One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.
I’ve done everything “right”: given my children Jewish education, sent them to Jewish camps, spent time with them in Israel and modeled engaged Jewish living. But with the celebration of my second child becoming a bat mitzvah and officially beginning her journey as a Jewish adult, I can now say with certainty that my children will not be Jews like me.
That this was ever a consideration is on many levels absurd. Happily, from the moment a child first rolls over on its own, children work mightily to dispel the arrogance of parents who misguidedly assume their offspring exist to replicate their values and approach to life. They refuse to eat reasonably, they sleep on their own schedule, they make their own friends, choose their own clothes, challenging us at each step until we understand that while they absorb much from us, children will make their own way in the world.
And yet, when it comes to Judaism (and sports or alma matter affiliation which are like religions to many- but that is another article) people somehow expect continuity and are surprised and frightened by change. In no small part, I believe that this comes from a vision of what religious tradition is or is meant to be. As Jewish tradition teaches, God gave Moses the Torah as Sinai and Moses passed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, the same words the same Torah passed down generation to generation. We change and religion remains eternal.
As a historian, I know this was never true. Judaism has survived in no small part because of its ability to adapt and change. I will cede that in the past change was less possible, because of external limitations, and slower to occur because of the limitations of technology. But with the emancipation of the Jews and the industrial revolution, change has become the reality. If we presume that our children should replicate our vision for the Jewish future, we will be disappointed.
Absurd then. It should not even be a consideration. And yet. And yet, what is the point of investing in Jewish education if they will not guarantee continuity? And yet, how can we not feel like we have failed? I hear these questions frequently from parents who have done all that they thought “right’ “are now launching children who are “walking off the path” and making different Jewish choices than their parents would envision for them. Some are becoming less religious, others more so. Some are more left wing, others lean more to the right.
As a rabbi, I understand where they are coming from. On the day I was ordained, a rabbi I respect greatly, placed his hands on my shoulders and entrusted me to pass on the tradition to the next generation. But even as I gladly took on this challenge, I was keenly aware that my children’s Judaism could not be my own –for in an era of change each generation will have to find its own.
There is loss and uncertainty that comes with letting go. Some of the institutions and customs, which I have long benefited from and loved, are loosing relevance and others will undoubtedly disappear. And it can be painful and scary. The fluidity of religious life in America means that experimenting is inevitable. Some of the experiments will be ones that will disappoint me and others in my generation personally and collectively.
Over thirty years ago, my parents pushed the envelope of what was Jewishly possible by finding a synagogue that would allow me (albeit under my father’s blessing) to read from the Torah. It was a move that must have both puzzled and bothered their parents and one that ultimately opened the door for me to become much more religious than they ever imagined.
I am not alone. It is hard to imagine a more committed and creative group of rabbis than the ones who populated my community of Rabbis Without Borders. Going around the table with the first cohort, it turned out to our surprise that only a small fraction of the rabbis represented same denomination of Judaism as in which they grew up. Commitment yes, continuity yes, but also real and meaningful change.
Today, there is a Jewish creative cultural renaissance that is showcasing Jewish themes and values in every aspect of artistic endeavor. There is a renewal of Jewish learning that is taking new forms. A sense of global Jewish life is being renewed with the help of technology and travel. As a community, we are more inclusive and diverse than we have been in decades. Some of this I could and did imagine, other aspects were beyond my own envisioning. Without a willingness to change and challenge the received Jewish wisdom, none of this would have been possible.
Launching children onto the path of adulthood is bittersweet. As they make their own path, children will make their own choices many of which will not be your own. But there is also tremendous hope and possibility that comes from allowing the next generation to imagine and then create their own truth and reality. Both as a parent and as a rabbi, I look forward to seeing how the next generation takes the tradition they receive to create Judaism that will in time be passed down and transformed.
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What gift to get for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? The challenge with gifts for a life cycle event is two fold. On the one hand you want to give something that is relevant and meaningful to who the person is. On the other hand this gift is meant to mark an exceptional moment and as such we might hope for a gift that either endures or creates meaning. Most of whom a child is at 13 is not likely to endure, and for the most part is a good thing. So finding a fitting gift can be complicated. Moreover, becoming bar or bat mitzvah is about moving towards adulthood not necessarily about staying where you are. And if you opt for trendy you might end up with one of many which for many years ago was personalized Lucite and for my brother calculators. So finding the ‘right’ gift can be challenging.
