Jewish Journal

The Secular Bar Mitzvah

by Annie Korzen

August 22, 2011 | 12:46 pm

Coming-of-age rituals are a part of growing up.  They exist in every culture: christenings, communions, sweet-sixteens, quinceaneras, debutante balls – whatever.  They can all take a bite out of your wallet. But, thrifty as we are, that is not the main reason we did not give our son, Jonathan a traditional bar mitzvah. 

Hebrew is a sung language when it’s used for prayer – and Jono can’t carry a tune.  I didn’t want him to go through the humiliation of having to sing in public.  More importantly, since we’re not religious, we felt it would be hypocritical to join a temple just for this one occasion.

But we did want our son to have some kind of “now-I-am-a-man” ceremony, and we wanted him to celebrate his Jewish roots, so we created our own secular event.  We sent him to a Yiddish poet for several months of private lessons in Jewish history, culture and literature.  We invited a bunch of people over for a big lunch, and Jonathan read a speech he had written called “Jewish Values in the Modern World.”  Also, I had asked each guest to give Jono a list of their ten favorite books and movies so that he could have his own personal liberal arts guide. 

The celebration was a huge success and everyone congratulated us on being innovative and creative and true to our own values.  Everyone, that is, except our son.  He felt cheated, and accused us of doing a cheapo hippy-dippy version of what could have been a much more profitable opportunity for him.

“Why didn’t I have a real bar mitzvah with a party in a fancy restaurant? I would have gotten lots of money and cool gifts instead of books, pens, and those stupid lists!” 

And then I remembered the first law of parenthood: whatever choice you make, your child will resent you for it - so you might as well do what feels right to you.  I told Jonathan that if he really wanted a traditional bar mitzvah with an extravagant party he would have to wait until he could pay for it himself - like Kirk Douglas did at the age of eighty-three. (Mazeltov, Spartacus!)  As it happens, Jono now gets a lot of pleasure and pride out of being well educated.  And he admits that those “stupid lists” stirred the beginnings of his intellectual curiosity.

Word got out about our event and a writer called to interview me.  He was doing a book about people who create their own rituals.  My favorite was about an Italian family.  For many generations they have been carpenters: old-fashioned craftsmen who still carve furniture the traditional way.  This is a dying art, like so many artisanal crafts.  As a matter of fact, modern-day Italy has a surplus of doctors, and a shortage of shoemakers.  But this particular family wanted to keep their craft alive, so they had a rule: no child could eat with the grown-ups until he made his own chair. Bravo!


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Annie Korzen is a comedy writer and performer. Her humorous essays have been printed in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and more. She has...

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