2016-06-30
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.

I found two other collections of bar mitzvah speeches: a trilingual volume like the first, from 1921, and one entirely in Yiddish, from 1932, a little late in the day for Yiddish in America-the boy who was given that book probably smirked and rolled his eyes: Didn't the old rabbi know that everybody spoke English now? Like the 1908 book, both of these had been printed in downtown Manhattan, the 1932 book on Canal Street, and the other, the 1921 book, at 176 Park Row, near the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.

I don't think they make collections like these anymore. I bought them from the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, which rescues and preserves out-of-print Yiddish books. Not long ago, one of them fell off my coffee table, and the old glue, aged to the point of disintegration, failed to hold the sewn binding to the cloth cover; the pages all fell out in a coherent clump, and I had to stuff them back in and secure the book with a rubber band. These books are old. They are of a time when books for Jewish boys were published in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, a time when some boys read all three.

But in another sense the books are amazingly contemporary. Canned speeches, like canned term papers! Curious, I went on the Internet and discovered that, today as ever, you can buy bar mitzvah speeches (which seems relatively less horrifying than the eulogies that the same Web site sells for parents to give at their dead babies' funerals). The speeches online would seem like a sure sign of civilizational decline if I didn't have on my desk these books that are decades old, proving that it was always so.


In addition to being charming nostalgia pieces, these books are a somber reminder that the bar mitzvah was never pure. The money changers were always in the temple. There was always a bar mitzvah business. B'nai mitzvah are not quite men, just boys struggling to become young men, and where there have been boys, there have always been bored, lazy boys, happy to take help where they could get it. And these boys, whose rabbis have always known that they lack the maturity of men, have nonetheless always gone on with their bar mitzvah ceremonies and parties. Sid Klevens from Alaska, Hank Kaminsky from Arkansas, all the men I met who said things like "I left Judaism the day after my bar mitzvah"-even if they were flunking Hebrew school and getting their bar mitzvah speeches straight from books, they still had their day in shul.

It might make us a little uncomfortable that there has always been an element of make-believe in the bar mitzvah tradition; it may be tempting to think that somehow the tradition is tainted, perhaps beyond redemption. But I think that the fiction of adulthood has been present in all b'nai mitzvah, even of the best boys, and even in the olden days, a thousand years ago, when men and women married in their teens and had been helping on the farm or in the family business since earliest childhood. Even then, there was a little fiction involved in saying that the bar mitzvah was the beginning of manhood. After all, the boy wasn't quite ready to marry, and he was not yet big enough to live on his own or to win a fistfight. He still needed the protection of a real man, a father or an older brother. Someone to help him write his speech, or to buy it for him.

But that element of fiction is, I think, intrinsic in a rite of passage. When medical students graduate and are awarded the M.D., that does not mean they are full doctors. They enter residency programs, honing their diagnostic skills and working under master teachers until they can perform the most difficult procedures on their own. Catholic priests are generally ordained well before they take control of parish churches. These apprenticeships allow time for the fiction of accomplishment slowly to become reality. You spend three years calling yourself a doctor and practicing what it's like to be a doctor, and then one day the white coat actually fits, and you're a doctor, in name and in feeling. The passage into adulthood is like that. First comes a period of trial adulthood.

That is why the bar mitzvah ceremony began as a recitation of the Baruch shepatarani prayer, the father's thanking God for releasing him from responsibility for his son's transgressions. A thirteen-year-old, the medievals decided, is old enough to know right from wrong. That was the first step. And the prayer was, in time, traditionally yoked to the boy's first Torah or haftarah reading, then to a big party, so the boy was now expected to be old enough to speak in public and to show social niceties as a host. To know right from wrong, to read Hebrew in front of a large crowd, and to greet the crowd and accept their gifts afterward-all good skills for a budding man to have.

But he is hardly old enough to take a bride. He is not ready to go to war. We would be horrified if our thirteen-year-olds decided they were ready to quit school, marry, and have children. If the bar or bat mitzvah were really meant to be the beginning of adulthood, then it would be a perennial joke. Thirteen-year-old children are not adults, and in the history of Judaism they never were. Aviva Shane, an Israeli immigrant I met in Marin County, California, told me that her granddaughter had become a bit of a terror after becoming a bat mitzvah. "She kept saying, `You have to let me do this, I'm a woman now!' So her mother had to put a stop to that."

The last thing we need is for b'nai mitzvah to signal the beginning of all adult prerogatives; the bar mitzvah evolved to mark the beginning of the beginning of adulthood, the moment when a child accepts moral responsibility for his actions and so begins to claim more freedoms. "Now that I am a bar mitzvah," said Graham Maso, on an April morning when I visited Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts, "I have more responsibilities as a Jewish adult. I also have more privileges, such as being able to stay up later and be out longer, because my parents now trust me more than when I was younger. However, having all these responsibilities means that I have to act more thoughtfully toward others, and to not put myself before others."

His Torah passage that morning had been Leviticus 19, which famously includes the line "Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." "From my Torah and haftarah portions," Graham said, "I have learned something very important: the Golden Rule, to treat others the way you wish to be treated. Also, it helped me to recognize that my friends treat me better than I think, and they do help me when I need it. I truly believe that this has been a great experience, becoming a bar mitzvah."

As one who has full rights in the religious sphere, the bar or bat mitzvah is ready to conduct a religious ceremony in front of adults and can now participate in the eternal debate about what it is to serve God and behave rightly. As Annie and Mendy and Graham all realized, Judaism, traditional Judaism, is not about prerogatives; it's about obligations.
If the bar or bat mitzvah ritual is seen in that light, as a humbling rather than an exalting experience, there is no reason that today's children cannot, at twelve or thirteen, become religious adults of a sort. They can (and do) begin to fast on Yom Kippur. When they start working summer jobs, they can give tzedakah, or charity. They can begin praying as adults.

And even by the most contemporary standards, thirteen remains a sensible age for children to begin the beginnings of their adulthood. They are not old enough to drive, but they are probably tall enough to see over the steering wheel. They are not old enough to be parents, but they are old enough to get pregnant. They should not drop out of school, but they are at an age when the truant officers probably won't come looking. Character is a muscle: it needs to be flexed in childhood, but the real training comes at the age when you're more to blame for your choices than your parents are. In that light, the bar and bat mitzvah come at the right time. The medievals knew what they were doing.

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