August 8, 2002
The ‘Contemporary’ Bar Mitzvah
"No, Jeremy, you cannot wear 'liberty spikes' to your bar mitzvah party," I say, referring to the hair-style that transforms my son's head into the Statue of Liberty's crown.
"Mom, you don't understand," he says. "Even when I'm 50, I'll be spiking my hair."
Oh, to be adolescent and all-knowing (and optimistic about retaining a full head of hair). And to be burdened with such an antediluvian for a mother.
"OK," he counters, "what if instead of liberty spikes, I wear a red zoot suit?"
Most people think the bar mitzvah is a religious ceremony in which the 13-year-old assumes adult responsibilities according to Jewish law and tradition. It is.
But it is also a negotiation over liberty spikes and red zoot suits, an opportunity to push the limits and push one's parents' buttons, a struggle from dependence to increasing independence.
In short, it is a rite of passage, a term coined by the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in 1909 to mark the tumultuous and crucial transition from childhood to adulthood. A transition which, according to Van Gennep, encompasses a separation from society, a transformation and a return to society in a new role.
Clearly, as most parents today would attest, any 13-year-old worth his extrahold gel should be separated from society. At least until he turns 20. But instead of banishing our 13-year-old to boot camp or, even better, the Bermuda Triangle, we Jews induct him into the community with a ritual that is significant and transformative. We confer on him full adult responsibilities as a member of the tribe.
Because, as Judah ben Tema, a second-century rabbi, tells us, "At 13, one is ready for mitzvot."And because, since the 16th century, rabbis have been calling 13-year-old boys to the bimah to read Torah.
Thus, on the morning of June 29, at Los Angeles' University Synagogue, Jeremy was called to read from Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 to 30:1), the parsha (portion of the week).
This past spring, interestingly, all of my sons were engaged in some rite of passage, propelling them closer to manhood and sending the testosterone levels in our home soaring.
But none of these events was as meaningful and as substantial as the bar mitzvah. For Jeremy is not only moving into the future, he is also affirming his solid footing in the past, in a heritage thousands of years old that provides him with values, morals and a structure for dealing with life's questions and confusion.
Take his drash (commentary on the Torah), for instance, which he presented to the congregation.
In this portion, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, murders an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who have been behaving immorally. In return, God awards Pinchas and all his descendants with permanent priesthood in Israel.
"That's not right," Jeremy says. "In the Torah, God tells us not to commit murder."
Also in this portion, God tells Moses to climb the mountains of Avarim to see the land that has been given to the Israelites. As punishment, Moses is to prepare to die there and not enter the Promised Land.
"That's also not right," Jeremy says. "All Moses did was hit the rock instead of talking to it. He was getting water for the Israelites."
"How come God rewards a murder and punishes a misdemeanor?" Jeremy asks. "What kind of God is this?"
As a 13-year-old, Jeremy wrestles with right and wrong, with justice and injustice, with good and evil, on a daily basis. In the world, he sees terrorists murder innocent victims. At school, he feels unfairly blamed for the actions of his classmates. And at home, he is not allowed to wear liberty spikes or a red zoot suit to his bar mitzvah party.
"Life's not fair," he complains, repeating the mantra of every teenager.
But he says this with the increasing awareness of an adult.
Because, as Jay Frailich, the cantor at the University Synagogue, says, "The most important part of the bar mitzvah is not the ceremony but the process."
For Jeremy, this process began at his brit milah (circumcision), where he was initiated into the covenant of Judaism and where my husband, Larry, and I promised to bring him to a life of gemilut chasadim (good deeds), Torah and chuppah (the wedding canopy).
And it has continued through 11 years of Jewish preschool and day school, through celebrations of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, through attendance at Jewish day camp, dances and b'nai mitzvah.
Yes, Jeremy can chant his Torah portion and his Haftarah like a pro. He can recite prayers such as the "V'ahavta" and the "G'vurot." He can lead the entire morning service. But even more important, Jeremy can face fundamental and difficult ethical issues that are not only embedded in the Torah but that also manifest themselves in "real life." He can determine what kind of human being he wants to be in this seemingly unfair world.
Ideally, Jeremy knows not to wear liberty spikes and red zoot suits, not to tattoo his body or join a cult. Ideally, he has the courage and confidence and tools to act on his convictions. But, of course, and not always ideally, Jeremy is still only 13.
"Mom," he says, "do you think I could spike just the front of my hair? And maybe wear a navy blue zoot suit?"