When I was growing up, having my bat mitzvah was akin to wearing clean underwear or doing my homework; it was not up for negotiation. I was forced to adhere to my parents’ wishes, no matter how twisted I found them.
I despised Hebrew school. After all, wasn’t regular school enough? I yelled, kicked, screamed, and cried every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning, to no avail. My mom ignored my desperate pleas, dropping me off at temple three times a week to be taught by an ex-cantor who never smiled. Thursdays were the worst since it meant I couldn’t graduate from Brownie to Girl Scout. Why? Girl Scout meetings were on Thursday afternoons. Those were the rules, though: Hebrew school was in; Girl Scouts was out.
Similarly, my bat mitzvah at a Conservative temple was mandatory. It involved a ridiculous amount of studying, and I’d never felt as terrified as the moment I stepped out on stage to perform (I know, it’s a bimah and it’s not exactly performing, but that was my 13-year-old interpretation). The upside, at least, was that I raked in a good amount of cash and purchased a 10-speed bike. But that didn’t get rid of the somewhat scarring experience.
When my Catholic-Turned-Jewish husband and I had our two boys, we sent our sons to Hebrew school, but only on Saturday mornings. There was no way I’d agree to subjecting them to the misery of finishing a full day of elementary school topped off by another two hours of learning Hebrew and Jewish history. The crazy thing was, they actually enjoyed their two-hour, Saturday morning getaways. “Look, Mom and Dad! We made menorahs out of tin foil!” Or “Check out our sukkah! We made it out of tree branches and leaves and mud! Isn’t it cool?”
Clearly, their Hebrew school experience was lightyears from mine. In class, they sat in a big circle with colorful drawings and posters on the walls, not in perfectly-lined school desks with Hebrew letters written faultlessly on chalkboards. They sang songs, created fun art projects, and learned reading, writing, and history from teachers who laughed and listened and nodded enthusiastically. Two hours of enjoyable learning versus six hours of tedious Jewish education per week; no wonder they didn’t kick, scream, and cry every Saturday morning as I once had.
When the clock turned 12-Years-Old for Eldest, we realized it was time to contemplate the Super Bowl of Jewishness, the Homemade Icing on the Kosher Cake, the Oscar Winner of Adolescent Judaism, the one, the only, the Bar Mitzvah! Ever the drama queen, I reminded my husband about my childhood trauma. Unlike my mean mom, he understood. (She’s not really mean. In fact, she’s one of the nicest people I know. But when I was a kid fighting the evils of Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah, she seemed mean.)
Husband: “Maybe we should let them decide.”
Me: “Let them decide? What an ingenious concept—I wish my parents had thought of it. But should they? I mean, we’re the parents, right? Shouldn’t we tell them what to do? And when, how, and why? Aren’t we supposed to map out every footstep of their life’s journey until they’re at least 18, if not 21 or, more reasonably, forty when they actually leave home? Does letting them decide what to do on such a vital milestone make us bad parents?”
Although I don’t believe in heaven and hell, I added, “If we don’t force them to have a bar mitzvah, will we burn in hell fires for all of eternity?”
Husband: “Possibly. Or, maybe, it’ll just empower them to make important choices in life.”
Damn, those Catholic-Jewish hybrids can be smart!
So we let Eldest decide whether or not he wanted to become a bar mitzvah.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” said our future punk rock drummer and college anthropology major, while watching an old episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
And that was that. Knowing how much work goes into studying for the World Series of Jewyness, I kept my mouth shut. Forcing him to study and learn trope seemed useless at best and frustrating at worst given he was, like me, irritatingly headstrong.
Youngest, however, was a different story, when three years later he plunged head first into Jewish Manhood. He studied hard at the home of a lovely woman who taught him his Torah portion while I waited in the car rocking out to Third Eye Blind and Led Zeppelin. Husband and I were teary-eyed as youngest led his bar mitzvah service (at a reform temple) like a champ. It was a truly special event—one we’ll never forget.
So, that’s what worked for our family. What about yours? Would you leave this decision in your kids’ hands?