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Leading the Way Through Unfamiliar Terrain: The Bar Mitzvah Year

May, 2006

Raising a child in a religion other than the one you grew up in is all about leading the way through unfamiliar terrain--preparing your child to take his place in a context that's not your own. I've met people who find the journey exhilarating in a refreshing way. For me it's been more like running a gauntlet of expectations I don't quite get. Still, everything was fairly low-key and my worries were mostly about my own insecurity until we got to my son's Bar Mitzvah year.

From the moment we got the date--over a year ahead of time, which surprised no one but me--I felt in way over my head. Throughout the process it seemed no matter what question I asked, the answer I got never fully covered what I wanted or needed to know. In retrospect, it would have been hard for anyone to give me an answer because I couldn't quite articulate the question. I realize now that I wanted to know what the essence of the experience was supposed to be. Was it a sort of honor to read from the Torah? Was it an affirmation of attaining an age? Was it an expression of a facility with Hebrew and tropes (the chanting melody for lines in the Torah)? Above all I wanted to "get" the point from the inside out--all the nuances--so I could guide my son through this life passage.

I started my questioning process the way I always do--with some research, this time the handouts provided by the temple. They spelled out the timeline, but it felt too simple in a way I couldn't quite express. How did they know that eight tutoring sessions would be enough for my son to learn an entire Torah portion with trope? What if he needed more help? What if two sessions with the rabbi were not enough for him to write his speech? Were they assuming my husband or I knew something about Torah so we could help? And how was all of this really supposed to fall into place in just six months? When my son's name fell through the cracks and we started the process two months late, my anxiety level hit the roof.

Finding nothing in the way of the support I felt we needed, I switched temples--something anyone with a true understanding of the process would never think to do! But I wanted to be sure my son had what he needed in order to be prepared. I wanted it to be a good experience for him. And so he dove into learning his Torah portion and analyzing it for the speech he'd give. Then there was the Haftarah portion with comments to accompany it. Prayers to learn. A suit to buy. Meetings with the Hebrew tutor to learn the trope. Chanting to a tape so that the trope became familiar. And meetings with the midrashima (person who helps interpret the Torah portion). Somewhere along the way I realized I was just along for the ride--or more aptly, to shuttle my son from one meeting to the next! This was his Bar Mitzvah. He'd tell me if he needed help.

I thought at first, as I realized my role was now one of support rather than guide, that the Bar Mitzvah year had been about my son learning he could negotiate something as complex as the Bar Mitzvah year on his own. That certainly felt significant enough to satisfy my quest for "getting" the Bar Mitzvah. But on the actual day of his Bar Mitzvah, I finally understood that the nuance of the event was this first glimpse of the man my son is becoming.

Here's what I wish I'd known:

  • Don't buy the suit until right before the big day. Boys have some sort of genetically mandated growth spurt right at that time. (This growth spurt is nothing compared to the changes you'll see in your son between thirteen and fourteen!)
  • It's going to take more than six meetings with a Hebrew tutor and a CD from the cantor to get your son to where he's comfortable reading from the Torah in front of the congregation. Call the parents of the kids with Bar Mitzvahs the year before your child's and get the names of tutors they used to supplement the standard tutoring sessions. Line up some sessions starting about six weeks before your son's Bar Mitzvah--just in case.
  • Start attending Friday night and Saturday morning services the year before the Bar Mitzvah so you'll all be familiar with the prayers and order of the service.
  • Ask about the temple policy for non-Jewish participation in the service. It's likely they will be welcome on the bimah but cannot say prayers or blessings that speak for the congregation. If that's the case, there are readings in the prayer book that will be fine for your friends and relatives to read. If none of them is right, find something else that you do like and discuss it with the rabbi.
  • It's customary to provide yarmulkes with your child's name and Bar Mitzvah date written inside. Even if you grew up Jewish, you wouldn't be sure how many to order!
One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Gina Hagler

Gina Hagler is a freelance writer living in the Maryland suburbs with her husband and their three children. You can see more of her work at www.ginahagler.com.

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