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Dear Gefilte: My Son Doesn’t Want a Bar Mitzvah–What Do I Do?

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Dear Gefilte, 

My 11-year-old son has no desire to have a bar mitzvah. It breaks my heart but I recently pulled him out of Hebrew school because he is so disinterested. He hates being in front of crowds and fears he cannot learn everything he needs to know. 

I thought about just getting him tutored privately and doing a less formal, abridged version of the bar mitzvah on some Caribbean island with just the four of us and a “rent a rabbi.” Is that crazy?

He honestly doesn’t want one at all and has been pretty clear about it. But I can’t bring myself to allow that. 

Thoughts?

DESPERATE JEWISH MOM

READ: How My Son Will Be Jewish When None of His Cousins Are


Dear Desperate,

Here are some of the highlights of my bat mitzvah:

1. Getting a frilly dress that gave me a neck rash and made me look like a confused nun.

2. Chanting a haftorah portion about someone barren and trying to relate that to my pre-menstrual, thoroughly immature self.

3. Catching Sarah T. smoking cigarettes with one of the catering staff in a phone booth (remember those?).

4. Seeing my mom smile for the first time since my dad died the year before.

I think the dinner rolls and limbo contest were pretty successful, too.

Desperate, I hear your longing for something meaningful and religious to share with your son. And I truly do respect that. I just think there are many more ways to explore this idea with him. For me, having a bat mitzvah was a duty and privilege that involved many misspent dollars and neon party favors.

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Was it a religious experience? Not particularly.

Here are a few moments in my life that I have found much more spiritual and heart-opening than my bat mitzvah:

1. Standing next to my mom in synagogue and feeling her trace the minor chords with her breath. Feeling her left hand reach for my right and giving it a warm, sturdy squeeze.

2. Swimming in Hawaii and seeing the sun spill through the water, turning the world turquoise.

3. The birth of my children.

4. Yes, writing my bat mitzvah speech, but not necessarily performing it. The writing and researching I had to do to understand how an ancient text could have anything to do with my quest for a training bra was hard and rewarding.

5. Walking into Paula’s carriage house and smelling onions simmering in her crockpot.

READ: How Not to Plan a Bar Mitzvah in 13 Easy Steps

Paula was a woman I met who had been abused and trafficked by her parents for the first 18 years of her life. When I first walked into her home, she showed me her stationery collection and her punching bag. This was truly religious. Seeing someone fight for her freedom and find a home with lemon yellow walls and open windows.

These aren’t all feel-good experiences, Desperate. In fact, a lot of them make me confused and scared even in retrospect.

And that—I think—is what makes them religious. Truly testing my faith, my trust, my sense of hope. Making me really think about my responsibility on earth as a human being who believes in an all-loving God and wants to give love for however long I’m here.

So here’s my question for you. What are your religious experiences? What are your son’s? Maybe you can each write a list of what you find…moments when you felt breathless, hopeful, challenged, connected to something or someone bigger.

And then see where they overlap. Maybe you both enjoy studying ancient texts or listening to jazz. Maybe you both felt like that hike through Yellowstone was miraculous or you dream of working for Habitat for Humanity.

READ: Why I Send My Son to Hebrew School–Even if it Scares Me

These moments will be so much more meaningful than the pomp and circumstance of dinner rolls and neon bracelets.

Check it out: When a boy turns 13 years old, he becomes a bar mitzvah and is—according to Jewish tradition—now a man. That means he is responsible for his actions, his decisions, and his commitment to his idea of faith.

Another fun fact—James Franco is having a bar mitzvah celebration in just a month, even though he’s 37 years old. And if you need to live vicariously, crack open the Manichewitz and watch this kid hit the hi-hat for his bar mitzvah solo. Or listen to Tracy Jordan rap this brilliant werewolf bar mitzvah song.

Laughter can be religious, too.

Listen, I’m a mushy ball posing as a fish. As I mature, people move farther away from me. So I appreciate any good buffet with herring and the rituals we have to celebrate aging. But guess what? Your son will become a bar mitzvah whether you play limbo or not.

With love and schmaltz,

Gefilte

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