Bar Mitzvah’s are not just about ritual. Thirteen year old boys do not suddenly turn into men. Bar Mitzvahs are about family. A gathering of family and friends to celebrate a religious coming of age. It’s ironic that young boys become Bar Mitzvah just as they enter their teen years; when they are becoming rebellious and questioning authority. Many of the friends I grew up with treated their Bar Mitzvahs as a graduation from Judaism. For them, it was an end, not a beginning. It was their reaction to years of enforced Hebrew school and rituals that had no continuity in their homes. For them, it was a big show for the relatives and community.
Looking at their reaction, it makes me wonder if having a Bar Mitzvah at 13 is such a good idea. After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it is a good idea for the following reasons. When a child has his Bar Mitzvah just at the age he is transforming into an adult, I believe something imprints on his soul. An understanding of the sacred. He may not value it at the time, but in years to come, it may awaken in him.
A second reason a Bar Mitzvah is important at 13, is that its an experience shared by almost all Jews. They can look at each other, and know they went through the same thing. My older daughter comforted my son when he said he was nervous, that he “would do fine; we all went through it.”
A third reason a Bar Mitzvah is important at 13, is that it brings affirmation from family. In an age where families are spread out and we don’t see each other as much as in previous generations, the presence of aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc., encourage a child that he is indeed a member of the tribe, and the tribe affirms him. It lets him know he matters at a time when peer pressure can be strong enough to drive some teens to suicide.
I have never once attended a family Bar/Bat Mitzvah where I felt bad for coming; but when I have been unable to attend, I always felt badly. I wanted to part of the affirmation.
Bar Mitzvah’s also provide memories that can stay with you for the rest of your life. When I think of my own Bar Mitzvah, the main memory that stands out happened in the shul. It was Orthodox, and men sat on one side of the sanctuary, and women sat on the other side. Friends of my grandparents came down from Albany to attend. My grandfather knew them from the newspaper business. They were not only non-religious Jews, they were atheists. They were not there for the religion, but to see my grandparents. When they walked into the synagogue, the man sat with his wife on the women’s side to snub his nose at the religion. Several people approached him nicely asking him to please sit with the men. I was sitting up front next to the rabbi. I saw the rabbi’s father-in-law dart over to the women’s side and talk with him, then come over to the rabbi. The rabbi stopped the service, stood up and from the bima said, “sir will you please go sit with the men!”
The man stood up and yelled, “I’ve been sleeping with this woman for 40 years, why can’t I sit with her now?”
My uncle Joe stood up and said, “What do you do, go to the bathroom with her too?” The visitor was escorted out.
The rabbi turned around and asked me if this was one of my guests. I told him I never saw the guy before in my life. After they escorted the offenders out, the rest of the ceremony proceeded without incident.
Looking back, the incident reminds me that when people come to a service, any service, they need to be respectful of the wishes of the congregation they are visiting, and behave themselves.
The other thing that stands out in my mind are the many friends and relatives who passed away in the 40 plus years since my Bar Mitzvah, and how good it was that we were able to come together at that time and place.
When my son asks me, “Dad, why do I even need to have a Bar Mitzvah?” I can honestly tell him its bigger than just him. It’s about family, and love, and affirmation and faith. It’s who you are, and where you come from.