A woman walks into a medical office and asks the doctor, "Can you make me a man?" The doctor replies, "Well, there's two ways we can go about doing this: the cheap way or the expensive way."
Jay's big day -- photo courtesy of Debby and Nate Firestone
"What's the cheap way?" the woman asks.
"Surgery," the doctor responds.
"Then what's the expensive way?" she asks.
The doctor says, "a bar mitzvah."
I wish I had added that joke to my bar mitzvah speech, but I didn't think of it until 10 years later. Also, I don't think it would've been well-received by my religious relatives.
Although its been almost a full 10 years, I still remember my bar mitzvah quite well: June 7, 1997, Parshat Bamidbar.
I remember the guests that gave up a precious Saturday morning, the flowers my mother demanded be placed on the bimah to effeminately illustrate my masculine blossoming and the Kiddush luncheon that rewarded the congregation for staying for the entirety of the service. But most of all, as I stood on the bimah while the crowd chanted "Mazel tov" and rocketed candy mercilessly toward my face, I remember thinking: "Am I really a man now? Just like that?"
I know now the bar mitzvah ceremony didn't instantly make me a man, but if I am one today, after 10 years, its because of the lessons I learned throughout the entire experience.
Gift of Patience
After 10 years, I can only hope that I'm as mature as the $1,800 worth of savings bonds I received as gifts. At the time, I hated those guests who decided I wasn't ready for their cash. But now, as a recent college graduate just starting out in the real world, I can't think of any better bar mitzvah gift than that. Thankfully those bonds have taught me the importance of patience and smart spending.
But if I had had my way, I would have spent that money on comic books and baseball cards 10 years ago. However, because I waited, I learned the valuable lesson of accepting the wisdom and advice of others, thus providing me with sufficient funds so I can now go out and buy $1,800 worth of comic books and baseball cards.
One of the greatest aspects of becoming a man is being able to understand the theoretical and practical properties of time. I must not have been ready to grasp such an abstract concept prior to reading the Torah, because each of my five uncles presented me with a beautiful wristwatch as my manhood approached.
As a man, I was ready to keep track of my own time. As ridiculous as it may sound, the idea of being responsible for my own time serves some value in accepting the responsibility of manhood. A man is expected to be at certain places at certain times, while always having a greater understanding of what's around him. My five watches provide me with this, while at the same time providing me with five fewer excuses for being late anywhere.
Don't Point Fingers
One of the most difficult notions of becoming a man is understanding the consequences of our actions and knowing our own power. Several days before my bar mitzvah, I was going through my usual "annoy my sisters routine" when one of them rightfully stuck out her middle finger at me.
In disgust, I grabbed it as evidence to show my father that his daughter wasn't as angelic as she appeared. Three hours and one emergency room visit later, doctors laughed as my sister had become the only girl to be injured in such a manner. Throughout the ceremony and the youth-group induction, she wore a splint on her middle finger, not only as a health precaution but also as a reminder to me that for every path we choose there are consequences and repercussions.
I learned this the easy way. My sister, unfortunately, learned it the hard way.
Thanks for Nothing
While there were many challenges I faced throughout the bar mitzvah process, the hardest by far in my recollection was writing the hundreds of thank you notes by myself. "Men don't say thank you" was one of my best arguments for trying to get out of the arduous task, but it was hopeless.
My mother owned me. The cards had to be taken care of, and there was only one man for the job. This perhaps was one of the greatest lessons I learned that I still rely on today. Even after the party's over, there's work to be done, and in order to achieve success, every task must have appropriate follow through -- in addition to monogrammed stationery.
I had studied for nine months, sacrificed an hour each week and then thanked a bunch a people I didn't know. And then in a single day I was "a man." But after 10 years of ignoring this question, I ask myself again: "Am I really a man now?"
I'm certainly a different person, with a lot more hair (in fact, the only thing I shaved for my bar mitzvah was seconds off my adrenaline-rushed speech). But aside from the physical difference, the mental transformation wasn't as easy as I had originally thought.
I realize now that the bar mitzvah really meant I was finally ready to become a man.
At my bar mitzvah, I became a man to prove it to my parents. At my college graduation, I became a man to prove it to my peers. And after 10 years, I struggle to become a better man to prove it to myself.
I'll let you know how I turn out in another 10 years.
Jay Firestone will read from the Torah on May 19, 9 a.m. at Temple Beth Israel, 8056 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Kiddush luncheon to follow.