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Bima Revolution
A conference questions the point of the rite of passage, besides profits for the party-planning-industrial complex.
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Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher who also blogs for The New York Times, wanted a rite of passage for her adolescent son to help him mark his transition to adulthood.

Not having any ready-made tradition to draw from, Lahey, who is not Jewish, decided it would be perfect for him to wake up at dawn and milk cows for the first time ever. Her son, not surprisingly, found the activity — which concluded with him drenched in cow spit and urine — less than rewarding.

Sharing her experience at the Jewish Futures Conference, a daylong session focused on “The Role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America Today,” Lahey, one of the presenters, reflected that the problem was that she, not her son, had developed this ritual, and that “he had to develop the goals for himself, things that mean something for him.”

Later in the day, another speaker, Rachel Brodie of the San Francisco JCC, noted that for many young Jews, learning to chant Torah is not so different from learning to milk cows: a challenging ancient skill that seems irrelevant to modern life. Not to mention the fact that it is something most kids rarely, if ever, see their parents do.

As the mother of a fourth grader, I’ve recently begun thinking a lot about what I hope my daughter’s bat mitzvah will be like, especially since I never experienced this rite of passage myself.

But I’m hardly the only person obsessing lately about the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood. It is coming under a lot of scrutiny these days.

Not only did the bar/bat mitzvah headline last Wednesday’s Jewish Futures Conference, an annual gathering sponsored by the Jewish Education Project and Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and attracting about 200 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders; it’s also spurred the Union for Reform Judaism’s “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution,” a pilot project to get synagogues thinking more creatively about the event that so many children and parents view as the raison d’etre for Hebrew school. Meanwhile, an Atlanta bar mitzvah boy’s “save the date” rap video, done as a parody of Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” and featuring a cameo from the mayor and other local celebrities, went viral last month, generating over 361,000 YouTube views and a storm of media coverage.

A Kveller article in January titled “Ban the Bar Mitzvah” sparked comments and various counter-posts throughout the blogosphere. And a new magazine, Mazel — which seems to embrace the most extreme conspicuous consumption aspects of the American bar/bat mitzvah — debuted earlier this year.

What’s spurring this bar mitzvah interest?

There seems to be a growing consensus that the ritual as currently configured is not working, at least not as a means of inspiring commitment to Judaism among young people and their parents or a way to experience a meaningful transition from childhood to adulthood.

Who it is working for is the caterer-formalwear-DJ-“party motivator”-florist-photographer-cake baking-trope tutoring-videographer-invitation printing industrial complex and the people who gladly support it. Indeed, at the Jewish Futures Conference, a “thumbnail sketch” history of b’nai mitzvah in America, presented by Hebrew Union College history professor Rabbi Carole Balin, highlighted just how much the modern American bar/bat mitzvah has been shaped not by rabbis, but by caterers.

While early in the 20th century, receptions tended to be small, home-based affairs for close friends and family, as receptions expanded into ballrooms and other venues, caterers often took on the role of “custodian/ritual expert” — as exemplified by the caterer-invented candle-lighting ritual at the party, a “complete usurping of the birthday ritual” that, Rabbi Balin noted, is for many families “as important ritually as the Torah reading.”

Bar/bat mitzvah ennui mixed with excitement about possibilities for innovation pervaded the conference, although two key stakeholders — parents (who do not happen to be Jewish communal professionals) and pre-teens — were conspicuously absent.

The conference did, however, feature a panel of three college students reflecting on their not-so-long-ago and not-so-happy bar/bat mitzvah experiences.

Sylvee Legge, who attended a Conservative day school in Atlanta, reflected on how the mean-girl tensions, fashion/beauty pressures and self-consciousness of middle school permeated every aspect of her and her peers’ bat mitzvah experiences, with mothers seeming to fan the flames rather than defuse them.

“There was tons of pressure about looking good, what designers you were wearing, who was doing your hair and nails, what your mom looked like,” Legge, now an NYU student, recalled. Before the bat mitzvah, she said, girls felt pressured to talk up the party to encourage classmates to attend; during the event, “I was nervous the whole time about what people were thinking, even my relatives.”

Although I never had a bat mitzvah, hearing Legge brought back my own unpleasant middle school memories.

My atheist mother and (non-Jewish) stepfather would probably have grudgingly cooperated had I pressed for a bat mitzvah, but the potential stresses and embarrassments — being the only kid in Hebrew school whose family didn’t actually belong to the synagogue, enduring parental teasing about the spiritual component and parental complaints about the expense — made the whole ordeal seem way too daunting.

