January 12, 2006
More Blessing, Less Bragging on Bimah
One mother thanked every one of her daughter's teachers by name and grade, beginning with preschool. A father enumerated the scores of all his son's soccer games. And another mother, with tear-filled eyes and a choked-up voice, used the occasion to present her daughter with her first diamond.
Ever since parents began speaking at their children's bar and bat mitzvahs, they have raised the ante on length, competition and ostentation to the point where, according to University Synagogue's senior rabbi, Morley Feinstein, we find that every child is more compassionate than Mother Teresa, a faster swimmer than Mark Spitz and a better mathematician than Albert Einstein.
But increasingly, rabbis have taken steps to reclaim the bimah. They have reined in parents' freedom to present a laundry list of their child's achievements, awards and, occasionally, shortcomings. Instead, they are requiring or strongly encouraging parents to reshape their speeches as blessings and keep their focus on the child and the sanctity of one of Judaism's most significant rites of passage.
Donald Goor, senior rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, instituted the practice of parent blessings eight years ago "out of an attempt to ensure the holiness of the service." He gives parents multiple examples and wording specific to blessings. He even provides a structured, fill-in-the-blank "create-a-blessing" guide that helps them express their love, pride and dreams for their child in the mandated 300 words.
For Kaye Bernstein, whose third child, Jeffrey, became a bar mitzvah at Temple Judea on Dec. 18, adhering to the guidelines was not a problem.
"I tended to focus on what's distinguishing about his life, his personality and what he brings to the family mix," she said.
For her husband, Fred, giving a blessing made him think about his words in a different way.
"It's not a time to tell anecdotes or give a toast," he said.
Goor does not vet parent blessings. Neither does University Synagogue's Feinstein, who also provides parents with examples and who counsels them to keep their talks short and sweet and to recognize the holy nature of the day.
"I still have to trust parents. I don't want to be a censor," he said.
But at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Rabbi Paul Kipnes insists that parents give him a copy of their remarks -- limited to one double-spaced typed page -- at least a week in advance. He is especially concerned that they not tease or embarrass the child, however subtly, humorously or unintentionally. He also wants parents to share words of praise with their child before coming on the bimah because he believes that it's easy to compliment publicly, but the compliments that really matter are the private ones.
Most rabbis estimate that parents, primarily in non-Orthodox congregations, began giving speeches 10 to 20 years ago.
Many trace the custom to the traditional Baruch She-P'tarani blessing, dating back to the Middle Ages, that the father recited to mark his son's bar mitzvah. This blessing -- "Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy" -- has been omitted, reframed or replaced by both parents reciting the Shehecheyanu in most Reform and Conservative services.
Some rabbis also believe speeches may be modeled on the blessings Jewish parents give their sons and daughters at the Shabbat table on Friday evenings.
Additionally, Jeffrey Salkin, senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta and author of "Putting God on the Guest List" (Jewish Lights, 2005) sees parent speeches as part of a trend in customs that used to occur at the celebration, such as a parent's toast, being moved into the service.
"I'm tempted to say that it's because people want to own the experience, to have more of a personal investment," he said. For him, the practice isn't problematic as long as parents don't use the opportunity to competitively troop out their child's talents.
In Orthodox shuls, parent speeches are generally not an issue as the predominant model, according to Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, since only the bar or bat mitzvah and the rabbi speak at the service. And at Muskin's synagogue, that occurs after the service.
But it's quite accepted that parents speak during the celebration, and, even there, Muskin believes it's important that they incorporate some religious content, such as a d'var Torah or a spiritual charge to their child.
Sally Olins, rabbi of Temple B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, asks parents to speak on two occasions -- on Friday night when they read the dedication that they have written in the siddur they give to their child and on Saturday mornings when they present the tallit.
Olins offers guidelines both individually and in classes she holds for pre-bar and bat mitzvah parents. She asks them to keep their words short and to focus on the child, not the congregation. For her, the worst -- long-winded but not inappropriate -- was a parent who began her remarks with a description of the child's nine months in utero.
"I try to say, could you start a little later in life?" she said.
The process seemed overwhelming at first for Susan and Jeffrey Osser, whose daughter, Melissa, became a bat mitzvah at B'nai Hayim on Dec. 10. But it turned out to be very simple because they both, unintentionally and separately, wrote the siddur dedication and the tallit presentation and then melded them together.
"We both sat down at a time that was perfect for us individually when the creative juices were flowing and wrote from our hearts," Susan Osser said. "It was so unplanned that it was authentic."
In general, most rabbis believe that parents are becoming more aware of the significance and sanctity of bar and bat mitzvah. And while their words may not always be exactly in the language in blessing, parents are speaking less and less in the language of competition and aggrandizement and more and more in the language of love and support.
Said Salkin, "Every time I think of getting rid of this custom, I think of all the nice stuff I hear. I realize I would be punishing some very fine speeches if we decided not to allow this."