Almost three years ago, when my oldest son was only 10, I received an e-mail from our temple’s Hebrew School, which he was then attending, informing me that it was time to put his bar mitzvah date down on their calendar.
I responded with what I thought was the perfect, Jewish reaction, “Oy, we should all live so long.” (Let the record show that the above response was only in my head. I sent the temple a more dispassionately worded answer, merely declining the opportunity.)
I was informed that, should I fail at committing to a particular date almost three years down the road on the spot, I risked it BECOMING UNAVAILABLE.
I assured the temple that I could live with this possibility. Quite frankly, I have no idea what I might be doing next week (man plans, God laughs, we all know the drill), much less in three years. I’m not certain about American Jews, but the Soviet Jews I was raised amongst believe that kind of optimistic long-range speculating is just begging for the Evil Eye to come along and commence living up to its name.
Time passed, and two things happened. My son started seventh grade, which ended at 4:20 in the afternoon. Hebrew School began at 4:00 in the afternoon. A dilemma. Faced with other administration changes in the school that I didn’t like, I made the decision to pull both my boys out of Hebrew School.
Instead, I committed to sending them to the Temple’s weekly Shabbat Service for kids ages 8-12 (while my daughter and I hit the 4-7 room), lead by an amazing, amazing (did I mention that she was amazing?) teacher, who had once taught at the Hebrew School.
In my opinion, the boys get as much out of a Shabbat service with her as they did out of structured Hebrew School (if not more). However, under no circumstances could it be considered traditional bar mitzvah prep. The focus is much more on understanding why we say the prayers we do, and on discussing each individual Torah portion as it comes, rather than rote learning a particular passage and/or textbook proper pronunciation and chanting.
About six months before my son’s 13th birthday, I received another e-mail, this time telling me that while they’d let me slide that last go-around, they weren’t kidding now: it was really time to put a date on the calendar, ASAP.
Again, I declined. This time for different (and less superstitious) reasons.
This time I did it because I knew for sure that I did not want to throw a Bar Mitzvah. I’d seen too many of my fellow parents freaking out, breaking down, and losing sleep over invitations and table settings and venues and menus and goodie bags and live band versus DJ. The easiest way for me to avoid Bar Mitzvah craziness was simply not to host one.
As far as the spiritual, religious, and traditional component of the ceremony was concerned–my son wasn’t nearly ready to fulfill the duties of abar mitzvah boy. And no, I don’t think he’d have been ready if he’d stayed that extra year at the Hebrew School, either. The only way he might have been ready, at least on the surface level, was if we’d hired a tutor. But, he didn’t have the time, I didn’t have the money, and, honestly, I’d rather have him hanging out with other Jewish kids (or any kids) for the time and money we did have, making new friends.
For a while there, I thought I’d come up with the perfect solution. Since my son’s deepest connection at the Temple was with his Shabbat service leader (they have a mutual admiration society going), I thought he could have his bar mitzvah not in the main sanctuary, where he really didn’t know anybody, but in the Children’s Service, with his friends and his teacher.
The rabbi nixed that idea immediately, explaining that the whole point of a Bar Mitzvah was to delineate the passage from childhood into adulthood–holding a ceremony at the kids’ service would utterly miss the point.
I accepted his argument. Except now we were back to Square One.
My son’s birthday is at the end of June. The clock is ticking. Finally, I had another thought. What if, instead of a Bar Mitzvah, we sponsor a Family Kiddush service at the temple in honor of the service leader who’d taught my son so much over the years? My son could then speak about what he’d learned from her, and we could express our gratitude, as well.
I sent my suggestion into the Temple. I’m still waiting to hear back.
My son is going to turn 13 no matter what. My son is going to become a man (God willing), no matter what. And he won’t be doing it on my timetable, or the temple’s timetable, but on his own.
Right now, I am much more interested in making sure that my son becomes a good man and a good Jew (yes, in that order), than I am in overseeing a ceremony that proclaims him to be one indiscriminately.
Perhaps my ambivalence about the bar mitzvah comes from the fact that, before he is publicly proclaimed either a man or a mensch, I’d like him to earn the title(s). Through actions rather than words (that’s pretty Jewish, isn’t it?).
And those kinds of achievements, they just can’t be rushed. He’ll get there when he gets there.
And we’ll celebrate then.