One very adult lesson that the bar mitzvah teaches children is that there is usually a gap between the ideal and the real. There are expectations: parents expect one thing, friends expect another, the rabbi another-and the ancestors, too, they expect you to be a credit to their good name and to the good names of those murdered by Hitler and in the czar's pogroms and by the communists, the flame of whose memory you must keep lit! But beside those great expectations sits a human-sized boy or girl who must balance responsibility to the Jewish people with all of life's other responsibilities, like tending goal in the soccer game on Friday, taking out the trash, and doing math homework, leaving little time to be a perfect Jew.

The liberal branches of Judaism try to make sense of this gap. They say that it is possible to be a good Jew and still be a member of this society of sports and summer camps. Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism negotiate a road between strict observance and total secularism. There is, they say, a third way, and although each branch describes its third way a little differently, somewhere nearer to or further from the traditional ideal, they all agree that to be a good Jewish man or woman does not have to be a full-time job. Being a good Jew can be sort of like being a good person, but with special holidays.

Most of us say Thank God for that. Traditional Judaism is awfully demanding. I, for one, believe that there is beauty inherent in rigor, and I suspect that most of us need more, not less, discipline in our lives; but I also know that Orthodoxy is a high tree to climb. Most people lack the commitment-not to mention the time in the day-to get to the top, and it's good that there are resting points along the way, levels of observance that we can more reasonably expect to reach. Most of the children I talked with used the occasion of a bar or bat mitzvah to begin finding that appropriate level for themselves. Sizing up that gap between the ideal and the real, locating the possible, was one of the first struggles they would undertake as Jewish adults, and it raised big questions, adult-sized questions: Would I play in a big football game on Yom Kippur? Will I date only Jews? Answering those questions is a very grownup job.

For some Jews, however, the whole business of finding the right level of observance is nonsense. For the very, very religious, like Mendy Greenberg, manhood has prescribed meanings. It is a job, with responsibilities like laying tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, giving charity, and joining a minyan when nine men at prayer need a tenth. It also means beginning to think about taking a wife and maybe studying for the rabbinate-not tomorrow, but not so far away as ten years, either. In ultra-Orthodox communities, especially among the Hasidic sects, it is not uncommon to marry around age twenty-one, or even younger; and, because they shun secular education, many ultra-Orthodox boys are ready to enter business, or take rabbinic exams, very soon afterward. For these b'nai mitzvah, real manhood-supporting a family, holding a job-is approaching fast. The challenge is not to discern the important obligations-they are all important. The job is to be worthy of them. For an ultra-Orthodox boy, becoming a bar mitzvah means entering a new relationship with God, the covenant of Abraham and Jacob.

In 1908, the Hebrew Publishing Company, at 632-34 Broadway, New York City, published "Bar-Mitzva Speeches: A Collection of Various Bar-Mitzva Speeches in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, Compiled by Famous Jewish Scholars and Orators," edited by Professor G. Zelikowitch. It is a chrestomathy of short talks, about six hundred words each, for use by a bar mitzvah (or in some cases the father of a bar mitzvah speaking to his son) who does not have the time or the inclination to write his own.

Most of them are generic discourses on the themes of Jewish nationhood, the covenant with God, and the importance of tefillin. A speech written by one S. Balk is titled, in a clumsy translation, "For an Orphan to His Bar-Mitzva." It begins, "Friends and Congregation: A child who was not punished by Providence, by the Almighty, to be an orphan, commences to perform the commandment of putting on phylacteries"-tefillin-"when he becomes thirteen years of age. But an orphan, like I am, has to perform this act at the age of twelve. A child who has a father can romp and jump and enjoy himself one more year: a father's shoulders carry him. But I must become wiser earlier and understand that I have to carry the burden of responsibilities to my twelfth birthday." I had never heard of this rule, and in a collection of canned speeches, this one stood out like a wound. I thought of the boy who had no father to sit down and write a speech with him, a boy who, maybe, was helped by this book.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus