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JewishJournal.com

July 12, 2007

This book can help kick off successful year of study

http://www.jewishjournal.com/bar_and_bat_mitzvahs/article/this_book_can_help_kick_off_successful_year_of_study_20070713

Each week, children around the world partake in the b'nai mitzvah, a life-altering event that normally paves the way for greater Jewish participation. But how many of them actually know the meaning and origin of the simcha?

Given my own experience as a b'nai mitzvah instructor, I would expect it to be a relatively small number.

And before Bert Metter's three sons went through their respective bar mitzvahs, he said he knew very little as well. Metter never had a bar mitzvah of his own, but he said after going through the experience with his children, he emerged a bit of an expert.

In 1984, Metter wrote "Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: How Jewish Boys and Girls Come of Age," a guide specifically geared toward the b'nai mitzvah student. But more than two decades later, Metter said the book deserved an update, because it no longer reflects contemporary ceremonies, especially since practices and celebrations have evolved.

"The whole position of the ceremony and cultural life has changed over the last 25 years," said Metter, a 79-year-old Connecticut resident. "Many more non-Jewish people attend the ceremony, there's more diversity now and the meaning of the ceremony has grown in importance."

With the August release of his revised, "Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be" (Clarion Books), Metter hopes to impart some timely clarity before young adults take to the bimah, by providing a "concise background" for those with a vague understanding of the b'nai mitzvah.

"Most books are too complicated," said Metter, who has written the book at a fourth-grade level. Instead, he wants "to bridge the gap between kids that are going through the ceremony and the more secular kids without the religious training."

Framing the b'nai mitzvah as similar to coming-of-age rites the world over and throughout history, Metter explores the evolution of the Jewish ceremony. Less physical and more spiritual than its counterparts, the age for b'nai mitzvah was set at 13 for boys and 12 more recently for girls, because these were considered turning-point ages. He writes that this stands in contrast to Jewish law, which put draft and tax ages at 20.

And while the bar mitzvah has been a tradition for boys since the Middle Ages, Metter devoted equal time to the more recent active roles women have taken in synagogue life, from Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, daughter of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan, the first female to become bat mitzvah, to passages about Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi.

In an effort to inspire students, Metter includes celebrity b'nai mitzvah testimonials from stars like Jamie Gertz, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marlee Matlin, Jeremy Piven, Ben Stiller and Zoe Weizenbaum.

Metter writes that Gyllenhaal's party was in a homeless shelter, because his parents wanted him to appreciate how good his life was. But for Gertz, her bat mitzvah day was one disaster after another. She ran a 103-degree temperature, and a snowstorm kept half of her relatives from attending the ceremony. "I enjoyed my son's bar mitzvah much more," she says.

Covering ceremony basics, from the Torah scrolls and tallit to prayers, the book also provides insight as to what the student may be thinking on the nights prior to the ceremony.

"You lie in bed, and in your mind you go over the prayers that you are to read tomorrow. And you recite lines from your speech you will have to give," wrote Metter, who spent several months researching the topic and interviewed one Reform and two Conservative rabbis to ensure the guide's accuracy.

And besides the traditional reasons for the b'nai mitzvah -- among them, publicly affirming one's faith -- Metter introduces young readers to the concept that preparation for the ceremony is helpful in that it helps them face "moral questions." "The religious study encouraged by and required for the ceremony helps prepare them for facing these questions," he writes.

Helpful to students, parents and tutors, "Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah" provides an excellent overview of what the b'nai mitzvah is about. in addition to getting them excited about the whole process.

In addition to discussing the different b'nai mitzvah traditions and practices from cultures throughout the world, Metter also covers the growing practice of celebrating a b'nai mitzvah in Israel or in a congregation in the United States or abroad that has specific historical significance.

Although he's more in favor of standard ceremonies and modest parties, Metter remains moderately balanced when explaining the different customs and styles of celebration. For every extravagant party that might feature Ja Rule or Ashanti, there is a modest small-town celebration, he writes, and yet both students will likely enjoy their simchas.

Written with a more religiously liberal crowd in mind, this book is one that can help kick off a successful year of b'nai mitzvah study.

Metter, an advertising executive, is currently at work on a book about helping kids improve their SAT scores. Expanding on the Jewish celebrations theme, he is also mulling over a book about the Passover seder.

As far as an adult bar mitzvah, another topic covered in his 80-page "Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah," Metter isn't ruling out the possibility of studying to become a son of the commandment.

"I plan on doing one in near future," he said.

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