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To Become or Not to Become a Bar Mitzvah

May 9, 2006

My husband (born Catholic) and I (born Jewish) were married in Massachusetts almost twenty-two years ago. We agreed we wouldn't have kids. Five years later, I was happily pregnant with my first. Neither John nor I grew up in a religious family and felt confident our religious differences would not get in the way of anything we wanted to do.

Matthew turned five when I decided it would be fun for him to learn a bit about the Jewish holidays--for the traditions. However, I didn't know how to teach him, since my lack of religious background limited me. I happened to see an ad in the local newspaper that Temple Shir Tikvah was seeking a part-time administrator, about ten hours a week. I knew this would be the perfect solution.

They hired me and I found out they had a special program for preschoolers and kindergarteners to teach them about the Jewish holidays. My son went through the program. I hoped to send him back along with his brother the next year, but my husband got a job transfer to California.

We had lived in California about a year when I discovered a temple in Walnut Creek that had a program similar to the one in Massachusetts. Our new temple was called Congregation B'nai Tikvah. My younger son, Mark, went through the preschool class, which he loved. Mark met new friends and brought home many of the “artifacts” he made, such as a menorah and a dreidel. We enjoyed talking about what it all meant, had fun lighting his menorah and playing with his dreidel. I thought that was the end of religious training for my kids, except for the Christmas tree every year. But that wasn't about religion, it was about fun.

Matthew and Mark went to elementary school with two boys who lived down the block, so we car-pooled. After a few weeks, the boys in the other family chatted about their Sunday school lessons. They spoke about how Jesus loved everyone no matter what. They also discussed other aspects of their family's religious beliefs. The other boys were just about preaching to my kids. It got to the point I worried my kids wouldn't be able to make their own decisions about religion. I talked to the other mom, who told her kids that topic was off limits.

But I kept thinking about it. I realized that with no religious training my boys would not know how my husband or I felt about religion, God, being spiritual or praying. We sat and batted around the idea about how to teach the boys something about their heritages.

I suggested we seek advice from someone. It took a while to decide who and we chose the rabbi at B'nai Tikvah. We spent several hours with Rabbi Asher, who was objective, sensitive to our concerns and counseled us through it. We said we needed to think and went home. By this time, Matthew was in fifth grade and Mark was in second grade. John and I discussed it further at home and decided to send them to Hebrew school that year and Christian school the next. This way, they could learn both sides and make up their own minds. After the discussion with the rabbi, it didn't seem that difficult to make the decision. John was a bit worried the boys would be labeled and picked on as “Jews.” But otherwise we were on the same page. I felt funny about the idea of them going to Christian school, but thought if John could send them to Hebrew, why not send them to Christian school.

After the first year in Hebrew school, there was no way they could go to Christian school. It would not only contradict what they had just learned, but it wouldn't make sense. What happened next was that I learned my husband didn't believe in God or any kind of organized religion. Then the dilemma became whether or not to send them back to Hebrew school. We went back and had another long discussion with Rabbi Asher and came to the conclusion that Matthew and Mark would continue at the temple, but they wouldn't necessarily become a Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah translates to “son of the commandments.” To become a Bar (or “Bat” for girls) Mitzvah, one studies Jewish traditions and prayers in Hebrew, then goes in front of family and friends to recite these special prayers. After doing this, the son (or daughter) becomes an adult in the Jewish community and can pray and study Torah with the adults.

About two months after Matthew started sixth grade, we knew the decision had to be made: to become or not to become a Bar Mitzvah. We talked to several people we knew and had long conversations with Matthew. John and I decided to leave it up to our son, with some guidance. A close friend suggested Matthew speak to someone he trusted about this. The friend also told us to look at it as an opportunity for Matthew to learn, grow and mature in ways he might not otherwise.

Matthew spent several hours between the phone and email, discussing the situation with my uncle in New York. Finally, Matthew said, “Mom, Dad, I want to become a Bar Mitzvah.”

I rushed and planned the event. My career as an event planner in Massachusetts helped, and sure enough, it was fairly easy. I knew where to start and asked friends for resources. It felt right to me: my son was following the traditions of my father and his father before him. My husband felt very proud of Matthew. My parents were ecstatic. He was the first of their grandchildren to pursue Jewish traditions as Matthew's older cousins on my side chose not to go through this.

John's family did not understand what this meant to my son. The only person who attended the Bar Mitzvah from John's side was his mother, after much coaxing. John knew before we sent out invitations that his family would not come. He asked me to send them invitations anyway. He would have liked them to come but accepted that none of them would.

I wanted it to be perfect for my son. Family flew in from New York, Massachusetts and Florida, and friends came from California and Boston. The whole affair went well. Everyone had a wonderful time--especially the Bar Mitzvah boy. Even John's mom had a wonderful time and grasped how important it was for Matthew to have her support. John and I were so proud of him. We knew in three years we would do it again with Mark.

Mark understood how much the experience meant to Matthew, so he dove into learning his Torah and Haftorah portions. We were so rewarded by his achievement. And, like his brother before him, Mark felt great about his accomplishment.

I feel it was essential for the boys to go through this experience. They learned about the traditions and Jewish culture. I was happy and relieved that they would have some Jewish identity, even if they never practiced it. It was important to me that they were educated in the history of Judaism. They both watched movies about the Holocaust and understood how horrific the past had been to Jews. If they marry a Jewish girl, they will be glad they became a Bar Mitzvah. In the meantime, neither currently wants anything to do with any religion.

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. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) 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. 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.
Laurie Biundo

Laurie Biundo is a freelance writer, teaches writing to middle schoolers and lives in Calif., with her husband, two sons and their lab, Rio.

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