, and I hope you will as well."
Rabbi Gary Fink, who with tutor Joey Malin prepared Josh for the day, said he liked that remark. He knew the meaning of the wide smiles that are the brown-haired, 4-foot-10 middle schooler's trademark. They carry, Fink said, "a spark of the divine, sheer joy and just a little bit of mischief."
To Josh's parents, Don and Susan Hirsh, that would be an understatement. Since the day Josh was born, he has been doing things he was not supposed to do, and getting away with them. When Josh turned blue 12 hours after birth, a reaction to an apparent stroke suffered in the womb, the chief of the neonatal unit at the hospital told his parents that they should start planning a funeral.
Cerebral palsy is a blanket term for several nervous system deficiencies that have many possible causes and no known cure. Josh's parents, both chiropractors, said that even when he overcame that first crisis, he had to deal with involuntary muscle movement, unsteadiness and speech impairment. They sought the help of specialists in teaching him to walk and were stunned to see his love of sports help make that happen.
He followed his father, a recreational soccer player, everywhere he went, so Don Hirsh decided to teach his son to play goalie. In the family room of their home, Josh kneeled, and then eventually stood, in front of a makeshift goal, diving to keep the soft practice ball tossed at him from getting through. That game helped him walk by the time he turned 6.
Josh's father found a soccer coach who agreed to take Josh, although the first looks from his teammates were not encouraging. They shook their heads when Josh stood in front of the goal to defend against a penalty kick, with the other team's best player slamming the ball toward the corner. Josh moved more quickly than anyone expected and deflected the ball with his fingers. It went in, but several players told him that they would not have even touched such a kick and cheered his skill.
Then he took up track and ran several races for students with disabilities, coming in first in the 400- and 800-meter events. He follows the soccer team D.C. United, prizes his Freddy Adu jersey and, like many 13-year-old boys, loves the raucous films of Adam Sandler. But he also enjoys Larry David's sophisticated cable TV comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which his mother monitors to censor the adult parts.
He uses a wheelchair in malls and airports. Yesterday, he walked on his own, somewhat unsteadily but always erect, as he and Fink carried the Torah scrolls around for the congregation to see and touch with their prayer books.
When Susan Hirsh finally called Fink about the bar mitzvah, he said that Josh really didn't have to do anything. Technically, just turning 13 made you a man. But that was not enough for Josh. Malin, the tutor, said Josh is very bright and learned Hebrew well but had to practice his breathing -- a common problem for people with cerebral palsy -- and handle the pressure of all those eyes on him.
When it was over yesterday, Don Hirsh was, as his wife predicted, "a complete mess," daubing his eyes. Josh's 5-year-old sister, Carly, hugged her brother, and two members of the congregation carried him on their shoulders through the synagogue, as if he were Freddy Adu and had just won a game.
He had written on his speech, just before the finish, "BIG BREATH!!!!!!" He followed that instruction and then said, loud and clear:
"Thank you, everybody, for sharing this special day with me. Everybody helped me do something in my life, and I can't wait for everyone to celebrate with me."