My daughter and her friends are in the midst of becoming bat and bar mitzvah and I’m hoping to side step the accumulation of Lucite and calculators which besieged me and my brother when we reached that stage. Here are some of the better ideas I’ve gathered so far. I’d love to hear from you about the best (or worst) gifts that you have given or received.
Books: Sure books are old fashioned and may not be relevant in twenty years but they can be meaningful on several levels. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is in no small part about Jewish learning so helping set up a basic Jewish library is entirely appropriate. What to give? A Bible (I’m partial to The Jewish Study Bible) a haggadah with cool commentary or pictures (Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday) other basics include books on Jewish humor, Jewish women or the The Book of Jewish Why.
Secular books can also have staying power. I still have the complete works of Shakespeare cousin Tamar gave me and the atlas cousins Phil and Gil gave me was used up until google maps took over. Jewish educator, Tamar Rabinowich, recalls that, “ I got an entire beautiful collection of the Bronte sister’s books – loved them especially in my late teens.” Similar kinds of classic works can be influential.
Art: Nice art endures. As Debbie Fein-Goldbach of Toronto explains “My favorite Bat Mitzvah gift was a limited edition framed print. Owning some ‘art’ made me feel so grown up.” A print I was given at 13, hangs I my living room even today.
Jewish ritual items: There are particular items that one needs to fulfill Jewish rituals. Many make quite lovely gifts. Everyone can use candle sticks, a Kiddush cup, a Hanukkah menorah, havdalah set, and a mezuzah. The more religious types might appreciate a yad (the pointer used when reading Torah), tefillin or a tallit. Some of these can get kind of pricey, so Andrea Hodos of Moving Torah recommends doing what she and some friends did for a child in their community, “getting together to purchase tefillin.” You may of course not be the only one thinking in this direction, as Career Coach and mother of two Pearl Mattenson warns, “kiddush cups were so popular among my boys’ friends that we can open up a store at this point.” A tallit is often given by a family member so check in before going ahead with a purchase.
Cash: Yes, admittedly it is crass but it is also very useful and is often used by kids to make some of their first adult purchases. My husband pooled his money and bought himself a computer which in the early 1980s put him ahead of the curve on his way to a life time love of technology. Others have used it for buying cars, a trip to Israel, or paying for college. It is also common for b’nai mitzvah to give a portion of their gifts to charity so it may go to a good cause. Denominations of 18 (which is linked to life) are considered good luck.
Tzedakah: Teaching kids about philanthropy as a means of helping them grow is a wonderful gift. I’ve seen several people give two checks, one for the child and the other one to be filled out for the organization of the young person’s choosing. Sometimes a straight donation will do wonders, especially if there is a cause that is near and dear to the heart of bar or bat mitzvah. Author Amy Meltzer gives out Kiva Cards which help to facilitate the giving process.
Sports Memorabilia: Sport team affiliation endures and memorabilia from a beloved team or player are likely to mark both the moment and feel timeless. If you want to give it a Jewish spin, educational consultant and Hebrew School teacher Nancy Martin suggests a ”rare baseball card and poster of famous Jewish player who played for bar/bat mitzvah’s favorite team.”
Jewelry: This is a popular choice. Wearing jewelry is part of being grown up and nice pieces can endure as we grow. Items can be Jewish or not!
A truly personal gift: If you know the kid well, you know better than anyone what might be the right thing. Tickets for an outing? A photo of the family dog? A framed copy of the invitation?
You tell us, what is best to give or to avoid?
In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
I’m a big fan of Julie Weiner’s blog at The Jewish Week. It’s one of those blogs that I read fairly regularly, not because I find myself agreeing with everything she writes (and I’ll admit that I, like many, tend to read people with whom I agree). Rather, I read her blog because I find that she challenges many of my borders as a rabbi in ways that are intelligently and often compellingly stated.
This week she brings our attention to a new feature at another site that provides an incredible resource to interfaith families – interfaithfamily.com. They are now hosting a parenting blog where non-Jewish parents raising Jewish kids, and Jewish parents in interfaith households, are writing and reflecting on their experiences in Jewish life, family, and community.
