Emily Kirschenbaum

A Letter to My Son on His 14th Birthday

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

Yesterday you turned 14. One year ago, we were celebrating your Bar Mitzvah. The world was a totally different place then and I’m so glad we got to mark this special milestone in your life surrounded by our family and friends. Sure it was 700 million degrees and the power went out, but none of that mattered. The important part was that you followed in the footsteps of years of history and ancestors before you – being called up to the Torah at the age of 13 and becoming a Bar Mitzvah. 

At that moment in time, I’m not sure you really understood the significance. I think you may have been more focused on whether or not you received enough money in gifts to get the Macbook you wanted. And that’s fine, because, after all, you were a 13 year old boy – I think you were entitled to care more about a computer than your place in the chain of history. 

Even today, as a 14 year old, I don’t expect you to reflect back on your Bar Mitzvah and marvel at the meaning of it all. But I hope you’ll forgive me if I decide to do just that. 

I once had a conversation with a friend that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It was a discussion actually related to Passover, but bear with me, because I am going to tie it back to your Bar Mitzvah…

The conversation was about the observance of Passover. My friend was asking me why I don’t eat bread on Passover and do I think that God actually cares and will come and strike me down if I eat bread. My immediate instinctual answer was to say – of course God cares!! And I don’t eat bread on Passover to honor and remember the miracle of the Jews being released from slavery. But then I thought about it as the words were coming out of my mouth and I realized that that’s actually not true at all. 

Do you want to know the real reason I don’t – and never will – eat bread on Passover? It’s not because I necessarily think that God cares on such an individual level what I do or do not eat (I’m undecided on my feelings on that one), but rather it’s because it’s tradition. Sure, it’s tradition that originally stems from a Torah commandment and is based on remembering crucial events in our people’s past and in no way do I want to belittle that. 

But, it is important for me to tell you that keeping the mitzvot of Passover is so much more than just following a list of rules. It’s about understanding traditions and family history. When I think about Passover, I think about family seders as a kid in my parents house and in hotels in Florida. I think about both my grandfathers leading the seder in their different ways. I think about stealing the afikomen and my uncle stealing it again. I think about all of the different types of people sitting around the table – religious Jews, non-religious Jews, converted Jews, non-Jews – reading the Passover story from the Haggadah. As an adult, of course, I do have to focus a little bit on the rules and make sure the house is kashered, etc. but even now, my focus is never on stressing about even the water having a kosher for Passover symbol on it or making sure we have the exact right things on the seder plate. Rather, I focus on it being the perfect opportunity for the family to get together and to pass on the traditions to the next generation. I hope as you grow up, you think about the Passovers you have spent – whether at our house or with grandparents and cousins in Israel or in America – and will choose your favorite traditions and perpetuate them. 

Now, how does this relate back to your bar mitzvah? Because something has always bothered me about bar mitzvah speeches and it took thinking about this random conversation about Passover to make me realize exactly what it is. Every bar mitzvah boy talks about “becoming a man” and “taking on the responsibility of the mitzvot.” You yourself may have said those words (although to be honest I don’t remember) and I’m sorry that I didn’t make you clarify them. Because it’s not just taking on the responsibility of the mitzvot that is important. In fact, I would argue that keeping to the letter of the law is secondary to what’s more important – which is being kind, being caring, and being a contributing member of your family, community, and the world at large. And part of all of that is preserving tradition – whether it is tradition that is based in halacha or not. 

I believe that the laws of Judaism are fundamentally based on a value system that includes what I just listed above – kindness, caring, and contributing to the world in which you live. I have the utmost of respect for people who prioritize keeping all of the mitzvot to the best of their ability and who come to that from a place of godliness and preserving tradition and history. Sadly, we live in a world where sometimes sticking to the minute details of religious observance is placed above just being a good person. And there are those who believe that because they are “religious” then the written and unwritten rules of basic human decency simply don’t apply to them.

So, when you became bar-mitzvahed a year ago and you took on the responsibility of the “mitzvot,” I want you to know that, in my mind, that’s not actually what you took on at all. You took on the responsibility of tradition. Jewish tradition and family tradition – however you ultimately choose to define them is completely up to you and will surely evolve over time as it has for me. 

You actually can easily take your Jewish-ness for granted. You are growing up in Israel – no one will ever question your right to belong here whether you are wearing a black hat, a kippa seruga or nothing on your head. You can’t help but observe all of the Jewish holidays because they are ingrained in life here. You are also growing up in a home in which (I hope!) you see and absorb Jewish values at work all day every day and where you see old traditions carried on and new traditions being made. 

I hope we are giving you a strong foundation. By that I mean providing you with firm roots and strong beliefs and understanding of the importance of shared history as a Jewish people. And also the courage and confidence to explore what Judaism and tradition means to you. At your bar mitzvah, you joined the ranks of all those who came before you, and now you have the rest of your life to take all of the history and tradition that has been passed on to you and decide what YOU want to do with it. 

My birthday wish for you is that you won’t ever just rely on blind faith as a default (although sometimes you just have to and that’s ok), that you will question and explore what your religion and family history and traditions mean specifically to you. And that you will live your life feeling at peace with the paths you choose.

About the Author
Emily Kirschenbaum planned to spend one year in Israel 16 years ago...She now resides happily in Ra'anana with her husband, 3 Israeli-American kids and the cutest dog in the world. In her professional life, she runs a content marketing business ( with an awesome partner!
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