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D.I.Y. Bar Mitzvah

When my husband and I started talking about having kids, the first thing he said was, “I want to raise my kids Jewish.” I answered, “What does that mean to you?” And we’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.

We are not a religious family. I was raised Catholic by scientist parents who stayed with the church for the sake of tradition and community, but made it pretty clear that (like most American Catholics) their views didn’t align with the edicts coming down from Rome. My husband comes from a long line of Jewish rabble-rousers — socialists who expressed their Jewishness in the spirit of tikkun olam — “heal the world.” He had a Bar Mitvah, but they seldom went to temple otherwise.

So what does it mean to us to raise Jewish children? For me, it meant education. Although I’d always had Jewish friends, and I had a vague sense of the basics of Judaism, I had not scratched the surface of a religious tradition that goes back before written history started. As soon as our kids’ Jewish education started, in preschool, I felt lost amidst a body of learning that Jewish children absorb slowly, through practice in their households. At preschool, we learned the basics of celebrating Shabbat and the major holidays.

Then our son aged out of preschool and it was on to Temple school. We’d fit in pretty well at preschool — one teacher in particular was such a perfect nurturer for my unusual little beings that we still keep in touch. But Temple school was a different story. Most of the kids found it fun; our shy son usually ended up in tears. This is not to criticize our local temple for how they run their school — it works great for most kids. It just didn’t quite align with our needs. We tried out another school, which was better but didn’t work out for location and scheduling reasons. And then we were on our own.

I guess our Jewish schooling story is a bit like our schooling story in general: We tried out all the possible options, and though we could see that the schools we tried were great schools for some kids, they didn’t work for ours.

We ended up doing the same thing with our Jewish education that we did with the rest of their education: cobbling up something that fit with our family’s needs. It was not orthodox, but it’s been a wonderful experience for our family.

Last weekend was our son’s Bar Mitzvah. He has been working with a wonderful tutor, whose job was not only to prepare our son for his Bar Mitzvah, but also to help us as a family figure out what our son’s Bar Mitzvah was going to mean to us.

The B’nai Mitzvah (that’s for either gender — for girls it’s Bat Mitzvah) is the rite of passage into adulthood for Jews. By becoming a Bar Mitzvah, a boy declares that he is taking responsibility for his actions. When we started the process, it seemed forced. How can you get a kid to get meaning out of this process? But as we approached the actual event, it seemed that the event itself was bringing about the change that it required. Our son, after a year of intermittent gritted teeth resolve and pleading not to do it, became committed to the process. He read, studied, and learned. He started to take responsibility for his actions.

Ours was a pretty unusual celebration. Usually done in a temple, our son became a Bar Mitzvah in a tent in an olive orchard on my parents’ farm. Usually surrounded by a Jewish congregation, we invited the people who we felt would most appreciate sharing the day with him. We couldn’t invite everyone we wanted to, so it was winnowed down to some of our closest friends (few of them Jewish), teachers from 3 periods in his life, relatives who had been a part of his life (most of them not Jewish),  relatives we wished we could spend more time with. Three of my husband’s cousins came to take part in the ceremony, which meant a lot to us.

In the end, the Bar Mitzvah we made was probably rather different than what we ever would have pictured. But it was perfect for our son and for our family. After a nail-biting couple of months, sure it was going to be pouring that day, we got a gorgeous, mild winter day. Coming back from the house just after sunset, I saw the tent lighted from within, the moon a sliver so small it doesn’t show up on the photo, flanked by Venus and Jupiter, shining brightly over the scene. The kids were blowing bubbles and chasing each other down the hillside. The adults chatted over homemade wine and olive oil.

A little off-beat, on familiar turf, it was the Bar Mitzvah that fit our family.


Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.

6 Responses

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  1. Jennifer Carole says

    I love this. At one point Lisa and I discussed getting a tutor but things got crazy and Katie’s decided she’s an Atheist so there you have it. Instead, we just have a hell of a good time on the holidays and at least give them Jewish traditions and memories. Congratulations Abe! Mazel Tov!

  2. Suki says

    The thing I loved about it was that (at least the way we did it) it had less to do with religion than with identity, purpose, and growth. So I think it would be very possible for her to do an atheist Bat Mitzvah, if she were so inclined. Frankly, I’m happy enough for a reason to throw a big party, though scatter-brained me had a little trouble keeping track of the details. And just like after a wedding, I felt like I didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone!

  3. Iris Seitel says

    You write so beautifully…….Abe’s Bar Mitzvah was perfect for him and for you and Herb. It was meaningful……After reading your experience I could picture myself being there…….I am glad you described Abe’s gritting his teeth to learn what was required……..My sons, Andrew and David did the same……..Billy and I made their Bar Mitzvahs at home…….After it was over I can remember missing the hustle and bustle of planning every detail…….The reason it was a fabulous party, because it was personal; held in our home……Billy and I worked so hard, but is was more than worth it……Did you know Billy never had a Bar Mitzvah? He did not want to study and prepare for it, but all the same Billy felt his Jewishness to his core to his dying day. We also were not religious and rarely went to services in a synagogue. But we knew we were Jewish, probably more so than people attend services regularly…….It’s what you feel……

    I know Herb and you are not conforming people……That’s why Abe’s celebration was original and perfect for you and for every one who was there.

    Congratulations Abe……..I can’t believe you are thirteen years old. Billy attended your Bris in California…….When he came back home to Brooklyn, I remember the light in his gorgeous blue eyes, when he said to me, “I have never seen a baby more beautiful than that baby (You!!!!). Don’t forget he had two beautiful boys of his own……..When they were born he never said about them what he said about you. He was a devoted Father and Andrew and David felt his and my love for them. That’s what counts………
    Love to all,
    Aunt Iris

  4. Suki says

    Thank you for your lovely thoughts! Yes, he was a beautiful baby. And I trace his blue eyes to your family as well as mine — if all his dad’s family had had brown eyes, my blue wouldn’t have stood a chance in the gene wars! His eyes took a good three months before they decided to be blue like his great-uncle Billy’s. Billy’s beautiful blue eyes and his charming gruff voice are what I remember most fondly. It was wonderful to have Andrew there and the spirit of Billy standing beside him. As Andrew said when he blessed Abe, “Don’t forget the most important advice I got at my Bar Mitzvah: Never pay retail!”

  5. Iris Seitel says

    I never heard that Andrew had been given that advice at his Bar Mitzvah………
    Thank you so much for remembering Billy with love……I remember when Herb first introduced you to Billy and me ………I think it was important for Herb get the OK from his Uncle Billy, not from me!

    I am happy Andrew was there with his family. How did Jessica and Ian behave at the ceremony? Billy and I had blue eyes, therefore the four of us had blue eyes……..If one of my children had brown eyes, I would have something to answer to. One day I remember in our kitchen, David said, “Daddy has the bluest eyes of all of us”. He was absolutely right. I miss Billy and David so much. As I grow older I miss them even more every single day…..Thank God I still have Andrew and his beautiful family.
    Thank you for realizing that Billy’s Spirit was right there too. Time heals all wounds is not true…….

    I remember Herb used to call his Uncle Billy on the telephone very often………Good memories

    You are a remarkable woman……Can’t close without saying that.

    Give a big hug to Herb,Abe and Charlotte and tell them it comes from Aunt Iris

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Living One-Handed – Avant Parenting linked to this post on July 14, 2012

    […] been writing children’s fiction, found an agent, and helped start an educational nonprofit.  My son had his bar mitzvah. All that on top of my usual crazy life of homeschooling two kids, writing, blogging, and […]

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