The presence of these multi-varied families in our communities is raising new questions and challenges that rabbis must respond to. And different rabbis will respond in very different ways, based on a range of factors that include halachic frameworks, pragmatic considerations, pastoral support, educational opportunity, and sociological reality.
In this area of my professional life, I find that I am still learning. My borders, so to speak, are shifting. Some of the kinds of questions and situations I find myself challenged to consider:
- A convert to Judaism wishes to name their baby daughter after her deceased, Christian mother in a Jewish baby-naming ceremony.
- A non-Jewish parent who has lived in the Jewish community and participated actively for over 10 years wishes to recite the blessings for an aliyah at their son’s bar mitzvah.
- A parent of a bar mitzvah student who, themselves, was raised with “both.” As an adult, they have been living a Jewish life, learning Hebrew, and studying Judaism. Can they participate in the bar mitzvah as a Jewish parent?
- A young adult was raised with “both.” They have decided to affirm Judaism as their sole religious identity, and go through the process of conversion. Now they are marrying a Christian and would like a rabbi and a minister to be part of the wedding ceremony.
- A Jewish and non-Jewish parent have a newborn son. What role can the non-Jewish side of the family play in the brit milah?
- A child is being raised with “both.” The Jewish mother brings him to a rabbi, asking for a program of Jewish study and a bar mitzvah. It is currently unknown whether a subsequent ritual (baptism, first communion, etc.) may be a further part of the child’s introduction into his parents’ faith communities.
These are just a handful of the real-life scenarios that I have encountered over the years. The issues they raise from a purely halachic perspective are different. Some are, actually, relatively straightforward. Others, however, will receive very different responses from different rabbis, determined by the factors above that may be more or less dominant in the approach of the particular rabbi, perhaps also informed by a Jewish denomination’s official position on the matter.
They are the reality of living in a world where we are blessed, in the USA, to live at a time when so many non-Jews choose to support Jewish choices for their children and choose to fully participate in Jewish family and Jewish community. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with high school students in our religious school program. We were beginning a course on comparative religion and I asked them to share an experience that reflected an interfaith exchange. Several students remarked that they had friends in public school who would describe themselves as “half Jewish” or even “a quarter Jewish” (with one Jewish grandparent). My students were skeptical. Having spent years in formal, Jewish education, studied for a bar or bat mitzvah, and more, they questioned the rights of these friends to lay claim to any part of their religious identity.
While I did not deny the complexities of how individuals, let alone the organized Jewish communal world, should respond to these statements of identity, I offered my students the following food for thought. We forget easily, but it was only a few decades ago that almost no-one who wasn’t bound into the Jewish community by birth would choose to identity with us. To do so would have excluded you from full participation in many strata of American society, denied access to certain clubs, and discouraged from living in certain neighborhoods. How amazing that a teenager with a relatively tenuous connection to Judaism chooses to identify with that part of their family heritage as a badge of pride!
I recently met a young woman who has had no formal Jewish education but the matrilineal Jewish line has been preserved. But she had to go back to the burial records of her great-grandparents to prove her Jewish ancestry. Both her Jewish grandmother and her Jewish mother had married non-Jews. Having attended a Birthright Israel program, and subsequently returned to Israel for a longer visit, she is now preparing to make aliyah. What an incredibly journey!
I have no easy answers to the complexities that rabbis and Jewish institutions face in navigating the new landscapes of identity and belonging that are emerging. But what I can say is this. My perspectives have shifted as a result of the conversations I have had with those who are traveling through those landscapes. I have gained a profound respect for those whose path is not straightforward. And, increasingly, I have understood my role to facilitate entry into richer Jewish life and ask myself, in each instance, how my role as gatekeeper might alter the path of the person I encounter. The answer may not always change, but the conversation most certainly is transformed.
Last week I was following the dialogue and reflections of two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues on the topic of the ‘Christian bar mitzvah’. Jason Miller first shared the story of the episode of ‘The Sisterhood’, a reality show on TLC, that featured the decision of two Christian pastors to give their son a Christian bar mitzvah. The father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity prior to his marriage. Rebecca Einstein Schorr subsequently wrote about her reactions to the segment and had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the couple on Huff Post Live.
