This weekend I attended the Bar Mitzvah of my grandson Jackson. For those not familiar with the ceremony, I will briefly explain.
It is a rite of passage in the Jewish religion that occurs when a child of 13 is to take his or her place among the adults of the community. For up to four years, the child studies, mastering the Hebrew language so that on their Bar Mitzvah day, they can recite the Sabbath prayers and chant a portion from the Bible, or Torah. In addition, the young person gives a kind of sermon, explaining and interpreting the portion of the Torah just chanted. All this is done in front of family, friends and teachers, sometimes with a crowd of up to several hundred.
This would be intimidating for anyone, right? For a 13-year-old like Jackson, it’s a very big deal.
Not surprisingly, few kids would willingly choose to devote the time and energy needed to accomplish this project. Modern children have a lot of activities: soccer, hockey, dance lessons, karate — not to mention homework. Preparing for a Bar Mitzvah means piling even more work onto a child’s busy schedule.
Two things keep them motivated for the task. First, is parental pressure. Like many Jewish parents, I didn’t really give my kids a choice. It was required. I told them Bar Mitzvah was like a chain letter kept going for thousands of years. For millennia, their Jewish ancestors had performed this ritual, some under conditions of enormous persecution. I told my kids they would honor this tradition by not breaking the chain.
The second motivator is bribery.
It is customary to throw one heck of a party after the ceremony. Being a celebration, guests come bearing gifts. In the old days, people used to say to the child having a Bar Mitzvah, “Now you are a fountain pen!”, because in less affluent times, a good pen was the most popular gift to give a young person.
In my grandson Jackson’s case, there were no fountain pens. Instead, there was a table piled high with envelopes bulging with cash. And, being Los Angeles, the party was very grand. It was held on the lot of a movie studio (my daughter used to work in film production). There was a D.J., obscene amounts of food, and terrific decorations. If the noise level is an indication, Jackson’s teenage friends and cousins appeared to be having an excellent time dancing, playing games and devouring kid food like pizza, chicken nuggets and hamburgers.
Family came together from Chicago, Madison, Wisconsin, Denver and San Francisco. I would like to report that this was a completely joyous event. The Bar Mitzvah boy did more than a credible job reading and explaining. Jackson did his ancestors proud.
But, like any family get together, there were stresses and strains. In my family’s case, there have been several divorces and recent deaths. I was aware, as I’m sure others were, of those missing because of death and divorce. There have been re-marriages too. At one point, I found myself sitting between two ex-wives. The affluence of this party must have made other family members who are less financially fortunate, compare their own situation to the excess of the day.
Although this was a Jewish event, our family has its fair share of interfaith and interracial marriages. There have been adoptions, with a few of the children resembling neither parent in skin or hair color. In addition, the family represents almost every political persuasion seen in America: liberal to conservative to disinterested.
Of course, there was too much drinking. An open bar meant that social anxiety was soothed with scotch, gin, vodka and beer. No terrible behavior erupted, no fists flew, but I am sure that Sunday morning dawned with a few hangovers.
With the event behind us, I am left with a few impressions: We are a religiously, racially, politically and economically diverse family that came together from many locations to celebrate a 13-year-old Jewish child making his way toward manhood. There were stresses and strains and an open bar, but everyone’s basic message was one of love and encouragement for young Jackson. It was an event which gave me hope for the future.