Jewish Journal


September 27, 2007

Listen, kids, and you shall hear—it ain’t gonna be easy


Listen my children, and you shall hear
The bar mitzvah course that we shall steer.
The purpose of this speech is to prepare you for your bar mitzvah. And to let you know -- as Noah thought when he received the blueprints from the Master Shipbuilder -- this ain't gonna be easy.

First, you must memorize this sentence so it's clearly engraved on your heart and head: "It ain't gonna be easy." You can either write it 500 times in your notebook or pronounce it slowly and with passion before thou riseth up and before thou goeth out. Say it out loud: "It ain't gonna be easy." (Don't say it in front of your sixth-grade English teacher. If you do, don't tell her you learned it from me.)

Nothing you have accomplished so far in your 12 years of life has demanded the hard work and dedication this task will require, unless your name is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who gave up soccer for symphonies at 6 years of age.

I don't want to exaggerate the difficulty. Your bar mitzvah will not demand months of constant hard work -- just a little time daily, like 30 minutes. It's always better to overestimate an assignment. If you like to wade streams, don't assume it's two feet deep if, in fact, it's six feet.

You are both lucky and unlucky to be approaching the age of 13 in the 21st century. You're as fortunate as David the shepherd boy, who with one great pitch dusted brawny Goliath and made the biblical big leagues. You're lucky because friends and relatives will shower you with gift cards, iPods and digital cameras.

The bad news is that had you approached the age of 13, say a few-hundred years ago, you'd have received a free pass to adulthood in the Jewish community -- no speeches, no haftorah. Nothing. Of course, "nothing in, nothing out," as the computer folks say. No speeches, no presents.

Isaiah, who would have had no trouble with his haftorah, was never a bar mitzvah celebrant. At least there was never a formal ceremony. And neither Miriam nor Deborah celebrated a bat mitzvah. Isaiah never had a decent wallet or a fountain pen -- no ceremony, no presents. And Deborah grew up -- believe it or not -- without a subscription to CosmoGIRL!

Times were hard. I think the worst of all times was the Great Depression, when all the bar mitzvah requirements were in force, but generosity was not yet in style. It was the fountain pen era, and if your speech was sparkling and your haftorah rang the rafters, you got 27 fountain pens.

One other topic: For some reason, 12-year-olds specialize in losing b'nai mitzvah materials, like the copy of their haftorah and the audiotapes we'll be working with. This is a great mystery, like why you can't talk when you're face to face with the prettiest girl or most handsome boy in the sixth grade. Kids have a burning, irresistible compulsion to lose this material.

Once or twice is OK. But after the third, there'll be a penalty. Twenty bucks, which I'll donate to my favorite charity: the old broken-down bar mitzvah teacher's retirement fund.

You're a lucky boy or girl. We don't have to whisper our haftorah. We don't need a sentry by the synagogue door on the lookout for the mob, the hoodlums, the anti-Semites. The bar mitzvah boy -- your predecessor -- in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia and other dark times studied in stealth and recited his lessons in fear. But you can shout.

Our Pesach hagaddah tells us, "Now we are slaves; next year may we be free men." Well, today we are free -- free to sing your haftorah with passion, like David, the sweet singer of Israel. Surrounding you are the less-fortunate bar mitzvah children of yesteryear. Sing for them.

Ted Roberts, a longtime b'nai mitzvah teacher, is also a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Disney Magazine and Hadassah.

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