Last night, I had the opportunity to share part of the Huff Post Live interview with my 10th grade students in Chai School. As students, aged 15-16, who had their own bar or bat mitzvah just two years ago, I was interested to hear their take on the debate. They were not at all receptive to the idea of a Christian bar mitzvah. They raised many of the same issues that my colleague, Rebecca, had raised during her interview. In particular, they completely understood and supported the idea of creating a coming-of-age ceremony within the context of another religious tradition, and the thought that this might be inspired by Jewish practice. But using the term, ‘bar mitzvah’ indicated to society a specific Jewish ceremony in a Jewish context, so they did not approve of using the same label.
My students were also comfortable with the idea that a father who was Jewish might wish to share his heritage with his son by educating and exposing him to that Jewish heritage and educating him in order to have a Jewish bar mitzvah. They were less concerned and interested in some of the ‘who is a Jew’ debates that Jewish organizations and leaders sometimes engage in. If someone wanted to claim their Jewish heritage, they were cool with that. What they were not cool with was the co-opting of that heritage and blending it with a different religious belief system, namely Christianity. They listened to the pastor’s explanation of how they understood Jewish heritage to be an integral part of their Christian identity and practice, but they did not agree with it.
My class included students who had one non-Jewish parent. But when I investigated further, these students were happy to have participated in the family celebrations of that parent when Christian holidays came around, but they were very clear about their own religious identity and they appreciated that their parents had maintained a clarity and distinctiveness around their respective religious traditions – it seems that they appreciated the individual who followed the path of one faith tradition – they saw an integrity in that decision.
I found myself playing devil’s advocate to better understand to what extent we were coming from a place of gut reaction or whether there was a consistent logic being applied to my students’ thinking. This class will end the year with Confirmation. I asked them if they knew the history of the Confirmation ceremony. They understood that the Reform movement had borrowed the term from Christian communities. The difference, they felt, was that the content of our ceremony was 100% Jewish – we had not borrowed the rituals or forms of the Christian ceremony. And the word ‘Confirmation’ they recognized as an English term that is commonly used and was an appropriate term to describe the confirmation of one’s religious identity and practice.
So then I tried them on weddings. What about weddings where one person is Jewish and one person is Christian and they want to blend rituals and practices from both traditions in their ceremony? Isn’t the potential end-point of that a Christian bar mitzvah for their son down the line? ’No’, my students told me. If two people who identify with different religious systems want to get married, it is appropriate that they draw on the practices of their religion when they create their wedding ceremony. Each of them is being authentically connected to their own heritage. For my students, that was different to imposing a mix of two religious systems – systems that they did not see as being integrally compatible with each other – on a third individual - a child.
Now, I have read plenty from people who consciously identify as ‘both’, or have decided to raise their children with two faith heritages. I have heard them explain those choices in ways that have their own integrity to them. So I am not seeking to dismiss that choice. There is also plenty of commentary out there on the increasing number of people in American society who reject any specific religious label, but who are mixing and blending from many places to construct their own, personal spirituality. We see the beginnings of new seminaries and new communal gathering places that celebrate the ‘interfaith’ and the ability to draw from multiple traditions in the search for spiritual wisdom and practice. So I recognize that there are many alternative ways that individuals are choosing to navigate the path that my students described, even while my own practice and understanding is most similar to my students.
I’m not surprised that some of these more contemporary trends were not voiced by my students. The fact that they are in our Chai School program and preparing for Confirmation makes them more likely to strongly identify with the wisdom heritage that we have shared with them all of these years. But the deeper insight that I gained from listening to them articulate their arguments was the value that they saw in traveling one’s spiritual path using just one vehicle for the journey. While most progressive faith traditions do not make ‘truth’ claims that elevate them above other faith traditions, there is something to be gained from choosing just one path and diving deeply into its wisdom teachings and practices as one develops a personal faith and spirituality. This was the approach that my students chose. I think they are ready for their Confirmation.
The Jewish community needs to gain some self-confidence. We are like the beautiful teenage girl who looks in the mirror and only sees blemishes and imperfections when in reality everyone turns to look at her because she is so pretty. We are no longer a despised minority.
