If you were the greatest, most eloquent writer in the world, how would you tackle the job of summarizing your feelings for your child?
Resuscitated people who say they’ve glimpsed heaven report that there are luminous colors there we’ve never seen on earth. Perhaps there are also words there wondrous enough to express what we hold in our hearts for our children, but I don’t know what they are. We’re stuck with the thousands of words we know, none of which seem up to the task.
So it’s probably best right now to make your peace with the idea that whatever you say in a speech to your child, however long you go on, it’s never going to feel completely right or sufficient. If you’re making a speech from the bimah, the clergy and congregants would most definitely prefer that you keep your remarks short and to the point. You will have many more chances at the party to speak at length.
Parent speeches seem to fall into a few categories: The ones that are purely about the love, joy and pride we feel as parents; the ones that instruct the child on embracing Judaism; and those that do both.
There is at least one other type of speech: the spoken resume. This is the one that chronicles the child’s every achievement from birth. It sounds like a love-and-pride speech, because the information is presented that way: “and then after you led your team to victory in the semifinals, we were so proud that you were chosen MVP….” But we’re not fooled now, are we? These parents feel that certainly on this day, they’ve got bragging rights, and they aim to use them.
I don’t want to be judgmental, because my children move me to tears and, when faced with doing right by them in a speech, I’m just as perplexed and stammering as the next mom.
What Kids Want Their Parents to Say
First, kids don’t want to be embarrassed, so forget about telling those adorable stories from their baby and childhood years. And second, kids want you to recognize the hard work of bar/bat mitzvah preparation — but don’t detail their struggles. Your child does not want to be viewed as anything other than the cool, commanding individual he/she appears to be today.
It may sound strange, but I think many parents do feel that something changes about their child on bar or bat mitzvah day. Or perhaps something changes about themselves.
The tussles over Torah study are finished. You can’t hold his hand anymore; he goes on alone from here. There’s a great sense of dignity and majesty around him.
You may have heard him chant his portion before in the kitchen, but it’s quite another matter to see him up on the bimah, beautifully dressed, standing before the huge Torah scroll. And to see all eyes turn to him — they don’t see the baby you held in your arms or the goofy boy he was just yesterday. Today, he is a man.
What does your child want you to say before she goes? That you know how hard she worked, how much it took to get here. That you could never take for granted how complicated it is to be young and on the verge of adulthood — wanting to go, longing to stay. That you love the person she is and admire the person she’s becoming. That no matter how far away she goes, you will always be her home.
Listen to OtherParent Speeches
In choosing your own words, it’s a very good idea to attend as many bar and bat mitzvah services at your own synagogue as possible leading up to your own big day. If the synagogue allows parent speeches from the bimah, you will certainly hear enough to know what sounds right to you. You can even grab little phrases here and there that you might want to use.
Not to diminish what is special in each one, but parent speeches over the course of a year become a de facto essay contest, because everyone is trying to do their best with the same topic. You be the judge of who succeeds. Go and learn from them. In addition to the creative inspiration, it will make you very excited about how you’re going to feel when it’s your family’s turn.
Overcoming Your Nervousness
It’s normal to be nervous. On a day when we ask our child to get up in front of 100 people and risk embarrassment, it seems only fair that we should also venture it ourselves.
Fear of public speaking is one of the all-time top phobias. For some reason, most of us would prefer torture of some kind to five minutes in the spotlight being ourselves. If I had to name the fear, I would guess it’s some combination of not wanting to look or sound like an idiot, not wanting to be vulnerable in public and being unsure you have, or are worthy of, your friends’ love and support.
The amazing thing about this fear is that we have it even though we’ve seen countless speakers lovingly and sympathetically supported by audiences not even as intimate and supportive as the one that surrounds us at our child’s simcha. These people are your friends; you’re safe with them. They already know and accept you. They’re here for you. Moreover, everyone knows how hard it is to speak from the heart — one-to-one — much less on stage in front of a crowd.
No one’s going to judge the weaknesses in your performance. On the contrary, when someone gets up and says something we all feel — like what a miracle it is to love and be loved by a child — that’s when the magic happens. There’s instantly a special feeling in the room; the composition of the air seems to change, the way ozone before a thunderstorm makes everything glow.
It’s a sacred moment, a time to look within. So, while you may think everyone is focusing on the shakiness in your voice, they’re not paying attention to that. Nervousness is much less noticeable than it feels. And, if people do notice, they’re happy for you. Because having a voice that shakes with emotion means that you have loved deeply, one measure of a life well lived.
Preparation Is the Key
If you write a speech that you love, you should be excited about actually reading it on the big day. Notice I said “reading” it — a nervous person should not try to memorize, particularly since a lot of the worry will then center on whether, under pressure, you’re going to be able to remember everything just the way you wrote it. Practice your speech aloud, though obviously not in front of anyone who should hear your words for the first time on the big day.
Write your speech on little index cards you can easily tuck into even a small pocket or purse. Reading from cards also gives you a place to look, so you can forget about how many people are actually sitting there listening. If you’re speaking to your child, just look back and forth from that adorable face to the card. Pretend it’s just you and him.
Keep it short — anyone can survive talking for three minutes. Force yourself to breathe slowly and deeply and to talk at a normal pace. Keep in mind that most people have stage fright only before they start speaking — once you’re under way, you’re going to feel fine and maybe even enjoy it.
And remember, according to professional speaker Tom Antion, stage fright actually makes you better looking.
“Fear is your friend,” he said. “It makes your reflexes sharper. It heightens your energy, adds a sparkle to your eye and color to your cheeks. You are more conscious of your posture and breathing. With all these effects, you will actually look healthier and more physically attractive.”
If you’re still scared, think of it this way: You’re the parent of a teenager — nothing’s scarier than that.
You can do this. If public speaking is a fear of yours (as it is of many of the world’s top performers), make yourself give just a little speech. You will finish the bar or bat mitzvah with not just great memories but feelings of real satisfaction and renewed confidence in your own abilities.
Gail A. Greenberg is online at mitzvahchic.com. This article was adapted from a chapter in her best-selling book, “MitzvahChic: How to Host a Bar or Bat Mitzvah That Is Meaningful, Fun and Drop-Dead Gorgeous” (Fireside Books, 2006).