The Coming of Age in the Jewish Community
How I Make the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service Unique
My thought is that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service is a symbolic bridge between childhood and young Jewish adulthood. It allows us to cross from one state to another. The service also symbolizes the active process of a Jewish child, joined by his/her parents, taking the positive step of purposefully, and not simply by dint of age, crossing over the boundary between childhood and adulthood.
Childhood is the time when children are protected and spared adult responsibility. Isn’t young Jewish adulthood the time when a person increasingly takes on responsibility for him or herself, as well as for others? The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony celebrates the passage into young adulthood in the midst of family, friends and community. It is a holy celebration, a moment lifted above others, when we feel a sense of connection with present and past family members and how it is that our family fits into the puzzle we call the Jewish People.
First and foremost, I want to help you create a rite of passage that not only includes your child but you, the parents and if appropriate other members of your family, as well. What I am offering is to create a unique, meaningful Jewish experience for your family. I can tailor a service for a large number of people or a small number, depending on what you want.
I am very much aware that the service I put together may have to take into account of one of the parents not being Jewish. I strive to make the service as embracing and welcoming as possible for family members and friends. I have endeavored to do this throughout my career with many different rites of passage, from baby-namings to weddings and funerals.
Where to Hold the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service?
We can hold a bar/Bat Mitzvah service in just about any venue and not only in a sanctuary of a synagogue. It can be held in a hotel, a restaurant, in a back yard; anywhere there is ample room for family and friends.
What Prayer Book do we use for our service?
The prayer book I use is custom made. It is meant to be tailored to reflect the values of each individual Bar/Bat Mitzvah family I work with, within a Jewish framework. In preparation for assembling the prayer book, I will meet with your family to discuss a particular Jewish value that will be the framework of the service. The theme could be as grand as Tikkun Olam—healing the world; or it may be as specific as Tzadaka—charity in Jewish tradition, or something else — I am open.
Once we agree on a theme, I ask your family to collect various readings that you want to include, such as poems, reflections and meditations authored by your Bar/Bat Mitzvah child, you the parents and perhaps other family members. For my part, I glean readings from a variety of Jewish sources and materials from non-Jewish authors as well. The prayer book comes to life as I edit the various readings and place them in appropriate locations along with some of the traditional Hebrew prayers. The amount of tradition incorporated in to the service will also be part of our discussion. The end result is a prayer book, carefully edited by me, with writings taken from Jewish and contemporary sources and your family.
How do I prepare the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child for the service?
If you want to celebrate the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of your child, the best and most rewarding way of doing it is by making a commitment as a family to study with me in a discussion format. We’ll decide together for how many sessions we will need to meet, with a minimum number that I will suggest, to make certain your child is well prepared to lead the service, speak about the Torah portion and its lessons, and, of course, chant Torah and, if appropriate, the Haphtarah.
As for the Hebrew, I will recommend a tutor who will teach your child to chant Torah and Haphtarah. I will recommend to you the number of tutoring sessions I believe will adequately prepare your child.
As a prelude to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service, I will ask to meet with your family for a rehearsal. And by the time the rehearsal is concluded, everyone will know when they will participate and what is going to take place from beginning to end. Only one thing left: to have the service and celebrate, L’chaim, to life!
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Preparing for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration
As part of the celebration, a family may celebrate the Bar/Bat Mitzvah event with a modest luncheon or dinner for family, friends and congregational members. However, the extravagance of some Bar/ Bat Mitzvah “affairs” is a theme celebrated by novelists and comedians alike, where competitions take place in some communities about who can throw the most lavish luncheon followed by an evening party in a luxurious venue, where dancing to a band or disc jockey, along with games and dinner, take place.
As an aside, nevertheless germane to our theme, I counsel that you not spend beyond your means or get into hock for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah party. There are more celebrations to come for other children and weddings in the future.
Having described to you what I consider to be, more or less, typical reasons for Jewish families engage the Bar/Bat experience as their rite of passage, there is a catalogue of motivations that move people to this rite of passage, some of which have little to do with identifying with the Jewish people.
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Contemporary Times
It doesn’t stretch our imagination to recognize that thirteen year old boys and twelve year girls hardly qualify as adults in our American, and for that matter, most first-world societies. They are still kids transported by hurried, sometimes frenetic parents from one sport to another; to religious school and then to Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons. Our children have a long way to go before we consider them adults in our culture. So, what does this reality mean in terms of an ancient tradition that speaks of adulthood and responsibility at a time when our children are far from it?
Like with all ancient rituals, time and contemporary circumstances dictate that a ritual evolve or be discarded. Nowadays, girls and boys alike have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at thirteen, except in the Orthodox community where it remains at twelve for girls. What has also changed in our contemporary situations is the meaning of the term Bar and Bat Mitzvah: it has a double meaning. It not only indicates the status of a boy and girl when they reach the age of thirteen, but Bar and Bat Mitzvah are now also the terms applied to the worship service during which our children read from the Torah. The term applies to the individual and the service as well.