Take a look at two items from popular culture that made the rounds of Facebook posts and Twitter last week. The first is a series of costumes that Walmart is selling so that children can dress up like “A Jewish Rabbi“ or “A Jewish High Priest.”
My Jewish friends were amazed that Walmart, the great American retailer would sell such a niche product to the Jewish community. But they are not selling these to the Jewish population of the US, but to the greater American population. The average American, and in particular evangelical Christians, will buy up these costumes. To dress as a Jew is cool. In his book about religion in American, American Grace, Robert Putnam quotes a statistic from his research that Judaism is one of the most favorably viewed religions in the US today. This is hard for many Jews to accept since we grew up in a post Holocaust Era thinking that everyone hates us. We see only blemishes where others see beauty.
Then look at this clip from a new TLC reality show, Sisterhood, about 5 wives of Atlanta pastors. The clip is of a conversation between Pastor Brian, and his wife Tara and their plans to have a Christian Bar Mitzvah for their son. I watched this clip with a combination of horror and fascination. At first glance, I see why Jews might be offended. Pastor Brian grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity. His actions and comments in the clip are the most jarring. He almost seems to make fun of his Jewish heritage by singing Hava Nagila and playing with a tallit, the prayer shawl. But his African- American wife is taking this bar mitzvah very seriously. She has done her research and knows they must have a cake in the shape of a Torah as part of the party. (Yes, I laughed out loud at that.) She honestly wants to honor her son’s Jewish heritage. She is proud of this part of her husband’s past. At the same time, they both want to affirm their Christian faith in the context of the bar mitzvah. They are accurate when they call it a “Christian Bar Mitzvah.”
The more I reflected on this clip, the more I realized that instead of being offensive, this clip show how much Christians like and admire Judaism. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? They want to use a Jewish ritual to add meaning to their lives, to mark a lifecycle moment in their son’s life. Isn’t that the root point of a bar mitzvah, to celebrate a child’s movement in to adolescence? Continue reading
Before I could read and write in English, I spoke Yiddish. At age 3 I learned the Hebrew alef-bet alongside the English alphabet. Together they remain by my side, right to left and left to right. This summer while in Israel I will continue my love affair with Hebrew and study yet again all the cool new phrases and lingo that I have missed since my last visit five years ago.
In my sixth decade, I continue teaching the holy Hebrew tongue from scratch to my budding bar/bat mitzvah students. I chant the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta with them and I empower them to decode the mysteries in all those final letters and strange vowels that play upon our gutteral abilities. Some Americans can do it better than others, but most struggle with a more perfect “chet.” Each one of them succeeds in getting close to their Hebrew heritage.
Some parents ask me again and again: “Can my child have a bar mitzvah without learning Hebrew? Hebrew is such a barrier. It takes too much time to learn. They’ll never use it again. I hated learning it myself during Hebrew school. Why put the pressure on them? ”
Ah, yes, the Hebrew controversy yet again. Why Hebrew?
I listen and I empathize for there is truth in everything they say. And then there is another truth: The veracity that the Jews have a special relationship with this ancient language with its venerable sounds. Hebrew is the best kept spiritual secret of the Jewish people.
Classical Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. The language is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period, after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is spoken by most of the eight million people in Israel, and it is one of the official languages of the country, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and by Christian seminarians.
To learn Hebrew is to tap into a resource that offers more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Hebrew connects the Jewish child with a historical telescope that reaches beyond our insular present. Putting sounds and words together creates a jigsaw puzzle of revelations. Like a mathematical logarithm, when they figure out how to read the most familiar of prayers, a light sparks inside of them.
The child delights in himself/herself when upon entering the synagogue they can read from the siddur that only a few months ago looked like a Chinese manuscript from a disappearing dynasty. They embrace this “adult” practice. This mandatory mitzvah to learn the Hebrew language, one prayer at a time, is magical, mystical and memorable.
I teach Hebrew by design. God’s design.
It was dry inside the Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. The audience for the 22nd Washington Jewish Film Festival sat mesmerized as they watched the opening night Israeli film, “Mabul” (“The Flood”).
“Mabul” tells the difficult story of an Israeli family whose eldest son is severely autistic. After 12 years of living in an institution, Tomer is abruptly sent home and arrives just before his younger brother’s bar mitzvah. Tomer’s presence creates havoc within the family and challenges the tolerance of the residents of the village where Yoni, the younger brother, lives with his parents.
