In six months’ time, our oldest child will have his barmitzvah. As the weeks go by, we become increasingly immersed in the practicalities — teaching Haftarah tropes and choosing a party venue, designing invitations and practising aliyot. And most importantly of all, signing the “Sweet-Throwing Waiver Form”. That really is a thing in our synagogue, designed to avoid litigious action should a congregant be injured by a flying jelly bean.
As all this happens, I find myself wondering what this barmitzvah business is really about.
In literal terms, the answer is pretty clear — it’s the age when, according to Jewish law, a boy is considered to be an adult, responsible for fulfilling the Torah’s commandments. And of course, exactly the same applies to a batmitzvah girl.
This is all very well, but what, in an actual, realistic, day-to-day sense, does it mean?
I have a very strong idea of what it doesn’t mean — and that is to be merely an excuse for an inappropriately lavish party. It’s hard to define what “inappropriately lavish” is, but I reckon it’s all about the intention.
It’s a beautiful and meaningful thing to be able to celebrate with the people you love — and if you want to do that by dancing like a maniac and eating delicious food, covering yourself in glitter tattoos and listening to gaggles of pre-teen girls give very bad speeches, that’s wonderful. Equally, if you prefer to have a quiet lunch for close family in your home, that’s great, too.
If a party is put on as a display of wealth or competitiveness, however, then it’s hard to find the joy in it — it becomes a show, not a celebration. At the most extreme end, the barmitzvah parties one hears about where the boy is paraded in flanked by a pair of scantily-clad women are so revolting it renders me almost speechless.
But what, then, does this rite of passage mean? I recently read a sermon by Rabbi Sarah Reines of Temple Emanu-El in New York, that gave me a whole new perspective. In it, she emphasises that a bar or batmitzvah is not a private life cycle event at all, but a community one.
“There is no such thing as a ‘bar/batmitzvah service’,” she says. “Congregations meet regularly for prayer. Sometimes, during these services, children become b’nei mitzvah, claiming their own place in the community amidst community. It is a pivotal moment in the life of the child and the congregation — both are changed forever… A chain of generations spans the bimah — a living witness to the miracle of Jewish survival. This is a moment ripe with promise: for the child, for every congregant, for all Jewish people.”
This, then, is the ideal situation. But what of the reality? Most families identifying as Jewish put their children through b’nei mitzvah – the ultra-Orthodox and the three-times-a-year shul goers, the synagogue machers and the religious sceptics.
So the idealistic vision of a child stepping up to take his or her full place in the community is only true for, I suspect, a minority. And it’s common to hear shul regulars make rather snide comments about a child being seen in synagogue every week leading up to the occasion, and then never again.
I feel that this is a little unfair. The bar/batmitzvah is a sort-of open ticket that never expires. Once you’ve learned those skills, passed that milestone, had that experience, you can opt back in any time you like — even 20 or 30 years later.
What’s more, our kids learn skills that open up opportunities reaching far beyond the confines of Jewish ritual. How many 12 and 13 year-olds, outside of the Jewish world, have had to stand up in a room packed with people of every age — many of them strangers — and sing and speak in two different languages? This is something most adults (myself included) would be extremely daunted by. The empowerment and sense of achievement that that gives you must be extraordinary.
So what am I hoping for after my son’s barmitzvah? Am I expecting him to become an active member of our minyan, taking his turn on the leyning rota and turning up for 7am shacharit? Well — possibly. But if he chooses not to, at least he’ll have the tools to be able to join in in future, even if it’s not for many years.
If he decides to run screaming for the hills once it’s all over, I hope that he’ll hang out up there for a while, taking in the view with all its beauty and variety and complexity, then come sauntering back down again, to take part in the Jewish world on his own terms.