Even though my ethnic and religious identification is completely Jewish, and even though all my parents’ friends were Jewish, I’ve only been to five bar mitzvahs and one bat mitzvah. My own friends weren’t Jewish, they were all Asian, and all but one of my parents friends had children who were so much older than I that I didn’t get invited to their bar/bat mitzvahs. Of the six bar/bat mitzvahs I’ve attended, three were unusually memorable.
Before I get started on memorable bar/bat mitzvahs, it’s probably the polite thing for me to explain what a bar mitzvah is for those who were not brought up in Jewish circles. Put simply, it is the Jewish boy’s transition to manhood. He can now participate in the life of the synagogue (which he inaugurates by his first public Torah reading on the occasion of his bar mitzvah), and he is expected to step up fully to a man’s responsibilities and moral obligations. It says a lot about how adolescence is extended in America that 13 is the age at which Jewish law determines that a boy must begin to act like a man (see cartoon, above).
Beginning in about the 1970s, if I remember correctly, American Jewish girls, noting accurately that 13-year-old boys did not become responsible men but, instead, just got lots of gifts, agitated for their own coming of age ceremony. So were born bat mitzvahs which are bar mitzvahs for girls.
The bar/bat mitzvah takes place on Saturday morning in the synagogue and is an add-on to the regular service. About halfway through the regular service, the bar/bat mitzvah kid goes up to the front of the synagogue, gives a speech that explains the Torah text s/he will read, both in Biblical context and as it applies to his/her own life. And then, in Hebrew, the kid reads from the Torah to the congregation. Congratulations, kid! You’ve arrived.
Different synagogues have different approaches, but that’s the basic ceremony, which is followed in the reception hall by food and drink, the lavishness of which depends on the financial situation of the kid’s family. Bagels, lox, and kugle are de rigueur. But sometimes, things are greater than mere “basic.”
The first memorable bar mitzvah I attended wasn’t for either a 13-year-old boy or girl. Instead, the bar mitzvah “boy” was a 50-year-old dentist who had been raised non-religiously, but had embraced Judaism in middle age. He was quite wealthy and threw an incredible party to celebrate. No bagels and kugle for him. We had filet mignon and salmon steaks. Yum.
While the food was nice, what I really remember was the bar mitzvah dentist’s speech, which included one never-to-be-forgotten line: “I opened the mouth of the Torah and the teeth were good.” Sadly, I travel in such non-Jewish circles in my life, I seldom find people who will laugh with me about that beautiful sentence.
The second memorable bar mitzvah I attended was for Ido Kedar, who is becoming a high profile spokesperson for autistic people. Although Ido is non-verbal, he has a rich intellectual life and is deeply spiritual. His parents didn’t push him to get bar mitzvahed. It was something Ido wanted to do as an expression of his faith.
There were a few things about Ido’s bar mitzvah that were different from the usual kind. First, Ido recited only the first lines of each prayer, because speech is so difficult for him. Second, although he wrote his speech, another young man read it on his behalf. And third, everybody in the congregation cried because the whole thing was so moving, especially the speech.
Ido wrote about his hero, Moses. Aside from Moses’s obvious virtues, Ido feels particularly drawn to him because Moses too found speech difficult:
And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. (Exodus 4:10.)
That speech impediment, of course, did not stop Moses from leading the world’s first slave revolt and leading his people to the threshold of the Promised Land. To accommodate his limitations, Moses had Aaron as his spokesman and got his message across just fine. Ido, too, accepts that he must use the written word, not the spoken word, to speak out for autistic children.
Anyway, Ido’s speech was about Moses, and freedom, and slavery at Pharaoh’s hands at and the hands of so-called experts who refused to recognize that Ido had a vital, hungry, brilliant mind behind his autistic spectrum behaviors and slow tongue. And we in the congregation all cried.
And today was my third memorable bar mitzvah. Once again (and here’s a message to all those parents who spend a bazillion on bar mitzvahs to keep up with the neighbors), what made this one special was the bar mitzvah boy. Sure, the synagogue was nice and the food delicious and not obscenely extravagant, but it was the young man at the beema who mattered. This is a 13-year-old with panache.
The bar mitzvah boy is a happy, loving extrovert, who was delighted to become a man in his faith and to share the moment with family and friends. He destroyed the stereotype of the bar mitzvah kid with his head down, mumbling his Torah passage, wondering why his parents have tortured him so.
When it came to his speech, this young man didn’t just read it, with his nose buried in a mangled piece of paper. Instead, he spoke to us about the Torah and its application to daily life. He was amazingly profound for someone so young and, at times, hysterically funny. His performance gifts are so strong, I kept thinking, “This is what a young Robin Williams would have been like if he was religious, wasn’t coked out, and wasn’t obsessed with his reproductive organ.” This young man has that same exuberance and dynamic sense of humor. His performance gifts, allied with his intelligence, kindness, and strong moral compass, should take him far in this life.
And that’s what I’m thinking today about bar mitzvahs.