Throughout this heart-wrenching drama — overflowing with scenes of bullying, infidelity and a near-death drowning experience — you see Yoni practicing his trope. His Torah portion is Noach, from Genesis 6. We experience the metaphorical emotional flood that comes in waves during the course of the film.
“These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted. Noach walked with God.”
Several months ago, Adam, an autistic 21-year-old had his bar mitzvah in our synagogue. Adam also sings in our temple choir; during rehearsal, he sometimes mimics other members. However, he is always in tune and on pitch. During his bar mitzvah ceremony, the cantor stood next to Adam for support as he chanted his entire portion without hesitation. The young man simply sang back the trope exactly the way his teacher had chanted it. Exactly. With the same intonation, the same rhythmic cadences, the same beautiful phrases. As a community, we experienced a miracle!
In “Mabul,” the bar mitzvah creates expectations and tensions for this family in crisis. As I watched the film, I pondered whether it was necessary to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime ritual given the family’s challenging situation. Who needs this bar mitzvah anyway?
We, the audience, need this bar mitzvah in order to celebrate. Yoni and Tomer’s family needs this bar mitzvah in order to function as a family again. The community needs this bar mitzvah in order to validate its traditions.
And as in every good film, in “Mabul” everyone is transformed and redemption takes place inside the house of worship. In spite of all the evil that surrounds these characters, just like in the story of Noach the good dominates.
“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.”
Yoni begins to chant his Torah portion and the sounds of his older brother, Tomer, follow his lead. Together, as brothers, they share this long-awaited bar mitzvah. Two by two. Heart to heart. Trope by trope.
I run a pretty rockin’ Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah service. I’ve officiated at several hundred of these events. I’ve been to hundreds more by some great Rabbis, but even with the warmest clergy, the best intended preparation programs, and helpful guidance of thoughtful books such as Putting God on the Guest List (by, Jeffrey K. Salkin), Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are missing the mark.
The original meaning of the celebration was that a child was entering puberty, and now was responsible for the commandments. Puberty can be a tricky time, no wonder so many wise traditions developed rituals for its arrival. Age 13 boys (and 12 for girls), is the average on-set of puberty. In the Mishnah (200 CE), this corresponded to having grown 2 pubic hairs (2 is for real, 1 eh, might just be shmutz), B. Talmud Niddah 52a. As a rite of passage, dealing with the physical changes of adolescents might be meaningful. However, we live in an age where people are rightfully creeped-out by almost anybody talking about sexuality with minors. Perhaps, especially clergy. So puberty remains the elephant in the room. Even dealing with the physical and hormonal changes of becoming a teen is a topic that most clergy wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Because we collectively fail to connect what is really happening in the life of the teen, the celebration’s meaning, both the service and party, has been diminished. When a rite of passage looses its core it can become fairly comical, think Keeping the Faith with Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, or more recently the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Faux-Mitzvahs have been popping up over the past few years. These are celebrations for 13 year-olds of any religion that want to celebrate the way their Jewish friends are doing. And why not? Have you heard the joke: “That was more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’?”
I love the “today you are a man” speech. This kid doesn’t have a job, nor has he seriously considered how he intends on investing his 401k. Even being a little league star hardly counts as manhood. In truth, this kid is about to head into some fairly big ups and downs. Such is the nature of becoming a teenager: All the physical capabilities without the sechel (smarts) to navigate. Consider this insight from the Department of Health and Human Services:
With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light. This broadened view of risk-taking and the concept of self-regulation are explored in the next section.
As my Head of School at New Community Jewish High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, says, “The car rental agencies have it right.” It turns out, you can’t rent a car until you are 25 years old, the accurate age of the end of adolescence. With brain scans, neurologists tell us that the frontal lobe continues to develop until the age of 25 (leave it to the free-market to figure it out before science). If we’re not going to deal with kids’ physical and psychic development at Bar Mitzvah, we might be wise to wait until the next, more politically correct milestone, maybe getting a driver’s license, or high school graduation. And if we want to hold onto the golden “today you are a man” line, might I suggest waiting till age 25.