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The Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Rite of Passage for the Whole Family

Adapted excerpts from Whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah Is This, Anyway? A Guide for Parents Through A Family Rite of Passage, by Judith Davis, Ed.D. (St. Martin's Press, 1998).

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not simply a religious ritual and a big birthday party. Nor is it just another developmental milestone along the child's road to adulthood. It is, instead, a major transitional event in the life of the entire family: the child, the parents, and the grandparents. It is a rite of passage that reverberates throughout the entire extended family as well.

For most of us, it is a time not only of great joy, but of great turmoil as well. To begin with, yours is a family entering a new--and some would say particularly challenging--life stage. Most obviously, or maybe most confusingly, your baby is growing up. Between Barbies and bras or Weebelos and wet dreams, your head is spinning.

Mirroring your child's changes are your own transitions. You are maturing, and your relationship with your spouse or partner must also mature. Like it or not, still married or not, the two of you are having to find new ways of dealing with each other and with your differences over this upcoming rite of passage, this initiation into Jewish responsibility, and over your child's transition into adolescence.

And finally, your parents aren't getting any younger, either. With their aging increasingly apparent, you are beginning to worry about them in new ways. If the inevitable caretaking reversals haven't yet begun, they are fast approaching. No wonder you1re anxious. You are dealing with change in relation to your child, your parents, your partner, and your self.

With these stresses, your hands are full enough, but there's more. As a family, you have chosen to celebrate your child's thirteenth (or twelfth) birthday with a religious ritual that has a long history and lots of expectations around it. You have thus taken on the challenge of organizing--not to mention paying for-- what is, no matter how you do it, the biggest, costliest, most emotion-filled event you've ever been responsible for. Think about it. The last event of this magnitude and importance was probably your wedding, and that your parents may have managed.

Never before have you, as an adult, brought together all of the people who are important to you in your life and in your child's life to meet at a single event at once so personal and so public. For the first time, you will be encountering with one face all of your relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and friends from over the years. This is a huge emotional, as well as logistical, undertaking.

And that's still not all. Unless you are an observant Jew or one who has evolved an alternative connection to Jewish tradition with which you feel totally comfortable, you are probably at least ambivalent--if not altogether conflicted--about the spiritual meaning of what you are doing and what you are asking your child to do. This is especially true for many of us who grew up in the God-Is-Dead sixties and seventies, a time when we rejected religious ritual as hollow and meaningless. If you are like me, everytime you read or hear something critical or ridiculing about today's Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, you probably wince with recognition if not self-blame.

In the context of these life-cycle changes and these pressures of preparation, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah works therapeutically to help us heal and grow. Like a lightning rod, it draws out in dramatic relief whatever is important or difficult in the family and pushes us to deal with it--in one fashion or another--through the event and its preparation. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah, like all life-cycle rituals (weddings, circumcisions, baby namings, funerals), focuses the family's attention on exactly those developmental issues it needs to be addressing.

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!")

Dr. Judith Davis is a family therapist.

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