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Jewish Journal

How to Succeed in B’nai Mitzvah Without Really Trying!

by Todd Shotz

June 24, 2009 | 9:37 pm

So you want to have a bar or bat mitzvah ... good. Here are a few tips on how to make it through the year leading up to the big day.

Managing Parental Stress
First, your parents will inevitably go crazy. Slowly, over time, you’ll see the telltale signs. It is important to detect the early-onset symptoms of a parent’s mounting stress: Are they unusually quiet at the dinner table? Do they sit in a corner making endless lists, humming “Sunrise, Sunset”?

By the time they start nudging you daily about practicing, it is important to take them by the hand, sit them down and pop in an old Betamax of their own embarrassing disco-era bar/bat mitzvah. Watch their service, look over their geeky photos and be sure to ridicule them as much as possible — it takes the edge off for you and reminds them how much work you are putting in. This bonding time with the folks will also help everyone keep things in perspective.

And if things get really tense, there is always a great book called “Who’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Is This Anyway?” by Judith Davis (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998). Quickly throw it toward the parental units and make a hasty retreat (or have it anonymously arrive to their attention via Amazon.com).


The Best Time at the Worst Possible Time
The bar/bat mitzvah is held at exactly the wrong time for a young adult to stand up in front of a crowd and proclaim their adulthood. This practice is from the olden days when a 13-year-old would already have his own wife and two kids — so be happy your biggest responsibility is picking the color for the suede kippot.

Your voice will crack up there — your face full of braces, your arms longer than they should be, and a pimple in the center of your nose. Anthropologists will one day use the haircut you’re so sure is timelessly cool right now to determine the exact month the photo was taken (see Mom’s Dorothy Hamill and Dad’s Flock of Seagulls cut).

In the movie, “Keeping the Faith,” Ben Stiller’s rabbi character explains to his vocally challenged bar mitzvah student that he should embrace his “suckiness.” So don’t stress. The truth is it’s not a performance; it’s a time to be with your community and celebrate the process of gaining knowledge and questioning — so enjoy it.

While it may be the most awkward time in life, your bar/bat mitzvah can be one of the best memories in the making, a true accomplishment — this can only happen by taking an active role in your preparation for that day.


For the Right Reasons
Make sure you are having a bar/bat mitzvah for the right reasons. What they don’t tell you is that according to Jewish law, simply turning 13 for boys and 12 for girls makes you a bar/bat mitzvah. So happy birthday — and let’s stop any of this mitzvah mania!

The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony has served to motivate Jews to obtain the first level of learning in Jewish life, but the goal of it really is the process before and the exploration that happens as you head into adulthood. So it is important to remember that preparing for the big day is more about preparing for life. Learn for the sake of learning.

With that spirit in mind, your bar/bat mitzvah can be one of the great milestones of life. You are making a public commitment to your family, your friends and yourself that you will continue to seek out knowledge and to wrestle with what tradition and culture have to offer. All of this said, there is no reason to do something only for the sake of tradition or because everyone is doing it — or because your parents promised you a new iPod or a Shetland pony.

The tradition you are learning about encourages you to question — so do that! Very often, it can feel like we are meant to fit a mold that we had nothing to do with forming. And if through the process of seeking and learning, you find that a bar/bat mitzvah service is not for you right now, there is nothing wrong with saying, “This isn’t for me.” The learning can be done no matter what — this is a great opportunity to study Hebrew, the stories, the history and traditions of the Jewish people, whether you throw a party or not. If anything, a genuine process like this continues the great tradition of questioning the tradition you’ve been handed.


Making It Meaningful
You may be asking yourself: “What can my family and I do to make this sometimes dusty old rite of passage fresh and inspiring?” You can make it your own while incorporating the best that the tradition has to offer.

A couple of helpful tools: Keep a journal during the process and refer back to it so you can chart how far you have come — this can be very fulfilling and a great thing to read when you’re older or show your own child one day.

Be sure you’re keeping in touch with the rabbi, cantor or whoever is officiating about how the service will run. These religious leaders can also be a great resource to you. They are not unapproachable — in fact, they will be thrilled that you are making the effort.

And sit down with your parents and let them know how it is going. Be honest; don’t tell them just what they want to hear. You don’t want to be three weeks out from the big day and only then share with your mom that you never learned how to read Hebrew. Whoops!


Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Any Age
Not everyone is ready to go through the rigorous preparation for a bar/bat mitzvah at 12 or 13. That’s OK! A 16-year-old who is even more mature and comes to this decision on his/her own may have a unique experience that is right for that individual. Many of the smaller synagogues in town will be more than happy to host the bar/bat mitzvah of an older student, who may be at a better position to evaluate all that comes with it. Still other synagogues have adult b’nai mitzvah programs with students older than your parents or grandparents — if you think adolescence is hard, try menopause.

Speaking of which, it would be super cool of you to involve your mom or grandma, who may have been left out of the process when they were children, living in less egalitarian times. It can be a great time in your family’s life, so try to involve everyone, especially younger siblings who definitely want to feel a part of it.


If You Don’t Belong to a Synagogue
If you don’t belong to a synagogue, there are other options, including planning a private service with a tutor/facilitator. Some of the most fun b’nai mitzvah services are the ones in a backyard, in a park or on the beach — Jews can pray anywhere! You could also choose to go to Israel for the big day — this can be a great way to score a free trip out of the folks. But be careful — without the structure of a synagogue program, it is important to find a tutor you really connect with and who is truly capable of coordinating the process. Tell Mom and Dad you want to interview more than one person for the job. 

