When I was 12, my mother threw herself into the planning of my bar mitzvah with what appeared to me to be excess abandon. Finally I told her what we should put on the invitations: “Michael Levin invites you to the bar mitzvah of his mother.”
The line didn’t go over too well — although I’m still proud of it.
The reality is that my bar mitzvah meant a lot to me then. My twin sons’ double bar mitzvah last summer meant even more.
Are you really a man at the age of 13? Maybe you were a couple of thousand years ago, when the average person lived into his late 20s — if he was lucky. Manhood? We’ll settle for one family dinner without bickering or teasing.
And yet, the celebration retains its force.
Some parents still turn these coming-of-age events into extravaganzas the size of celebrity weddings, where, as the joke goes, “The bar is bigger than the mitzvah.”
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The most moving bar mitzvah I ever saw, my sons’ celebrations notwithstanding, was about 35 years ago, when I was studying in seminary in Jerusalem. I had gone to Netanya, a beachfront town where I had friends, for a few days of R&R. The event took place at a six a.m. service on a Monday morning, held that early so that the attendees, mostly laborers, could get to their job sites on time.
The bar mitzvah boy was called up to Torah, read three or four lines in Biblical Hebrew, which is somewhat different from Modern Hebrew, and sat down. His father passed out small cups of whiskey and his mother passed out sandwiches. That was it. Then everybody went to work.
As simple as it was, that ceremony celebrated the fact that the young man so honored could now take part in religious functions. He would be counted for a prayer service. He could even be a witness at a wedding.
Admittedly, my sons’ bar mitzvahs were rather more lavish. We actually held two separate events, because they are two separate people, one at their religious summer camp in New York and one in our community in southern California where we lived until recently.
My boys worked hard at their preparation for reading from the Torah and for conducting services. These were beautiful events. Not over the top, mind you. I don’t even think we served alcohol.
My boys, like all 13-year-olds today, are hardly men. They’re not supposed to be. They’re kids.
So what does the bar mitzvah signify in 2016? If your family takes its Judaism seriously, it means your children can fully partake in the culture of learning and praying that is the heart of traditional Judaism.
A client of mine, now 85, celebrated a second bar mitzvah along with his grandson’s. Tell me that has no meaning.
Now that my boys are in the club, they can take part — and continue to lead — services with men five or six times their age. They are part of a shared culture that spans generations. They’re on the team.
Traditional Judaism is unabashedly retrogressive when it comes to the division of roles along gender lines. It’s just how it is. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to partake.
But we do. In an immodest world, I like the fact that my daughters have countless role models in our community for dressing, acting, and living modestly. You don’t see a lot of that in the youth culture out there.
I like their chances. When they come of age, the cohort of young men to whom they will be most likely attracted will be those who will have been participating in a shared adult spiritual culture from even before their 13th birthday. That gives them a much better possibility of having a successful marriage, because likes truly do stay together longer. And more easily.
So what’s the big deal about a bar mitzvah today? It’s really up to the family.
It can be a ritual that nobody really cares about, just something done to appease the elders in the family, if there are any left. Or it can symbolize the beginning of a lifetime spiritual journey.
I hope that’s what it’s been for the young man I saw that morning in Netanya. And of course I hope that’s what it will mean for my children … and yours.
Twelve-time national bestseller Michael Levin, a father of four, runs Business Ghost, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten memoirs and business books.