One doesn’t need a fancy ceremony to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Traditionally, girls at twelve and boys at thirteen automatically transition into spiritual adulthood. Previously, any shortcomings in observance were the purview of the parents, whereas now the youngsters are liable for bearing the yoke of commandments. There is no formal prayer for the kid to say on the big day—only the father is mandated to say a public blessing stating that he is no longer responsible for his offspring’s spiritual transgressions. That’s it!
One common custom is inviting up grandparents and even great-grandparents to the bimah (pulpit) so the congregation can witness the Torah actually handed down from generation to generation. Then there is the inevitable Bar or Bat Mitzvah speech. But all these things, even the kid getting called to the Torah, are optional.
Most parents use the pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah period to nudge their child into prayer leadership. Some synagogues require attendance at Shabbat services. Ideally, kids get focused on their heritage and are primed for future achievement by internalizing the value of disciplined effort toward a greater goal. My boys worked with me nightly during their Bar Mitzvah year to review their Torah portion, Haftorah and chazzanut (cantorial duties). They cried and moaned and quit and then tried again the next evening. Their Bar Mitzvah weeks included smaller celebrations at their day schools where they read Torah for their peers. Then, on Shabbat, they led the synagogue service like superstars and gave us all nachas. We were impressed they chose their beloved Wisconsin summer camp, Moshava Wild Rose, as the recipient of ten percent of their gifts. All the suffering they endured in the preparation led to a personal triumph, witnessed by all their loved ones.
I realize our children were partially motivated by the party and the presents. We tried to give them tasteful events that would involve their friends and our extended family, without breaking the bank. Some parents feel compelled to take out loans to put on an event even more ostentatious than the neighbors’. I’ve heard it said that nowadays there tends to be more “bar” than “mitzvah” in the celebration. I will admit that our potentially awkward family reunions were eased with the generous flow of Glenlivet and Patron. Glasers love to party and it is not difficult to get us dancing. I ensured our sacred moments wouldn’t be erased with the “blurred lines” of R-rated lyrics in the DJ set. We cleared the secular song list with the DJ and also provided a thirty-minute hora soundtrack that was pre-recorded by my band (released as The Songs We Sing, Volume 3). In retrospect, we had dignified events with fun for all age groups, with an emphasis on the importance of Torah, continuity and family.
My own Bar Mitzvah was a prototype for the event I wanted to give my own progeny. It was both customized and spiritualized. My mom hired a coordinator who allowed me to pick the color theme. My dad had the sheet music of one of my best songs, “Wilderness,” printed on all the tablecloths. I performed a short set of Jewish music as a duo with my mother, based on the programs we had offered at Hadassah conferences and senior homes. Then my dad played trumpet with the band. The videographer accepted my idea that I open the commemorative video by appearing magically out of Sinai Temple’s enormous, automated aron hakodesh. When my cousin Richard heard I envied his brown velvet, three-piece tux, he graciously handed it down and my mom had it tailored for my much smaller frame. Since we were going to Israel a few weeks later for a repeat performance at the holy Kotel (Western Wall), we had a mockup wall constructed in which our honored guests inserted their own personal prayers. This replacement for the traditional candle lighting ceremony allowed us to deliver our loved ones’ notes to the official Wall when we arrived in Jerusalem. I’m grateful my parents looked to me to for input and used the event to nurture my fledgling leadership ability.
The mechanics of transition from childhood to maturity are mysterious, and yet we witness this transformation with every Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration. A so-called “man” of thirteen or “woman” at twelve is vastly more responsible, thoughtful and capable than the prior year. Some wow the congregation by reciting the entire Torah reading plus the Shabbat Shacharit and Mussaf services. It seems that something more than chronology is serving as the engine for this degree of acceleration. The key element propelling life transitions is expectations. As a species, we possess a propensity to rise to the challenge, to make good and not disappoint. Whereas “kids can be kids” while they are preteen, high expectations from parents and peers create the space for the adolescent to flourish during the Bar/Bat Mitzvah year. Of course, another venue for the power of expectations is the fundamental life transition of marriage. Ideally, the expectations and prayers of all assembled help the marriage succeed, offering intangible but powerful support for the partners to get along, maintain fidelity and nurture their loving bond so it remains unbreakable.
In his popular lectures, my friend Charlie Harary describes the 1960s studies of Harvard psychology professor, Dr. Robert Rosenthal. Dr. Rosenthal administered an IQ test to a group of elementary school students and then chose a random sample as “academic bloomers.” The kids learned to feel differently about themselves based on their teachers’ heightened expectations and indeed, when tested years later, had higher IQs than the control group. This “Pygmalion Effect” documents the power of beliefs shaping our reality. We can all live in a world of high expectations for ourselves. The single thing uniting all achievers is an inner belief that in the end, they will emerge triumphantly.
We can harness the power of expectations to accomplish anything in our lives. How can we make our own growth as transformative as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah year? How can we make our commitments as rock-solid as our vows under the chuppah? Just as we honor our word while under the canopy, so, too, can we honor our commitment to anything to which we aspire. We can practice this skill by resolutely standing by our words, even in trivial matters. For me, this means refraining from stating, “I’ll be right back,” unless I mean it, or agreeing to send regards if it’s likely I’ll forget. In a “let’s do lunch” culture like L.A. (the inside joke: the lunch never transpires), it takes formidable discipline to maintain an unshakable relationship between words and action.
Another “expectations booster” is enlisting others to stand behind us in our personal commitments. One reason Alcoholics Anonymous is successful is because the group with whom the addict meets is pulling for the individual. With “a little help from my friends” we can recover from setbacks, learn from mistakes and regain momentum. But another factor in AA’s efficacy is connecting sobriety to spirituality. Our tradition teaches that God davens for each of us to actualize our potential. In Pirkei Avot (2:20) we learn that, “It’s not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist.” God is an awesome teammate, but as we discussed in the bitachon chapter, God waits for us to make the first move. The combination of personal action, great expectations and sincere prayer can launch us to any goal and ease us through any life transition.
Once, during a hectic morning driving around L.A., I did Shacharit in a park since I missed the minyan. A homeless guy living in his car saw me strapping up and exclaimed, “Hey, where’s the Bar Mitzvah?” I laughed and replied, “There’s no Bar Mitzvah, I just had to pray before it was too late.” The more I thought about it, however, I realized that I am a Bar Mitzvah, every day. We are all B’nai Mitzvah. Children of mitzvot. We are raised by Hashem with love and guidance along the path of these 613 precious channels of connection. Like our Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls, we allow God and the community to share our celebrations as we endeavor the journey of life. Along the way, we enlist a core group of family and friends to serve as cheerleaders, hopefully offering praise with advice and constructive criticism.
Martin Luther King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Let us all reclaim the wide-eyed wonder of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah years when everything was possible. With God’s help, we survive the challenges and frustrations of adolescence and beyond, knowing our loving Creator is praying for us, blowing a perpetual wind beneath our wings.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:30 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.