Some years ago, I watched this British film called The Bar Mitzvah Boy. In it, a working class Jewish family in North London undergo preparations for their son’s Bar Mitzvah. Meanwhile the boy is going through all kinds of apprehensions which no one seems to notice except his sister. While the parents are busy arguing over who will sit with whom at the catered affair, their son is going through anguish. The upshot is that the boy is a no-show on the big day.
His sister finds him in the park and confronts him why he did not appear and how disappointed everyone is. The boy lists the aforementioned distractions of all the adults. His sister asks him if he is afraid to recite his Torah portion. He says that he is not and that he can recite it standing on his head, which he proceeds to do.
When this is brought to the Rabbi’s attention, it is declared that he has fulfilled his bar mitzvah requirements by reciting his haftarah before the lord.
I relate this because for one, it has always stuck with me. My own bar mitzvah was a very stressful affair. My father really could not afford the event, which always seemed like a competition between neighbors and relatives as to who would have the more lavish affair. I remember being harassed by the photographer constantly (he doubled as a magician) and I did not have a moment to hang with my friends or get to speak to my relatives and to hear whatever pile of nonsense they wanted to relate to me about my “big day.”
And these days, from what I hear, these events are even more over the top.
When my son was born, it was a question about whether he would be circumcised or not. My wife is not Jewish, but her brother and cousins had all undergone the procedure. When I asked my Nigerian doctor for advice, we went over the pros and cons, and the conclusion was on the pro side. But from what I had read, I wanted it done by a mohel, and not a surgeon, so we waited the requisite time.
My key business associate was (and is) orthodox and through him, I became friendly with his rabbi. When the time came, I asked Rabbi Fund, if he could recommend a mohel, and would he preside over the ceremony.
Jewish law requires that 3 holy men be present and that in order for a child whose mother is NOT Jewish be circumcised, he must also undergo conversion. We agreed. My wife and I, and our son met in a small Flatbush storefront synagogue and the deed was done.
But when Noah was approaching his 13th birthday, we asked whether he wanted to be bar mitzvah’d or not. We spoke with several people. My son thinking that this meant getting a lot of money, had to be put straight regarding our financial situation. That said, he was also apprised of the work involved in learning to read Hebrew and recite his Torah portion. So basically he refused his induction into Jewish manhood and the matter was laid to rest.
Yesterday, we made a vist to his grandmother who is in rehab just outside the limits of Crown Heights. We took a long route by walking from Eastern Parkway through some of the most orthodox sections of Hasidic Brooklyn.
As we passed one of the Chabad tables, a young man and two very young boys approached me and asked “you wouldn’t happen to be Jewish?”
Now I already know what is coming next and sometimes I just shrug them off. But on this day somehow, I was feeling spiritually predisposed so I said yes. They then asked if I would like to do a mitzvah (good deed) by putting on tefillin. I then explained my son’s situation to them.
We learned that the first time a young man puts on tefillin and recites the accompanying prayers, he is officially bar mitzvah’d. Noah agreed to the opportunity and we both stood there, on this busy sidewalk on Kingston Avenue, and recited the prayers with the phylacteries on our heads in the bright sun. When I covered my eyes, to utter a silent prayer, I thought only of my family and what I wished for everyone, which is peace and prosperity.
Then we walked on. I asked Noah if he felt any different, to which he said “no.”
But something was different.
And this allowed me to relate to him, a much loved joke.
Moishe and Chaim are good friends. They are always discussing ecumenical ideas, arguing over philosophy and trying to face the big questions about life.
One day they are walking down the street and they see a banner hanging outside a church which reads “Convert to Christianity and get $50!”
They stop in their tracks and look at each other. “It would be nice to get the $50” says Moishe. Chaim agrees.
When push comes to shove, Chaim agrees to enter the church, and report back to Moshe afterwards.
15 minutes later, Chaim comes out. Moshe is there waiting for him.
“So, how’d it go?”
Chaim shrugs his shoulders.
“Do you feel any different?” asks Moshe
Chaim says, “No, I feel the same.”
Moshe asks “The $50. Did you get the $50?”
Chaim looks back at Moshe with a look of consternation and says, “$50? What’s with YOU people.”
And with that I say happy Bar Mitzvah to my wonderful son. Now you are a man.