Talk to ten different people (one at a time, please, so it’s not so confusing) and each one could offer a different response to the question, “Where did you learn everything you know about life?” Answers might include: school, father, mother, siblings, books, Dr. Phil, Oprah, movies, magazines, nature, pets, the Internet, the House of the Rising Sun, and so on. For me, though, my great life training was clearly my bar mitzvah.
For me, my great life training was clearly my bar mitzvah.
According to Jewish law, when Jewish children reach 13 years of age for boys and 12 years of age for girls, they become responsible for their actions, and "become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah." (English: Son (Bar) or Daughter (Bat) of the commandment). Note to self: Look into origin of “Batman.”
Why a year earlier for girls than for guys? They say it is because they mature faster but I myself was plenty mature at the age of 13. After all, I had mastered the art of wedging my homework in between snacking, watching TV and playing baseball outside with my friends. In my eyes, that was maturity. So, I wondered, just how much more could I possibly learn from having a bar mitzvah? And, more importantly, would the gifts end up making all the studying worthwhile? (Which, after all, is one of a Jewish boy’s most important questions.)
Prior to age 13, the child can do all sorts of wacky stuff—even claim he’s a rock star from Mars, with tiger blood and is constantly “duh, winning!” – because it’s not he, but the child's parents who hold the responsibility for the child's adherence to Jewish law and tradition. After this age, children bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics and are privileged to participate in all areas of Jewish community life, even the All You Can Eat Blintz-athon. But I digress.
My life knowledge, derived directly from the experience of my bar mitzvah, can be summed up in the following:
Five Things I Learned About Life from My Bar Mitzvah
- Don’t seat the Liebowitzes together with the Rosensteins. Which is a slightly more specific way of saying that not everyone gets along. So don’t throw gasoline on the fire by forcing them to be in close proximity to one another. Because nothing brings down the mood of a festive Jewish celebration faster than two supposedly mature couples having an angry kishka fight. (Note for our non-Jewish readers: “Kishka” refers to various types of sausage or stuffed intestine with a filling made from a combination of meat and meal, often a grain.) Instead, during the course of the evening, approach each couple at their far-from-each-other tables separately. Tell them that the other couple apologizes for any offenses, thinks highly of them, and would like nothing more to hug, make up, and start over again as friends. In other words, lie.
- If you act like you know what you’re talking about, people will assume you really do. What’s the biggest challenge for the bar mitzvah boy? No, it’s not desperately trying to avoid developing a pimple on the end of his nose on his bar mitzvah day. No, it’s not trying to avoid Uncle Simcha’s gross kiss as he hands you your Savings Bond. And no, it isn’t trying to avoid eye contact with your friend Freddy, who’s making goofball faces trying to get you to laugh while the rabbi speaks to you in front of the congregation. But, good guesses. It’s actually learning his Haftorah portion. (What’s the Haftorah? About half the size of a whole Torah.) Is every boy expected to know the meaning of his portion? Yes. Does every boy know it? No. Solution? Act like you do. Confidence. Volume. Meaningful pauses. Occasional vague comments to the rabbi, such as, “Wow, these guys really knew what they were talking about, huh?” Soon, not only will others believe you know what you’re talking about, you will, too.
- Do what you love; aggravation will follow. Does any boy enjoy sitting at his bar mitzvah reception dinner party and have his mother nudge him, saying, “Your cousin Cheryl is sitting over there all by herself. Be a mensch and go talk to her.” Not even one boy in recorded history enjoys that. Instead, have your friends join you in a spirited game of hide and seek in another part of the building. You could even invite Cheryl to participate. It’s so much fun and you can make it Jewish-themed by pretending the Pharaoh’s army is searching for you. When you finally return and everyone asks where you were, just tell them you found a quiet place and were giving thanks for having such wonderful friends and family. Try to say it with a straight face.
- The science of strategy, compromise and negotiation is best learned by attempting to invite and seat people fairly and logically at one’s reception. How deeply into the family do you go to seat relatives at the main family table? How many tables apart are needed between mortal enemies? Is it necessary to invite any friend or relative who warned you numerous times not to marry the man/woman you are about to wed. Is it considered ethical to seat people next to each other if you’re hoping they’ll hit it off? Are friends and relatives allowed to submit their own seating requests in advance? I observed my parents dealing with these dilemmas with grace and strategy and I learned.
- You can be a man at age thirteen. “Today I am a man” is the famous bar mitzvah exclamation. Sounded strange when I first heard it. I certainly didn’t look or feel like man. I wondered if some kind of magical transformation happened on that day – perhaps I’d wake up looking like Sylvester Stallone, in “Rambo.” Or I’d wake up married, with kids. Or with a full-time job. But as I was to learn, becoming a man on one’s bar mitzvah day simply means that you become responsible for following Jewish law. This, though daunting, was more welcome to me than the prospect of waking up with kids, a job, and an over-muscular body. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.