January 10, 2002
Everything I Know About Bar Mitzvahs
Many Native American parents, in an adolescent rite of passage, send their teenage sons on a solo journey, without food and with little water, into the wilderness. This is called a vision quest, and the child doesn't return until he is visited in a dream by his personal spirit. Often, this takes several days.
We Jews, on the other hand, who are not called stiff-necked for nothing, insist not only on keeping our hormonally challenged teenagers at home, but also on presenting them to the entire Jewish community in an elaborate, expensive and anxiety-provoking ceremony. This is called a bar or bat mitzvah, and it signifies that our teenager has become an adult according to Jewish law, even though this child still cannot vote, drive or pick up his socks.
Additionally, a party, or "celebration" as some people prefer to call it, is a mandated concomitant. As far back as the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch, the classical code of Jewish law, states, "It is the obligation of the father to tender a festive meal in honor of his son's becoming a bar mitzvah." What the Shulchan Aruch neglects to say, however, is that this party need not feature an appearance by the Laker Girls, a snowboard simulator or a 15-foot-high climbing wall.
My own sons are currently 18, 14, 12 and 10. This means I have helped expedite two boys into men, though I have yet to master the arm movements to "YMCA."
This also means I'm somewhat of a maven in the bewildering world of bar mitzvah planning, available for consultations on everything from how many kids to invite, to how much money (always in multiples of 18) to give as gifts, to where to get the best buy on light sticks.
My favorite bit of advice, however, comes not from personal experience but from my friend Rachel Ehrich, who heard it from her cousin in Orange County. "You will find yourself doing things," she said, "that you never believed you were capable of doing."
For me, that meant agreeing to centerpieces consisting of -- no, not baskets of canned goods to be donated to food pantries or books to be donated to needy libraries -- 3-foot-high glitter-covered football players, each representing one NFL team, each standing in crumpled sheets of matching Mylar. My son Zack's bar mitzvah, you see, occurred Super Bowl weekend.
But the biggest challenge, I've discovered, is not preparing for one's own child's bar mitzvah or allowing enough time to needlepoint the requisite tallit bag and atara (the collar of the tallit). It's not even sacrificing every Saturday night for an entire year to drive car pool.
No, the biggest challenge is ensuring that the 12- and 13-year-old guests, who attend these events sometimes on a weekly basis and often have a jaded "been there, done that" attitude, act respectfully and appropriately. That no bar and bat mitzvah, on account of other teenagers' behavior, has to say, as I heard one child once say as her friends poured out of her party early, "This is the worst day of my life."
Yes, the rumors are true. These adolescents have been known to stuff up toilets, tear up furniture and tear down ceilings. To leave the premises, ride up and down elevators and, yes, perform sexually precocious acts in bathrooms. In short, to ruin someone's once-in-a-lifetime event.
No, not everyone. No, not always.
As parents of a bar or bat mitzvah, there are myriad ways to circumvent, or at least minimize, potential problems. For starters, plan a kid-centered party with a kid-friendly DJ and kid-sanctioned music. Select a room that is escape-proof, and post security guards or other parents to supervise. Additionally, avoid "attractive nuisances" such as centerpieces, giveaways, and party favors (watch out for those "wax hands") that can be converted into weapons or lobbed across banquet rooms.
As parents of attendees, we can impose certain rules on our children. My own son Jeremy, 12, who is currently on the bar and bat mitzvah "circuit," knows he is to sit quietly and respectfully through the entire service at a reform synagogue and, at the least, through the entire Torah service at a Conservative or orthodox shul. And before every event, we review expected conduct. Well, actually, I talk and he rolls his eyes and mutters, "I know, I know."
He also knows that attending the service is a prerequisite to attending the celebration. And that my No. 1 pet peeve is parents, especially those who have made a commitment to day school education, who allow their kids to miss the service, usually to participate on a soccer, golf or swim team, and yet make every party.
These problems, of course, are not new. But they do need to be addressed and readdressed.
The entire seventh-grade class at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, for example, early in the year participates in a one-day retreat at Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The kids learn about the significance of the ritual, review the service and discuss proper conduct. Interestingly enough, according to Jeremy and confirmed by Larry Kligman, middle school dean and Judaic studies teacher, almost all the kids fear their parents will be upset by their friends' behavior.
Additionally, this year, a group of us Heschel parents formed an administration-endorsed committee to raise parents' awareness of these issues and to serve as a resource, particularly for first-time parents.
But all of us Jewish parents, since the bar mitzvah was instituted around the 15th century, should be given credit for embracing our self-conscious, know-it-all adolescents and welcoming them into the community with a ceremony that is meaningful, powerful and transformative.
At the same time, we should all strive to ensure that every bar and bat mitzvah is bolstered by enthusiastic, supportive and appropriately behaved friends at both the service and the celebration. And that he or she can legitimately claim, "This is the best day of my life."