I took flute lessons instead, and in seventh grade, when bar/bat mitzvah season began, I was both envious of the celebrants and relieved that my biggest performance was a flute recital, where I was not a soloist but part of an ensemble. Thanks to the social roller coaster of middle school, exacerbated by my insecurities about being a late bloomer, I had few friends that year, so hosting a big party, only to have kids not want to attend it, sounded like the ultimate nightmare.

The bar/bat mitzvah is an unfortunately timed event in many ways: at a period in life when most people are experiencing peak levels of self-consciousness and snobbishness, the current performance-and-party-hosting structure seems to exacerbate, rather than relieve, these tendencies.

One of the people at my table, Stacey David, the education director at the Summit JCC Conservative Synagogue, complained to me about the bat mitzvah scene in Livingston, N.J., where she lives: various auxiliary rituals and customs, with girls now hosting expensive and competitive pre-bat mitzvah parties as a sort of dress rehearsal a year before the real event, and the bat mitzvah dress now “like a bridal gown, something no one is supposed to see until the day of the ceremony.”

Which creates new bullying opportunities: excluding kids from pre-parties and the bat mitzvah itself, mocking people for their attire, and, as happened to her daughter, posting on Facebook spoiler photos of a girl’s dress before the big day.

Other cultures don’t necessarily have it any better.

Michele Salcedo, an editor at the Associated Press’s Washington Bureau and author of “Quincenara! The Essential Guide to Planning the Perfect Sweet Fifteen Celebration,” presented at the conference on “What We Can Learn from Quincenara.” Granted, as a shleppy person, I may be too dismissive of fashion and visual aesthetics, but I cringed when Salcedo spoke approvingly of how Latina girls get to be “a princess for a day” and how there is even a ritual in which the girl exchanges flat shoes for high heels. (Is there a ritual later on in life, maybe toward menopause, when she lets herself swap the torturous heels back for comfy flats?)

Lest you conclude that the modern American bar mitzvah is just a case of too much bar and not enough mitzvah, it seems that the religious/ritual aspect of the day — and the preparation for it — also leaves much to be desired.

Like milking cows, chanting Torah was once a relatively practical skill. But today, just as it’s generally easier to buy dairy at a grocery store than to raise your own cow, it’s easier to access Torah — and, wisdom in general — digitally, or even from a bound book, than from a hand-crafted, vowel-less scroll of parchment.

Several participants at the conference are experimenting with alternative bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies. Judaism Your Way, an outreach nonprofit in Colorado, gives kids a choice of five pathways to bar/bat mitzvah: they include the option of a “Storahtelling”-style ceremony, in which kids and families do a creative theatrical interpretation of the Torah portion; and choosing 13 individual challenges, four of them explicitly Jewish in nature, to master and then give a presentation about.

“Part of being a grownup is the freedom to choose,” explained Rabbi Brian Field, Judaism Your Way’s rabbi.

A recurring theme at Wednesday’s conference was that to save the bar/bat mitzvah and make this rite of passage truly meaningful, the liberal Jewish community first needs to figure out what it means to be a Jewish adult, and what skills are most valued and necessary in life.

Indeed, learning to visit the sick, to navigate Jewish texts online, to make thoughtful charitable contributions, to host holiday celebrations, to participate in a shiva minyan — even to research one’s family history — might be more useful and meaningful than chanting trope and hosting a gala celebration.

Or we could just send them out to milk some cows.

Last Update:

03/12/2013 - 12:13
Jewish Futures Conference
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What is it that defines a Jew and makes them different from other people? Clearly it is the Torah and the mitzvots that are incumbent on Jewish men and women.

Becoming a bar mitzvah means one is now obligated to fulfill the mitzvots. There is no need for any ritual or celebration. The status of a boy immediately changes on their 13th birthday (12th for girls) from a katan (a minor --not obligated in Torah) to a gadol (a man/woman who is obligated in Torah and mitzvots). As a gadol, one can also now fulfill such mitzvots on behalf of others; for example by the newly bar mitzvahed chanting the Torah on Shabbos, the congregation fulfills its obligation to hear the weekly portion.

If the centrality and supremacy of the Torah is undermined, then what ultimately ensues is the whole bar mitzvah loses its meaning. It all degenerates into a party with a window dressing or frosting of Jewish themes, but no real meaning. In fact, I'll commend the author on this point. Instead of liberally tossing platitudes at the proverbial wall, hoping that something will stick and make a meaningful impression, she tells it exactly as it is viewed deep down by most ....irrelevant to modern life. Sad, but true.

