"You know the joke about how the child is supposed to say 'Today I am a man'?" Sandra asks.
"Yes." I nod tentatively.
"Well, for me it's going to be 'Today I am a basket case!'" she says, eyes welling with tears. Sandra has come to my office to talk about the anxiety overwhelming her as she is planning her son's bar mitzvah. "I just can't imagine it... standing up there on the bimah [stage] and talking to Joey about what this all means to me. I can't imagine even getting to that day with all that has to be done and all that's going on."
Sandra's husband, Don, it seems, has some real reservations about the meaning of bar mitzvahs. His own had left him with a bad taste and he is being "totally uncooperative." Every time she goes to him for help with something on her "To Do" list, they end up fighting. She is fighting with her son also. Joey isn't studying regularly enough, and Sandra can't see how he is going to learn his haftarah in time. On top of that, he is starting to give her trouble about his curfew. "You know, Mom," he yelled at her one night, "I'm not a kid anymore. You can't keep telling me what to do and when to do it all the time!" It is so unlike him.
But Sandra has something bigger to worry about than arguments or curfews: Her father's emphysema. It is getting worse. How is he going to make it to the bar mitzvah? But he has to. As he'd told her so often on the phone, he is "living for this day."
By now Sandra is sobbing.
If you are in the process of planning your child's bar or bat mitzvah (and especially if it is your first), I have no doubt that something in Sandra's story touches you deeply. Though the details may be different, I am sure that you, like Sandra, are dealing with unanticipated issues that are threatening the joy of this "joyous occasion."
Maybe you're divorced and you and your ex are fighting over how much this is all going to cost, never mind how you're going to handle all of the public awkwardness you already foresee.
Or maybe your spouse is not Jewish and the whole question of religious meaning is coming up all over again.
Or maybe you're worrying about your relatives' disapproval. They're from the city, and your plans for an informal party in the backyard will never meet their expectations.
Whatever the details, the distress is always the same. "What's wrong with me?" I can almost hear you asking. "What's wrong with my husband/wife, our child, our marriage, our family? The bar/bat mitzvah is supposed to be wonderful. How come I feel so miserable?"
There is nothing wrong with you, your child, or your family. You are simply in the thick of an extremely complex and pressured moment in your life. Sandwiched between the needs of your emerging teenager and your aging parents, and dealing with your own issues about being old enough to be the parent of a bar/bat mitzvah (You were always the kid at these affairs, weren't you?), you and your family are caught up in the inexorable process of developmental change. All of the family's biological clocks are ticking: Susie's growing up; Grandma's getting sicker; you're getting slower. And in the midst of all that ticking, you are planning one of life's major public dramas. You are in the process of orchestrating your child's formal coming of age in the Jewish community. What would be crazy is if you weren't feeling stressed.
For over a decade, I have been studying the meaning of bar/bat mitzvah in the lives of contemporary American Jewish families. As a family therapist and educator, I have been meeting and talking with hundreds of bar and bat mitzvah families -- religious families and secular families, families who live together and families who don't. I have counseled single parent families, gay families, interfaith and interracial families, families with lots of money, and those with little. I have seen families with bar/bat mitzvah traditions going back hundreds of years, and families for whom this is all brand new. From all of this experience, a few fairly simple, but very clear observations have emerged.
The first is that we underestimate the complexity and power of this event. The bar/bat mitzvah is not simply a religious ritual and a big birthday party. Nor is it just another developmental milestone along the child's road to adulthood. It is, instead, a major transitional event in the life of the entire family -- the child, the parents, and the grandparents. It is a rite of passage that reverberates throughout the entire extended family as well. If you don't believe me, when was the last time you heard so much from Great-Aunt Doris on your mother's side?
The second observation is that, for most of us, it is a time not only of great joy, but of great stress as well. To begin with, yours is a family entering a new -- and some would say particularly challenging -- life stage. Most obviously, or maybe most confusingly, your baby is growing up. Between Barbies and bras or Webelos and wet dreams, your head is spinning.
Mirroring your child's changes are your own transitions. You are maturing, and your relationship with your spouse or partner must also mature. Like it or not, still married or not, the two of you are having to find new ways of dealing with each other and with your differences over this upcoming rite of passage, this initiation into Jewish responsibility, your child's transition into adolescence.
And finally, your parents aren't getting any younger either. With their aging increasingly apparent, you are beginning to worry about them in new ways. If the inevitable care-taking reversals haven't yet begun, they are fast approaching. No wonder you're anxious. You are dealing with change in relation to your child, your parents, your partner, and your self.
With these stresses, your hands are full enough, but there's more. As a family, you have chosen to celebrate your child's 13th birthday with a religious ritual that has a long history and lots of expectations around it. You have thus taken on the challenge of organizing -- not to mention paying for -- what is, no matter how you do it, the biggest, costliest, most emotion-filled event you've ever been responsible for. Think about it. The last event of this magnitude and importance was probably your wedding, and that your parents managed mostly.
Never before have you, as an adult, brought together all of the people who are important to you in your life and in your child's life to meet at a single event at once so personal and so public. For the first time, you will be encountering with one face all of your relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and friends from over the years. This is a huge emotional as well as logistical undertaking.
And that's still not all. Unless you are an observant Jew or one who has evolved an alternative connection to the tradition with which you feel totally comfortable, you are probably at least ambivalent, if not altogether conflicted about, the spiritual meaning of what you are doing and what you are asking your child to do. This is especially true for some of us who grew up in the God-Is-Dead 60s and 70s, a time when we rejected religious ritual as hollow and meaningless. If you are like me, every time you read or hear something critical or ridiculing about today's bar and bat mitzvahs, you probably wince with recognition if not self blame.
The third observation, you will be happy to hear, is not about more stress, but about the way the bar/bat mitzvah helps us make use of the stress. In the context of these developmental changes and these pressures of preparation, the bar/bat mitzvah works therapeutically to help us heal and grow. Like a lightning rod, it draws out in dramatic relief whatever is important or difficult in the family and pushes us to deal with it -- in one fashion or another -- through the event and its preparation. The bar/bat mitzvah, like all life cycle rituals (weddings, circumcisions, baby namings, funerals) focuses the family's attention on exactly those developmental issues it needs to be addressing.
Davis will be speaking at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Sun., Feb. 13. For more information call Temple Ahavat Shalom at (818) 360-2258.
The phrase bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah is a noun. It is the name of the ceremony and of the celebrant. We say that we are planning our child's bar or bat mitzvah, and we say that our child is becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah. (The plural is B'nai Mitzvah.) We do not say our child is "being bar or bat mitzvahed." Yes, I know we say it, but grammatically we shouldn't. Philosophically we shouldn't either. "Being bar/bat mitzvahed" implies that something is being done to a passive celebrant. "'Becoming' a Bar/Bat Mitzvah puts the emphasis much more accurately on what is really happening, on the active evolutionary nature of the process."