In the early years of The North Kenwood Oakland Charter School (NKO) we didn’t have any graduating class yet. We had started our upper grade enrollment with fifth grade, so it wasn’t going to be until Year 4 that we could end the year with a graduation ceremony. So, in the interim, my wonderful teaching partner Lou Bradley and I created a Rites of Passage ritual which students could participate in at the close of school if they passed a set of prescribed “tests.” Since our students were almost all African American those tests had a distinct Afrocentric flavor in both content and style.
I’ve been thinking about those events and picturing the procession of students moving proudly down the auditorium aisles wearing the African masks they had made as part of one of their tests. The reason they’re in the foreground of my thinking right now is that this week, we will be celebrating my granddaughter Dalia’s bat mitzvah, Judaism’s distinctive rite of passage into adulthood. Almost every culture has a marker of the transition out of childhood into full responsibility and membership in the larger community. You may be familiar with Native American rituals of sending young people into the woods to fend for themselves until their particular totem is revealed to them.
Apologies to my Jewish readers for whom what comes next is all too familiar. The Jewish practice is not nearly as dramatic as starving in the woods, although many Jewish young people seem to find it as arduous. Before 1922, Dalia would not be making preparations for her big event because girls were not included in this particular rite, and that continues to be the case in most Orthodox synagogues.
Even for boys, the bar mitzvah as we know it in this country – the pomp of the synagogue ceremony followed by an elaborate party rivalling most wedding celebrations – grew out of far less adorned practices. My father described what he remembered from his early years in Belarus which involved the young man being called to the torah to recite a blessing during the reading of that week’s portion of the Holy Book. The event might not even take place on the Sabbath because portions would also be read on Monday and Thursday, the traditional market days. After the service people just went about their normal business.
For the last 9 months or so, Dalia has been preparing for her big day by learning to lead parts of the regular service, much of which is familiar to her from the years of listening to her father chant them when he was the cantor of the very same synagogue where her bat mitzvah will take place. She will also be chanting a section of the torah assigned to her particular week which happens to be the story of the ten plagues and the Jews’ efforts to liberate themselves from the slavery which has been their plight in Egypt. To accomplish this part of her obligation, Dalia has had to learn to decode a system of musical notation called the trope, which Jews have been using for many centuries.
After the torah reading, the bat mitzvah girl will deliver a talk that usually summarizes the content of that week’s torah portion and attempts to extract from it what personal meaning it has to her life. Dalia has been preparing her talk which is referred to as a drash or a dvar with her rabbi, and I’m in the dark as much as the rest of the audience will be about what she’s come up with. This is often delivered in a sing song voice, either inaudible or so rapid fire that it is lost on the listeners. I think Dalia has enough stage experience to sidestep these pitfalls.
After a celebratory lunch for the guests, many of whom will have traveled a considerable distance to celebrate, comes THE PARTY, which is often scheduled for that evening, but in Dalia’s case will piggyback on the morning’s activity. For most kids and their families, this has come to be the centerpiece of the event, an opportunity for excess and the subject of much humor and parody as parents try to match and outdo each other. One Jewish comic epitomized this in a routine where rival business partners plot dueling events, only to discover that they have hit upon the same plan for a bar mitzvah safari when they cross paths trekking through the African jungle.
Dalia’s parents have planned something more modest. The lunch will phase into an afternoon party, primarily for the kids in attendance where a DJ will preside over the dancing and entertainment. This is a far cry from the themed events we have attended that play off the interests of the center of attention – a sport they are involved in or a natural environment, e.g., under the sea, that intrigues them. There is rarely any Jewish content to these choices.
There’s an extra twist to Dalia’s event because I will be joining her to celebrate my second bar mitzvah, a practice that has become more common in recent years for men (or women) who reach their 83rd birthday. It is based on a line in Psalms which suggests that the span of a person’s life is 70 years. Anything beyond that is like starting the cycle over, so at 70+13, it’s time for a repeat. So, I will join Dalia for some portions of the service and will, like her, read a portion of the torah, for which I’ve been practicing like mad, lest I embarrass myself and her. I made sure that Dalia was onboard with this plan because I didn’t want to steal any of the spotlight from her. She has been a steady supporter of the idea. I should add that there is no place in Jewish law that requires either a first or a second bar mitzvah. They are just practices that have evolved over the centuries.
I should mention one more aspect of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah that has become a fixture. The young person chooses a project that can involve anything from raising money for a worthy cause, to providing service for those same causes, to researching some aspect of Judaism or their own family’s history. Dalia has always been concerned about people who are suffering from homelessness. As a result, she has raised money to purchase items that would support the personal hygiene needs – soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, etc., which will be bagged and distributed to people living on the street.
Unfortunately, for most kids, this wonderful event also marks the culmination of their formal involvement with Judaism. All too often pre-bar/bat mitzvah Jewish education offers a very watered-down exposure to the wonders of a rich Jewish tradition, presented in a way that can hardly compete with the lure of the popular culture that surrounds young people. There is little support or knowledge at home to supplement any deeper engagement with Judaism because most parents are products of the same limited education.
At the end of the service next Saturday, my wife and I will be presenting Dalia with a Jewish star which we hope she will wear from that day on. My parents did the same for me at my bar mitzvah. We are living in a moment when some Jews are nervously concealing the evidence of their Jewishness – their stars, menorahs and mezuzahs. We hope this gift will motivate her to display her identity proudly and lead her to explore more deeply the great civilization into which she has been born.