A rabbi once told us a story: a man schlepping a large bag filled with rocks across rugged terrain. He happens another man who asks "what are you doing?" The schlepper replies: "I don't really know. I've been told to carry this bag of heavy rocks to some place....what a job! I'm tired and sweaty....I don't know why I am doing this!" The observer says: "It may be more important a job than you think. I have more rocks I could give you to carry if you'd like." The first replies: "Absolutely not! I've got more than enough as it is. I can't stand it right now!" So the observer offers: "More than enough? Well, what if I take some of the rocks out of your bag....lighten your load? Would you like that?" The schlepper is estatic: "Yes! Please take some. And thank you!" So, he goes on his way. And with the load lightened, he is happy for a little while. But, soon enough, he is thinking to himself: "what a heavy bag of useless of rocks. And here I am still schlepping, still sweaty, still tired....I wish I could find some one else to unload more of these rocks from me."

Now, a second schlepper also carrying a large bag of "rocks", following the same path as the first happens on the same observer. The observer also asks him what he's doing and this schlepper replies: "why, I'm hauling this bag of "rocks" of course." The observer interrupts: "Oh I've seen this before. Give me some of those 'rocks'. Let me lighten your load." But this schlepper replies: "Absolutely not, these 'rocks' are mine. I will gladly haul them." The observer is perplexed "Why are you so eager in this strenuous endeavor?" This schlepper replies: "Because these 'rocks' are diamonds!" The observer is impressed: "Diamonds you say! I have diamonds to give to you. Would you mind adding more diamonds to your load?" This schlepper is at no loss for words. He opens his bag and gladly accepts more diamonds. He continues his journey very pleased with his encounter.

That is the difference between the non-orthodox Jews and those who are observant of Torah and mitzvots. To the former, it is burden with no practical application. And for all the leniencies that the non-orthodox rabbis offer, for every mitzvah the non-orthodox rabbis discard, for every appeal they make to "bettering the world" without mentioning Torah or G-d, for all their capitulations to liberal political orthodoxy, and for all the conferences they have and committees they convene about restructuring and rewriting and rethinking and reimagining and revolutionizing, in the minds of the non-orthodox laity, it still leaves a meaningless burden on their backs. The bar mitzvah as a party, albeit a meaningless one, well, at least they can relate to a party.

To the orthodox, each mitzvah is precious. Some are easier than others, but they all require some degree of effort. The are the sustenance for the soul and they are the key to improving ourselves and our environment. They define as Jews and they bring us closer to knowing G-d. There is no doubt the effort and energy directed toward observing Torah and performing the mitzvots pays great rewards.
I would encourage those who are honestly struggling or are conflicted or are confused about this subject should seek out an Orthodox shul and rabbi. With modern technology, there is a wealth of online information as well.

My oldest son will, with Hashem's help, reach his bar mitzvah this later this year. I was so eager for him to learn to chant Torah that I bought a computer program and we started learning, together, over a year and a half ago. I found myself becoming swept up in the whole process. I wasn't perfect, but on the Shabbos, one year before his bar mitzvah, I chanted the whole parshah for the shul. And since then, about every 2-3 weeks, I have chanted one or two of the aliyos. Those who had been doing all the chanting seem happy to have someone else to help out. You see, chanting the Torah IS a very relevant skill. Especially, to those for whom Torah is very relevant.

To an observant family, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not an end in itself but rather an acnolwedgement of the child reaching the Jewish "age of Majority". The ceremony merely marks the beginning of a lifetime of constant Jewish engagement. The accouterments attached to this milestone are far less relevant than what comes after.

My sister's granddaughter "twinned" her Bat Mitzvah with her grandfather's 13 year old cousin, Chana, who never had a Bat Mitzvah, and who died at Auschwitz in October 1942. Her speech included references to her cousin's life and early death. In the evening, the kids got to enjoy their own party.

There is a historical cultural connection, even if not a religious one, to reading from a scroll. The trope are beautiful. They also help interpret the text. It is a shame that the liberal Jews are not able to impart appreciation for this heritage to the members of their communities - adults or youngsters. It is sad to me that you, Julie, do not have the background to appreciate what you are missing. The Jewish texts are our Homer, our Shakespeare. I think most Shakespeare aficionados would prefer a printed book to "online" Shakespeare, and the true lover would certainly value an original printing. We Jews have the opportunity to access our cultural literature, to ALL become aficionados - even if you do not think it is all Divine - if only they would put in the effort to learn to appreciate it. Admittedly, it is an acquired taste. So is Homer and Shakespeare.

"Like milking cows, chanting Torah was once a relatively practical skill."
100% false. Chanting torah was never a practical skill in anyway. And it's likely that chanting torah was not a part of a bar (and certainly bat) mitzvah ceremony, whether you are talking the Eastern European shtetl period, the Dark/Middle Ages or earlier.

You want to shake things up? It's easy. Get kids to buy into the idea that they and their parents should donate a large sum of money to charity in the place of a celebration party and have an alternative program where kids (and adults) get together to do something good that the newly of-aged child is passionate about. That's what we did with both of my kids and it worked fabulously.

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