My youngest daughter became bat mitzvah yesterday, so I guess it is a milestone in both of our lives. Parents are encouraged to address the synagogue congregation at these events and it has been my custom to try to say something both a little more humorous and a little more meaningful than the typical safe speech, which is often a short biography of the child who has just transitioned to a young Jewish adult. Though I admit that I try to keep such speeches from being too unpopular, so they are slightly off topic for this blog. But I think a few of the ideas may be worth preserving here. First comes yesterday’s speech for my younger daughter. Then below it, I will include the one I did five years ago for my older daughter.
Five years is quite a sabbatical between children and I’ll bet you are thinking my wife and I must not get along very well. But just as people with psychological issues often go into psychiatry, maybe there is a tendency for those with fertility concerns to go into women’s health care, for my wife is a gynecologist. By the way for those of you reading this who heard the speech, you may notice one extra off-color joke that I decided to omit on the occasion. It wasn’t funny enough to risk people thinking I was considering a divorce.
Stephanie’s Bat Mitzvah
(May 17, 2008)
I want to thank you all for joining us today to honor Stephanie’s becoming bat mitzvah. I think Stephanie did an excellent job and we are quite proud of her.
Being an ideological black sheep in our synagogue community, I would guess that our Rabbi has reservations whenever I offer to contribute my ideas during a service. So I want to start by reassuring him that I plan to confine this speech to non-controversial subjects, including Christian cross symbolism in Woody Allen movies and the apparent impending demise of the Jewish religion. If there is time, I may also mention Stephanie.
Actually, I don’t really want to discuss Woody Allen movies. But I do need to mention one so that you can properly understand my Bar Mitzvah nightmare scene. The older among us probably remember “Bananas”, where a dream sequence involves monks attempting to parallel park a cross where Allen lies crucified, only to have the space stolen by another cross.
Woody Allen uses crucifixion to express an inferiority complex, just as Chaim Potak’s fictional Asher Lev uses the cross in paintings to symbolize suffering. Both are Jewish, but both felt the need to use well understood Christian symbolism.
Here in Synagogue, we can do better. My vision of the anguish and trepidation inherent in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony involves Jewish themes.
As you probably know, the American Bar Mitzvah has sometimes become a social competition to see who can afford the most lavish party. I understand that such competition is even more extreme in that great bastion of Judaism, the New York metropolitan area. My nightmare involves a small escalation which I don’t believe has actually happened quite yet.
In my dream sequence, shortly before the service begins, a van from Brooklyn with NY plates pulls up in front of our Synagogue. Out step five men with dark hats and beards. They would have been paid by credit card the prior Thursday so that no money changes hands during Shabbat. Fashionable parents might even hire Hassidim in black coats, white shirts, payot, and tzittzit.
They would file in silently, where the front row here would wait reserved for them. After davening their way through the morning service, they would listen attentively as Stephanie reads from the Torah. There would be a long pause after she finishes reading the Haftarah. Then they would each hold up a white card with a number from one to ten on it. Stephanie’s score would be the average. And hopefully would be better than your child’s.
But competitive Bar and Bat Mitzvahs should probably be the least of our worries. For it appears that if Nazi Germany did not succeed in wiping Judaism from the face of the earth, modern America may be up to the task. Bar Mitzvah ceremonies may be too few to replenish our supply of Jews. Stephanie’s class has just eight young Jewish adults, mostly female.
Where are all our young Jewish men? Dating Catholics would be my guess. It sometimes seems like all the Jews I know have Catholic wives. It’s like a great rushing of male Jewish lemmings into the sea of Catholic Christianity. And please don’t think I am being judgmental. I did it too.
So I have been worried that our tradition faces insurmountable obstacles in the modern world and that Judaism’s future may appear bleak. But then I realized that it has always been that way. And that adversity is apparently good for our people.
If times are bad now for the Jews, then ask yourself when were the good times? Certainly not during much of the twentieth century. Nor the preceding two millennia of exile. Before that was the constant threat of annihilation at the hands of invaders like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. And before that was slavery in Egypt.
When you think about it, just about the only “good” times for the Jewish people were maybe the reign of King David and half of Solomon’s, say up to where he starting cleaving babies in half to settle arguments.
Our people seem to thrive on problems and the current ones might be just what we need to survive. Problems breed concern and cohesiveness. Adversity forces change, which is good since survival requires adaptability.
Remember that it is only our Bat Mitzvah women who can pass Judaism on to the next generation. And modern minyans often consist mostly of women, at least here. You probably noticed that almost all eight Aliyot were recited by women here today.
Plus I understand that, though she must go unnamed, a female member of our congregation may someday be the first new Rabbi ever from among us. Increasingly it seems that women can be the foundation of a modern Jewish congregation.
And remember that not all is lost even with non-Jewish wives, since an increasing number of them are converting to our tradition, something that seldom happened years ago. I know of at least two participating here today mostly due to the encouragement of their formerly Catholic but now Jewish wives. I’m one.
Our strength seems to be in our women. And our customs are changing to be much more inclusive of women. Our forefathers were apparently very wise to make Judaism matrilineal. Which is why I think Stephanie’s Bat Mitzvah possibly represents the redemption of our people, at least in part. Redemption in the sense of returning our people to God and Judaism.
And of course redemption was the topic of today’s Torah reading, thus scoring me two more points with our hypothetical judges here in the front row.
When my older daughter became bat mitzvah, I told the congregation that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a rite of passage. And that a rite of passage is usually a difficult but essentially useless task (like chanting from the Torah when you cannot understand Hebrew). A hard task whose value lies in inoculating the young to face the real obstacles they will encounter later in life. Obstacles like explaining to their Catholic wives that Jewish law gives husbands the right to a unilateral divorce.
