June 24, 2009
How to Succeed in B’nai Mitzvah Without Really Trying!
So you want to have a bar or bat mitzvah ... good. Here are a few tips on how to make it through the year leading up to the big day.
Managing Parental Stress
By the time they start nudging you daily about practicing, it is important to take them by the hand, sit them down and pop in an old Betamax of their own embarrassing disco-era bar/bat mitzvah. Watch their service, look over their geeky photos and be sure to ridicule them as much as possible — it takes the edge off for you and reminds them how much work you are putting in. This bonding time with the folks will also help everyone keep things in perspective.
And if things get really tense, there is always a great book called “Who’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Is This Anyway?” by Judith Davis (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998). Quickly throw it toward the parental units and make a hasty retreat (or have it anonymously arrive to their attention via Amazon.com).
Your voice will crack up there — your face full of braces, your arms longer than they should be, and a pimple in the center of your nose. Anthropologists will one day use the haircut you’re so sure is timelessly cool right now to determine the exact month the photo was taken (see Mom’s Dorothy Hamill and Dad’s Flock of Seagulls cut).
In the movie, “Keeping the Faith,” Ben Stiller’s rabbi character explains to his vocally challenged bar mitzvah student that he should embrace his “suckiness.” So don’t stress. The truth is it’s not a performance; it’s a time to be with your community and celebrate the process of gaining knowledge and questioning — so enjoy it.
While it may be the most awkward time in life, your bar/bat mitzvah can be one of the best memories in the making, a true accomplishment — this can only happen by taking an active role in your preparation for that day.
The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony has served to motivate Jews to obtain the first level of learning in Jewish life, but the goal of it really is the process before and the exploration that happens as you head into adulthood. So it is important to remember that preparing for the big day is more about preparing for life. Learn for the sake of learning.
With that spirit in mind, your bar/bat mitzvah can be one of the great milestones of life. You are making a public commitment to your family, your friends and yourself that you will continue to seek out knowledge and to wrestle with what tradition and culture have to offer. All of this said, there is no reason to do something only for the sake of tradition or because everyone is doing it — or because your parents promised you a new iPod or a Shetland pony.
The tradition you are learning about encourages you to question — so do that! Very often, it can feel like we are meant to fit a mold that we had nothing to do with forming. And if through the process of seeking and learning, you find that a bar/bat mitzvah service is not for you right now, there is nothing wrong with saying, “This isn’t for me.” The learning can be done no matter what — this is a great opportunity to study Hebrew, the stories, the history and traditions of the Jewish people, whether you throw a party or not. If anything, a genuine process like this continues the great tradition of questioning the tradition you’ve been handed.
A couple of helpful tools: Keep a journal during the process and refer back to it so you can chart how far you have come — this can be very fulfilling and a great thing to read when you’re older or show your own child one day.
Be sure you’re keeping in touch with the rabbi, cantor or whoever is officiating about how the service will run. These religious leaders can also be a great resource to you. They are not unapproachable — in fact, they will be thrilled that you are making the effort.
And sit down with your parents and let them know how it is going. Be honest; don’t tell them just what they want to hear. You don’t want to be three weeks out from the big day and only then share with your mom that you never learned how to read Hebrew. Whoops!
Speaking of which, it would be super cool of you to involve your mom or grandma, who may have been left out of the process when they were children, living in less egalitarian times. It can be a great time in your family’s life, so try to involve everyone, especially younger siblings who definitely want to feel a part of it.
A private bar/bat mitzvah can be even more personalized, which gives you the opportunity to take a more active role in developing the service. While preparing for a private service, there is a great chance to go shul hopping and see what all different types of services are like. Take this opportunity to check out a Christian service, a Muslim service — or really freak your parents out and tell them you’ve heard great things about the Church of Scientology. Being exposed to different religious experiences will help you in planning yours and give you a chance to see how varied practices are throughout the Jewish community and the world.
If you are spending all this time learning a text, ask your tutor to point out the three-letter roots of the Hebrew words as well as go over basic vocabulary, prefixes and suffixes. Find an interlinear translation of the prayers with the English translation for each word written directly underneath each Hebrew word (check out a version of the Artscroll siddur that does just this). Often Hebrew words are a combination of more than one English word, and it can be incredibly fulfilling to “excavate” your passages so when you are reading the Hebrew up there, you have a real connection to what you are saying. Those listening can tell.
It is helpful to get into a routine. Find an appointed time of the day — before a favorite TV show, before dinner or after dinner, in the car or on the bus on the way to school. Before bed is always a mistake — you end up falling asleep on your chumash and having nightmares that your father is about to sacrificially slit your throat!
So make sure it’s your own words — too often we let parents or teachers revise our work, so much that it is almost unrecognizable by the end of the editing process. The best speeches are those that were written by the students themselves and are from the heart. Definitely practice the speech several times and in front of others, but not so much so that it feels overly rehearsed — make sure to look up, smile and talk to us.
We all can be overwhelmed by the problems out there in the world that need fixing; but if you hold tight to the notion that each of us can make a difference, one recycled water bottle at a time, you will find an option that will be meaningful to both you and those you are helping. Maybe do something new, something out of your comfort zone. You might say, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to knit blankets for orphan babies, but never had the time,” or “I want to raise money for endangered sharks, but was too scared to do so until now,” or “I know how to single-handedly resolve the Middle East peace process — just give me a chance.” Not to worry, there is an organization for just about everything and they will be happy to have you lend a hand.
As if there wasn’t enough pressure, all your friends are there at your bar/bat mitzvah. Try not to worry about what everyone will say about your big day in school on Monday, because by next Monday it’ll be on to some other pimply-faced victim. Don’t feel like your bar/bat mitzvah has to be like everyone else’s, or anyone else’s. The best services and parties are those that feel true to the person they are celebrating — not just having the dancing Lakers girls at the party because your friend Timmy had them.
So many details will have gone into that day. It’s OK if a couple things go awry. By now you’ve mastered some impressive skills. It’s important to note that even the most accomplished Torah readers have someone next to them, following along, in case they need assistance. So go easy on yourself — it’s OK to make a mistake. Take a deep breath. A good rule of thumb while up in front of everyone — take a moment before each prayer, blessing and reading that you do. Of course, you want to do well and feel accomplished, but everyone sitting out there loves you and wants you to be great. As a last resort, you can always imagine everyone in his or her underwear ... except Aunt Phyllis — that would make anybody nervous.
Todd Shotz is the founder of Hebrew Helpers (hebrewhelpers.com), a Los Angeles-based bar/bat mitzvah tutoring service, which works both in conjunction with many area synagogues as well as with families planning private services.