Traditionally there was little fanfare when a boy read from the Torah on the occasion of becoming a Bar/Mitzvah. (Girls had no corresponding rite in the synagogue until the twentieth century.) The Bar Mitzvah boy was not the center of attention: he participated in an ongoing worship service of the community as an adult, with the reading of the Torah as his demonstration and acceptance of Jewish adulthood. Nowadays, it can hardly be said that a boy or girl fully understand what it means to be an adult Jew and to live a Jewish life.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah service is now more of a demonstration of some of the ritual skills that our children master in religious school in preparation for the event; and it is also an effort to further help a Jewish child recognize his or her identity within the contemporary Jewish community and the long line of Jews of the past who ultimately together constitute the Jewish People.
Unlike in the past, the boy or girl has taken center stage: he or she is celebrated. They have achieved a milestone in their personal growth and their new place in the family structure. Nowadays the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service celebrates the beginning of young adulthood and the recognition that childhood is coming to an end.
The ceremony is a rite of passage for the entire family, where the son or daughter have acquired some of the knowledge Judaism requires of an adult Jew. And perhaps even more poignantly for parents, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service brings to consciousness the reality that from cradle to Bar/Bat Mitzvah is but a blink of an eye. In just a few short years, children will be leaving home for college, going into work world. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a rite of passage from childhood to the beginning of but not full Jewish adulthood.
The Traditional Roles of Boys and Girls Once They Enter Adulthood
In Jewish tradition the age of majority for boys is thirteen and for girls it is twelve. At that age a boy is considered to be a Bar Mitzvah and a girl a Bat Mitzvah: an adult with respect to all of the commandments incumbent on a Jewish adult.
On any given Saturday morning–or alternately on a Saturday afternoon, or Monday morning or Thursday morning, when the Torah is usually read–the Bar Mitzvah (the young man who is now thirteen) takes his place in the community as an adult Jew when he is called to read from the Torah during the worship service. He recites the appropriate blessings before and after the chanting of the Maftier (the designated few verses at the end of a weekly Torah reading), after which he continues with the chanting of the Haphtarah that contains a theme related to what is read in the weekly Torah portion. (The Haphtarah reading consists of a given number of verses from one of the Books contained in the middle section of the Hebrew Bible called the Prophets). This ritual is—along with herring and a shot of vodka as a light after service repast–the extent of recognition the Bar Mitzvah receives in the traditional Jewish community of the past and even now among Orthodox Jews.
When the Torah is Read
Jewish tradition mandates the reading of the Torah on Saturday morning and afternoon, Monday and Thursday morning. On those days only a few verses of the weekly Torah portion are read and without the addition of the Haphtarah. Finally, and most importantly, on Saturday morning comes the crescendo. For what began on Saturday afternoon of the previous week with the reading of a few verses of Torah and continued on Monday and Thursday, culminates with the reading of entire Torah portion assigned for that week.
The Male Jew and the Commandments
Once becoming a Bar Mitzvah, the commandments incumbent a male Jew include taking responsibility for his own Jewish learning, which to this point has been the responsibility the father; leading a Minyan as a prayer leader (a Jewish congregation of at least ten Jewish men); reading from the Torah; praying three times a day; observing the various holidays, festivals and rites of the Jewish people; and above all, contributing to the survival of the Jewish People by getting married and having as many children as possible. While the aforementioned are the main responsibilities of an adult male Jew, the commandments touch every aspect of life: from the time a Jew awakens in the morning to the time he goes to sleep at night.
The Female Jew and the Commandments
A Jewish girl traditionally becomes a Bat Mitzvah when she reaches her twelfth birthday. Like a Jewish boy, gaining the status of an adult Jew is automatic, the result of a birthday—not a rite or ceremony. Traditionally at this age a Jewish girl may already be betrothed to her future husband, as arrangements have been made for a future household to come into existence. As a Bat Mitzvah, the young adult woman’s responsibilities, if unmarried, encompass the full range of household responsibilities, such as cooking, housekeeping, and helping her mother in anything relating to the household.
Once married, the young woman now acquires the responsibility of taking care of her husband and children, along with the other responsibilities she already had in her father’s house. She does have ritual commandments incumbent on her; however, they are not as numerous as those of a Jewish man. Because the woman’s household role is very comprehensive, especially given her role as a wife and mother, Jewish law exempts her from many of the ritual obligations incumbent of a male Jew, such as praying three times a day at fixed intervals.
What I have described thus far prevails among the Orthodox Jews, but hardly describes the reality of Jews living outside of that community.