There’s a lot of mystery around becoming bar or bat mitzvah, and there shouldn’t be. In essence, it’s very simple. When a Jewish boy or girl reaches age thirteen, he or she is eligible to lead parts of the service at his or her family’s synagogue. So, he or she celebrates the occasion by…actually leading some parts of the service.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I have been tutoring Jewish children for bar and bat mitzvah off and on since 1982. I have seen the parents of my students approach the bar or bat mitzvah feeling confused, and sometimes even overwhelmed. These parents are no dummies. They are not being neurotic for no reason whatever. In the U.S., the way we live now, there are good reasons why you might not immediately understand what your child is doing for his bar mitzvah, or her bat mitzvah.
Why the mystery?
Let’s start with language. Very few Americans are fluent in Hebrew. Depending on your synagogue or temple, what your child does for bar or bat mitzvah might be partly, mostly, or nearly all in Hebrew. So, let alone understanding what your child is saying: how do you track your child’s progress as he or she studies for bar or bat mitzvah? You want to be a good parent. You want to be supportive. But how?
Even the terms the rabbi or tutor uses for the tasks your child will take on are usually in Hebrew. “What’s an aliyah? Is a parshah the same thing as a haftarah, or is it something different my child has to learn? How come one set of relatives calls the skullcap worn in synagogue a yarmulke while the other set calls it a kipah?” Whether you grew up Jewish, became Jewish later in life, or raised a Jewish child without any Jewish background of your own, chances are you need a guide to understand the vocabulary that surrounds bar or bat mitzvah studies.
Then, there’s the fact that preparing for bar or bat mitzvah is usually a multi-step process. Again, depending on your Jewish community and its local customs, your child may be reading or singing some things from the prayer book, and chanting other things from the printed Bible or the Torah scroll. Most likely, he or she will also be giving a short talk about the passage of the Bible read that day.
To prepare for these tasks, you may be driving your child to meet with one tutor throughout the process--or a tutor and a rabbi--or a tutor, a cantor, a Hebrew school principal, and a rabbi. You’ll need to find ways to talk with each of them, and make sure that they are all talking to one another.
The Saturday morning service itself, the usual time for celebrating bar or bat mitzvah, can be a challenge. It’s going to be at least an hour long, maybe as much as three hours: again, partly, mostly, or nearly all in Hebrew, depending on local custom. It will involve a set of rituals and protocols that are certainly not obvious. “Should I invite my non-Jewish friends or relatives to the service? How are they going to feel at home there? How will I?”
Finally, there’s one huge distraction that makes it difficult for parents to look forward to the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony: planning the party. Everybody likes a good party. For some children, it’s the reason they started studying for bar or bat mitzvah in the first place! But for unwary parents—especially parents going through it for the first time, with their eldest child—planning the party can take up all the time and attention you have.
You might not be planning something as lavish as the party Peter Finch attends in the movie Sunday Bloody Sunday, or as obscenely ostentatious as the one Jeremy Piven plans in Keeping Up with the Steins. In fact, I hope not! Still, in the midst of scheduling a space, a caterer, and entertainment, designing and sending out invitations, and helping your child keep track of gifts, it might be hard for you, yourself, to keep tabs on the bar or bat mitzvah studies—and all too easy to arrive at shul that Saturday morning without a clue about what’s going on.
“What’s my child doing up there?” Wonder no more. I am writing a book to give you the answers you need as you begin to think about your child’s bar or bat mitzvah. There are other, excellent books that will help you think about the deeper meaning of this rite of passage. I will mention some of them in the Appendices.
Writing this book, I have a different mission. You will soon hold in your hands a practical guide to bar and bat mitzvah for the perplexed parent. With this book as your road map, you will be able to navigate the process from the first day of lessons to the last blessing of the Saturday morning service, with confidence. It shouldn’t be a mystery—just a mitzvah!