A private bar/bat mitzvah can be even more personalized, which gives you the opportunity to take a more active role in developing the service. While preparing for a private service, there is a great chance to go shul hopping and see what all different types of services are like. Take this opportunity to check out a Christian service, a Muslim service — or really freak your parents out and tell them you’ve heard great things about the Church of Scientology. Being exposed to different religious experiences will help you in planning yours and give you a chance to see how varied practices are throughout the Jewish community and the world.


What Are You Saying Up There?
Often, b’nai mitzvah students will feel as if they are going through the motions — learning a bunch of gibberish they have not been given a clear understanding of. You’ll hear other kids on the playground say, “Yeah, I memorized it from a CD” or “I can read it, but I have no idea what the heck I’m saying.” These kids are losers.

If you are spending all this time learning a text, ask your tutor to point out the three-letter roots of the Hebrew words as well as go over basic vocabulary, prefixes and suffixes. Find an interlinear translation of the prayers with the English translation for each word written directly underneath each Hebrew word (check out a version of the Artscroll siddur that does just this). Often Hebrew words are a combination of more than one English word, and it can be incredibly fulfilling to “excavate” your passages so when you are reading the Hebrew up there, you have a real connection to what you are saying. Those listening can tell.


Practice Well and Often
It helps all the more with practicing if you know what you are saying. That said, your parents are going to be harping on you night and day to go over your Torah, Haftarah and prayers. Here is how best to handle that situation: Practice several times a week rather than forcing yourself to sit down for one extended practice session. It’s painful to sit there for an hour at a time; 15-25 minute sessions are much more doable and, actually, practicing more often will help you to better retain the text. You may want to practice in earshot of the parents, just to get them off your back.

It is helpful to get into a routine. Find an appointed time of the day — before a favorite TV show, before dinner or after dinner, in the car or on the bus on the way to school. Before bed is always a mistake — you end up falling asleep on your chumash and having nightmares that your father is about to sacrificially slit your throat!


Rabbi for the Day
Write a drash (speech) for the service — one that relates the weekly Torah portion to your own life. You are thinking: How could I possibly do this? True, this is no simple task. But rest assured many less intelligent and able than you have done it before. Yours will not simply be OK, but memorable. The best of speeches are those that culminate from an in-depth process of wrestling with the text, reading commentaries by other thinkers on the subject and talking it out with teachers, friends and parents. It is your chance to teach the community. You are the rabbi for the day.

So make sure it’s your own words — too often we let parents or teachers revise our work, so much that it is almost unrecognizable by the end of the editing process. The best speeches are those that were written by the students themselves and are from the heart. Definitely practice the speech several times and in front of others, but not so much so that it feels overly rehearsed — make sure to look up, smile and talk to us.


Repairing the World
Take on a volunteer service project during your bar/bat mitzvah preparation — it can be a chance to make the world just a little bit better. After all, there is plenty of learning to do outside of class. Many communities will describe this bar/bat mitzvah project as an effort toward tikkun olam (repairing the world). A good resource is SuLam: The Center for Jewish Service Learning (sulamcenter.org), which matches teens with vetted service-learning opportunities throughout Los Angeles.

We all can be overwhelmed by the problems out there in the world that need fixing; but if you hold tight to the notion that each of us can make a difference, one recycled water bottle at a time, you will find an option that will be meaningful to both you and those you are helping. Maybe do something new, something out of your comfort zone. You might say, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to knit blankets for orphan babies, but never had the time,” or “I want to raise money for endangered sharks, but was too scared to do so until now,” or “I know how to single-handedly resolve the Middle East peace process — just give me a chance.” Not to worry, there is an organization for just about everything and they will be happy to have you lend a hand.


The Bar Mitzvah Circuit
Now that you are 13 you have entered what is known as the “Bar Mitzvah Circuit.” Every weekend the question will be: “What time? Which place? What to wear? And who is it this time?”

As if there wasn’t enough pressure, all your friends are there at your bar/bat mitzvah. Try not to worry about what everyone will say about your big day in school on Monday, because by next Monday it’ll be on to some other pimply-faced victim. Don’t feel like your bar/bat mitzvah has to be like everyone else’s, or anyone else’s. The best services and parties are those that feel true to the person they are celebrating — not just having the dancing Lakers girls at the party because your friend Timmy had them.


The Big Day
So, you’ve reached the day in which you proclaim to the world that you are an adult ... sort of. A word of caution: Your parents are going to cry. Let them. Also, a lot of people are going to want to kiss you and hug you and want to shake your hand — so be sure to pack hand sanitizer.

So many details will have gone into that day. It’s OK if a couple things go awry. By now you’ve mastered some impressive skills. It’s important to note that even the most accomplished Torah readers have someone next to them, following along, in case they need assistance. So go easy on yourself — it’s OK to make a mistake. Take a deep breath. A good rule of thumb while up in front of everyone — take a moment before each prayer, blessing and reading that you do. Of course, you want to do well and feel accomplished, but everyone sitting out there loves you and wants you to be great. As a last resort, you can always imagine everyone in his or her underwear ... except Aunt Phyllis — that would make anybody nervous.

Todd Shotz is the founder of Hebrew Helpers (hebrewhelpers.com), a Los Angeles-based bar/bat mitzvah tutoring service, which works both in conjunction with many area synagogues as well as with families planning private services.

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