His Bar Mitzvah; My Religious Crisis

How do you send your child to Hebrew school when you hated it?

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I want my son to have a bar mitzvah. Those who know me find this strange, since persuading me to get Elijah circumcised was like pulling teeth, or, at least, pulling foreskin. But while both of these events mark major Jewish rites of passage, one can easily make the argument that the bris is an outdated barbaric custom.

A bar (or bat) mitzvah, on the other hand, can be a majestic celebration of maturity, a reaffirmation of faith, a super-fun party, and a consecration of the sanctity of family life. I still remember my bar mitzvah with great fondness, even though it rained the entire week before and we had to have the party in the temple rec room. Also, I didn't invite any girls and spent the entire night dancing with my cousin Kara. Still, I loved my bar mitzvah, and want my son to know that same joy.

The problem lies in getting there. I can recall few experiences more miserable in my life than Hebrew school. The kids were jerks, the classroom facilities borrowed, and the work dull and repetitive. We had pretty good teachers. I did learn Hebrew and could sing my haftarah from memory by the time I was done. In general, though, the whole thing felt alienating, disconnected from the rest of my world, just another excuse to get bullied by kids whose families had more money than mine.

Neal Pollack's Bar Mitzvah Jewish
      Neal Pollack: Today I am a man.

My father either didn't care, or didn't notice. Hebrew school, to his mind, was something you did. It's what he'd done, and his father before that, and on down through the generations. But there was a big difference. Judaism wasn't just an aspect of my father's childhood. His parents emigrated from Germany in 1934, so it was the defining fact of his existence, even his entire world.

When my dad, as a kid, had stuttering problems, he went to his cantor. For me, growing up in suburban Phoenix, a city with far more Mormons than Jews, the cantor was just a guy who looked like Sydney Pollack (no relation). I'd stop by his office for chanting lessons, but he wouldn't remember my name from one week to the next. I'd never had a personal conversation with the rabbi who presided over my bar mitzvah. Judaism was part of my life, a fairly large part, but it occupied its own area, far away from my other fancies and concerns.

That's not what I want for my son. If he gets a Jewish education, I want it to be one that's relevant to his actual life, not something rote and memorization-based. Tradition doesn't mean something unless it's connected to the present, and donating a tree to Israel just isn't enough. Of course, I have no idea what a Jewish education rooted in reality might look like. My son's reality largely revolves around drawing cartoons where Superman and Batman serve each other poo for dinner. That probably wouldn't be appropriate for shul.

Elijah has quite a few Jewish friends. We do live in Los Angeles, after all. Some of them are half-Jewish, with the Jewish half tending to take over the other half. But whether they've full- or semi-bred their kids Jewish, all the parents we know find themselves in a similar quandary. They hated Hebrew school but loved their bar/batmitzvahs. All of them are looking for a different reality for their children. And they don't know where to go. Traditional synagogues can be very expensive, and if you haven't been in a congregation for a long time, they're socially alienating, too. Progressive congregations sometimes come on a little strong with their non-stop talk of tikkun olam.

Neal Pollack's Bar Mitzvah
Neal Pollack's first public lecture

I know some people in the Valley who hire a private tutor for their kids and the kids of a few other families. Elijah would probably like getting together with his friends to talk Old Testament stories at someone's house. But then what? Who will conduct the service, and where? Who's going to really teach them to read Hebrew? These questions make me tired.

At some point in the next year and a half, I'm going to have to make a decision. Right now, Elijah is six, and we can still let it slide at my current routine of making him read the Four Questions in English at seder, lighting the Hanukkah candles as a family, and singing the motzi over bread together on Friday nights. But soon enough, we're going to face more complicated theological questions, and I don't know if I'm dad enough to handle them.

The other day in the car--because we're always in the car--Elijah said to me: "Daddy, what are all the Jewish holidays?"

"Well," I said, "there's Passover and Hanukkah."

"I know those," he replied.

"And Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah."

"Of course," he said.

That answer both surprised and pleased me, so I pressed forward.

"And Purim."

"What's that?"

"You know, the one they did at your preschool where you dress up in costume and you talk about Queen Esther and her wicked cousin. Also, you make a special house out of leaves in your backyard."

"No, I don't remember."

"OK, we'll work on that."

"What other holidays?"

"Well, now we're starting to get down the list. There's Tu B'Shvat, which is a kind of tree-planting and nature festival."

"OK."

"And Simchas Torah."

"Oh yeah, they make a joke about that on Top Secret."

"Right," I said. "And besides that, well, I can't really remember any more."

"But there are more Jewish holidays, right, daddy?"

"There probably are," I said.

But I'm obviously not the one to tell him. Part of being a good dad is recognizing your limits as an educator, particularly a religious one, and my limits are very clear. Sure, I can lead a seder, but I'm not exactly a fount of talmudic knowledge. The coming bar mitzvah crisis looms, and all I know are the lyrics to "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," a song on 30 Rock a couple of years ago. "Boys becoming men," the lyrics went, "men becoming wolves."
We'd better find a good Hebrew school, and fast.

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Neal Pollack

Neal Pollack is an American satirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist. His books include The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Never Mind the Pollacks, Beneath the Axis of Evil, and Alternadad.