Shotgun Bar Mitzvah – spooky scary?

I spent this past weekend in Highland Park, NJ, celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of my cousin. She read the Torah beautifully, then gave a sophisticated and enthusiastic speech – in short, the experience reminded me nothing of the last Bar/t* Mitzvah I attended.

*because that looks terrible, the ceremony will heretofore be referred to as simply a Bar Mitzvah

That ceremony was held at the Kotel, but on that occasion, I barely had time to cobble together a flimsy plastic chair – certainly not enough to put together a coherent speech. But listening to my cousin speak so nicely inspired me to put together some of the ideas I didn’t have time to formulate a few weeks ago. I share them with you here:

Dearest Members of My(/Best/Drunk) Bus,

Some of you may recall that at lunch on Shabbat, I shared a few words about Exodus, that week’s Torah portion. I spoke about Hebrew names, a topic appropriate to the portion given that its Hebrew name – Shemot (שמות) – means ‘names’. Some of you may also know that Hebrew names are important to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony in that they are used to call the Bar Mitzvah to the Torah. But as you may have noticed, our ceremony lacked more than a speech – it lacked a Torah.

This is something I was aware of at the time (hard as that is to believe). One participant approached me about a dozen times to tell me about how he studied hard for a year in preparation for his own Bar Mitzvah, and that what we were about to do was a sham. I didn’t want his Negative Nancitude to infect the rest of the trip, so I nicely asked him to keep his reservations to himself.

On the one hand, I was totally fine with celebrating what amounted to a shotgun Bar Mitzvah. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony is, at its root, about marking the passage into adulthood. It happens whether you celebrate it when you turn thirteen or not. No, we didn’t call anyone to the Torah, no one’s family showed up, we didn’t hire people with shofars to accompany us on our way to the ceremony – but what better opportunity to celebrate the emergence of seven young adults into their Jewish identity than at the end of an emotional 10-day trip to Israel, surrounded by cheering and dancing friends – and at the Kotel?

But the truth is that, on some level, Nancy had a point. While the Bar Mitzvah is really about the coming of age – something that occurs whether it passes remarked upon or not – it is often celebrated as the culmination of a considerable amount of preparation: attending some Hebrew school, learning how to read from the Torah, writing a speech, planning a celebration, and almost inevitably, writing thank-you notes. In other words: a lot of hard work. And while the ceremony we held at the Kotel may have technically marked the passage of seven individuals into Jewish adulthood, it most certainly did not involve any great degree of preparation.

On this basis, it is easy to conclude – as did Negative Nancy – that what happened January 16th at the Kotel was not a worthwhile experience, or as he put it, ‘a sham’. Indeed, if those who participated in the event come to treat their ceremonies as simply an endpoint, I may have to agree with him.

But there is another way to view the events of January 16th: as an opportunity. I encourage each and every one of you – both those who celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs that day, and those who did not – to view their experiences as the beginning, rather than the end of a process. Here are a few suggestions for further exploration:

  • Practice/learn some Hebrew.
  • Take a return trip to Israel.
  • Read a Jewish book.
  • Start or join a chesed project
  • Take a Jewish Studies class.
  • Reach out to a Rabbi or your local Hillel community.

And of course feel free to add suggestions of your own – there’s a whole world of Jewish learning and community out there for you to discover. With your experience in Israel firmly in tow, you’ve only just set sail.

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