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Preventing Bar Mitzvah Boy Angst

Preventing Bar Mitzvah Boy Angst

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It was the bar mitzvah Shabbat of one of my younger sons, and we were strolling along a perimeter road. My eyes were delighting in the miraculous beauty of springtime, when my daughter’s voice broke into my thoughts. “You know, Mum, girls never have to perform like boys do. I can choose if I want to be in the school play, but boys have to read the Torah in front of everyone. Just imagine what it must be like if they are very shy!”

I agreed with her, while inwardly remembering a lecture I heard in which a rabbi explained that some boys find “performing” in public excruciatingly difficult. “If the boy feels exposed and awkward, don’t insist that he read the whole Torah portion in front of the congregation and then lead the prayer service, if each syllable he says in public is a fearful and embarrassing torture for him!” the rabbi pleaded.

The truth is, a boy will be bar mitzvahed whether he performs publicly or notDuring a bar mitzvah ceremony, do you ponder upon those last lead-up weeks that the (still rather little) boy has just been through? Weeks when his time was not his own? When any activity other than practicing for his bar mitzvah was considered a reckless waste of time? The truth is, a boy will be bar mitzvahed whether he performs publicly or not. Yet the peer pressure from friends, neighbors, and—in my poor boychik’s case—a good crop of infuriatingly successful bigger brothers, disallow the pressured lad from throwing in the towel.

In an ideal world, the time period leading up to the bar mitzvah should be a precious time of growth. The bar mitzvah boy should have the leisure to gradually understand what it means to be responsible for one’s actions, of becoming obliged to do something, and not just choosing to do it. Yet the month before the bar mitzvah is far from an idyllic, introspective interlude of preparation for the formal acceptance of adulthood. The bar mitzvah boy struggles to fit the often-conflicting tunes for reading the Torah portion into his brain, while attempting to wrap the stiff, new tefillin straps around his boyish arms, trying not to get too pinched by those still unbending straps of leather.

Most bar mitzvah boys must have their parents on edge when they declare, “I’m not doing it!” And then, come bar mitzvah day, these war-fatigued parents are probably dumbfounded at the apparent ease with which their I-can’t-do-it son rattles off his portion.

Negotiating the pre–bar mitzvah period is an incredibly demanding parenting task: being supportive, making only realistic demands, pulling away from your own desire that your child should do his bit. Don’t forget, the child in question is not a child but an adolescent, with all the complications that such a status involves. How do parents maneuver such a time, to get through it with minimal damage and, hopefully, some gain?

A solution might be to start the preparations for this momentous occasion not by checking up the name of the Torah portion and arranging a teacher, but by sitting down and having a heart-to-heart talk, agreeing on expectations, working out a realistic timetable of: when (and whether) he’ll read the Torah publicly; the kiddush event which takes place after his reading of the Torah; the celebratory meal (i.e., the bar mitzvah party); his speech; starting to put on tefillin. As you discuss each event, you can discuss whom to invite, what part his schoolmates should play, what does he see as most important, etc. This is the stage, before the time pressure, to work on commitments and learning schedules. This is also the time to have a family cuddle and declare the event a joint venture, where everyone is battling on the same side toward a unified goal.

That little child, that growing person, who has been entrusted to my care, was about to take on an even fuller responsibility I think of my bar mitzvah boys, including my brand new, fresh-off-the-press one whose event set me pondering. I think of the precious moments we shared, like the long walk I had with my son on the morning before his bar mitzvah party. We chatted and spent some relaxed moments together—the restful peace before the storm. That little child, that growing person, who has been entrusted to my care, was about to take on an even fuller responsibility for his own life. He seems so little. The world out there has so many stumbling blocks, and in many ways is so warped, and warping. All I can do is pray, and try to show my children the beauty and truth in living a Jewish life.

I feel myself beaming. I threw the candies (as is traditional), the bar mitzvah boy did well, the speech was said, the catering was tasty, and the guests had plenty to eat.

It’s over, but we’re still smiling.

Basha Jacobs is a qualified Social Worker, Narrative Therapist, writer, and most importantly, wife and mother.
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Anonymous Sacramento, CA November 20, 2011

I wish this article had been written when my son became bar mitzvah. It would have been so helpful. Reply

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