I also argued that the custom encourages scholarship and egalitarianism. It certainly requires study. And once Bar or Bat Mitzvah, all Jews are just as qualified as any Rabbi to lead services and perform most other religious rites, at least in theory. Stephanie could have conducted today’s service entirely by herself if she were so inclined.
I recently realized that there is another important benefit to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The ceremony is a chance for our young to stand out as the center of our attention and be praised for their accomplishments. As we get older, such praise naturally becomes more scarce. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is an important opportunity for our young adults to build up a store of self esteem, which can serve them throughout life.
Thus, I want to take this opportunity to praise Stephanie, and not just for doing an admirable job here today. Stephanie is an outstanding student in all of her studies. In addition, Stephanie has proven to be a kind person who really seems to care about her friends and who often works to facilitate cooperation among her peers. Plus she is an excellent actress with a lot of native acting ability. And best of all, she is left handed like her father. So to Stephanie, I say “Mazal Tov.”
To conclude, I thank all who made today possible. First, my wife Susan, who as usual did virtually all of the work involved in planning and managing the event.
We also thank Rabbi Rieser, Arin Sandler and all of Stephanie’s other teachers who contributed to making Stephanie a better Hebrew scholar than I am. And I thank my daughter Cynthia, who is also a much better Hebrew scholar than I, and who was instrumental in tutoring Steph at home.
And I want to thank Susan for her Challah, which she makes from scratch with the proper blessings and portion taken. Parochial though I may be, I still think it is the best around. You can judge for yourself at the Kiddush following this service.
One final thought: Judaism has the Wisdom of Our Forefathers or Pirkei Avot. But outside of mitochondrial genetics, no one ever talks about our Foremothers, deserving though they may be. That’s probably because it sounds like the name of a 60’s rock band: The Four Mothers.
Cynthia’s Bat Mitzvah
(May 24, 2003)
Thanks to everyone for joining us today and sacrificing part of your holiday weekend. Our family and especially Cynthia really appreciate your being here.
As it happens, today’s reading comes from the end of the Book of Leviticus, that portion of the Bible which details the sacrifices required at the Temple in Jerusalem for various sins and rites. I only read it once a few years ago and so I have forgotten, but I am sure that it is in there some where: When do you sacrifice a holiday weekend? For the sin of shopping on the Sabbath, would be my guess. One weekend plus a portion of fine oil purchased at the mall.
I think Cynthia did a great job and we are quite proud of her. It’s not something that many of us could still do this late in life and, truthfully, it is not something that my wife nor I have ever achieved, at least yet. So Cynthia is the first in our immediate family to become a Bat or Bar Mitzvah. It certainly does not look easy from my perspective. If it’s not all Greek to me, then it is certainly all Hebrew.
So the question occurred to me: What good is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? I suspect that for many young adults, it is good for the party that usually follows and maybe not much else. And possibly our Rabbi would say that its value lies in educating our young in Jewish traditions. Surely both are valid reasons.
But I would like to add a different perspective. A Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a rite of passage. Like many other such rites, it is both difficult and somewhat useless in and of itself. After all, singing and chanting in Hebrew without understanding the language, reading the letters without knowing most of the words, while an impressive feat, is hardly a survival skill. Unless we mean surviving the ceremony.
But that does not mean that a Bat or Bar Mitzvah is really useless. I believe that much of the value lies in the difficulty. Like other such rites (and I might include a college degree here), the difficulty prepares us to better face the really hard stuff later. Maybe it does not teach us what we will specifically need to know, but it teaches us how to cope with difficult problems in general. It’s an inoculation for life.
And I find something else of great value in the tradition. Rabbinic Judaism is, to my knowledge, the most “leaderless” of the religions. One where traditionally it is up to everyone to observe the commandments (the mitzvot) and even to conduct the rituals and services.
Traditional Jewish services are not officiated. Everyone is expected to be able to conduct the service, as well as participate in it. And that is what the Bar Mitzvah was originally all about. Cynthia is now qualified to conduct services. Theoretically, she is as qualified as a rabbi.
Unlike priests and ministers, rabbis were not originally employed to lead services. Instead, they were our people’s lawyers, judges and teachers. The easy stuff, like leading services in an ancient and mostly foreign language, was a job for everyone. Possibly some had better command of the prayers and rituals, and possibly it was senior congregants who were usually honored by leading prayers. But everyone past the age of thirteen was expected to know how.
I think it is laudable that by the early age of thirteen, Jews are able to lead services, at least in theory. I think that’s a valuable tradition that fosters both equalitarianism and learning, things I like to think our people are known for.
Maybe we will someday regain this tradition in a less theoretical way, even in Reform Judaism. Then we all could conduct our own services and the rabbis could go back to teaching and law. If nothing else, it would be a great way to render professional lawyers redundant (my sister-in-law excepted of course).
I want to repeat a few thanks my daughter mentioned. We are indebted to both Al Sandler and Rabbi Rieser for helping Cynthia to learn to read Hebrew and chant the service, something that unfortunately neither Susan nor I are qualified to do. Thanks also to my father, Ely, who took the time to relearn how to do an aleyah so that we would have at least one family member so honored. And special thanks to my wife Susan, who did almost all the work in planning and orchestrating this event and who, incidentally and in my biased option, makes the best Challah anywhere - from scratch and with the proper portion taken and blessing - samples available at the kiddush that follows the service. Place your orders after Shabbat.