Shia Altman

Little giants

These last few months I have had several of my students graduate. By students, I mean Bnai Mitzvah kids, and by “graduate,” I mean them having their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

I have prepared many children for their big day and have also tutored other Judaic studies as well, the pupils ranging from 7 to 70, and the venues being all kinds of synagogues ranging from the most Orthodox – even Chassidic, to Reconstructionist. Sometimes, I have difficult students or situations – that’s only natural in the teaching profession. But I get no greater joy in life than doing this work.

My students are a mix of straight-A top achievers to others farther down the scholastic scale, as I was when I learned my Torah (Bible portion), Haftorah (Prophets portion), Musaf (leading of the prayer service) and Dvar Torah (Torah insights speech).

Most times, I begin with the child right from the start, a year or so before the big day. Many times, I take over somewhere in the middle if things haven’t been going as planned with the first or even second teacher. Not everyone is for everyone, and I admit to getting pretty mad if a child is dumbed down or written off by a previous tutor.

Lucky for me, when I was a kid, I had the best Bar Mitzvah teacher there was. He was supremely skilled, patient, insistent, always forward-focused, and always right.

Me, again and again: “But why do I have to do it like that? That’s too slow. That’s too loud. No one else does that. Are you sure I should do it that way?” Him, again and again: “Will you please just trust me and do what I say? I know what I’m doing.? OK, five more times.” Me: “Arg!”

And I wasn’t easy. Aside from being a smart aleck, I had “shpilkas.” What is shpilkas? Glad you asked. Shpilkas means, antsy, excited, nervous. And now I am being repetitive, redundant, superfluous.

I am still afflicted, but it’s not so bad anymore. Except on airplanes. Or sitting in any crowded place. Or before meeting new people. Or when I am wearing a suit. Or at any breakfast, lunch or dinner table. Or standing in line. Or waiting for the doctor or dentist. Or waiting for anybody. See? I am pretty much over it. Besides, I like to think of it as being energetic.

Someone who knew me well when I was younger told me some years back, that when I was a kid, I had ADD (attention deficit disorder). I’m not so sure. But back then no one really talked much about it or got medicated for it. I certainly don’t remember that kind of thing. And if I had told my old-school Eastern European parents, “Hey, Ma and Ta (Yiddish for Dad), cut me some slack, I have ADD!” either or both of them would have raised a hand and exclaimed, “ADD? You have ADD? In another minute I will give you ADD! Now get back to your homework!”

I get all in when I take on a student. I consider my students as my kids and their parents as my parents. I will say, “I am having a Bar Mitzvah in two weeks.” Or, “One of my parents will be calling.”

I prefer to teach at the kid’s house rather than have the child deposited at my doorstep. It is because I want the parents aware of the proceedings and the progress, and because I know the child will be most comfortable in his or her own familiar environment. Also, it makes things more convenient when I go to the homes of very busy parents.

And importantly, because I actually want the background noise and distractions of a typical family home – the siblings running about, the dog or cat, or both, traipsing around or jumping on the table or our laps, the phone ringing, the knocking on the door, etc. These are the first steps in keeping the student focused. After all, if he or she can concentrate through all that, they will keep it together; a Shul (synagogue) can get busy and noisy.

Or if something unexpected happens during any part of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. One time two birds got in a Shul and flew back and forth over the Bimah (center podium) the whole service. I think they ended up in the cholent (lunch stew). I have been witness to other strange things.

When I have practices at a Shul, once a child is very close to having everything mastered, I create distractions so as to teach even better focus. After all, anything can happen.

My graduating boys and girls have been phenomenal. Every word, every syllable, every tune, spoken and/or chanted clearly and loudly. Each child standing tall and proud and poised, even a very petite young lady in January projecting so that the very back of a very large Shul could hear and enjoy. No microphones are allowed in Orthodox synagogues.

And so it was this past Shabbat, when as soon as my barely-turned-13 Bar Mitzvah boy set himself up at the Bimah to begin the longest and hardest Haftorah there is – in a huge cavernous and full Shul sanctuary that seats more than 700 – and was about to start, the lights went out. It was cloudy, so very little light shone through the stained glass windows.

Everything stopped. I hurried up to the Bimah – I don’t stand next to my students, I teach them to perform on their own. My kid told me he could do it even in the dark. The Rabbi and others were scrambling to see what could be done to get the lights fixed. After a few minutes, the lights went back on. And then they went off again. We were given the go ahead anyway, and as the boy started, the lights went back on.

I descended the Bimah and went to the back aisleway of the Shul to pace its length with a Chumash (Bible) in my hand as I followed my kid’s progress. Some guy who apparently works to keep things in order told me to have a seat. Yeah, right. Good luck with that. You can’t tell a Bnai Mitzvah teacher with shpilkas, as his kid is doing the toughest Haftorah in the books with an iffy lights situation, to have a seat. I ignored him and kept pacing.

The lights stayed on as my student, strong, confident, and determined, sang 52 very difficult verses non-stop and beautifully, reading each word perfectly, skillfully following the highs and lows of the cantillation notes all the way through to the end without even so much as flinching. He was cheered when he ended the long Haftorah even before he began the last Haftorah blessings. And he was cheered again when he finished those, clear to all, his composure and pride.

This Bar Mitzvah boy was also cheered after giving his Dvar Torah speech from just in front of the Aron Kodesh – the ark holding the Torahs – at the head of the Shul mixing Torah with humor, speaking in a fluid, naturally-animated fashion, very comfortable, enjoying himself as he should, and projecting so that even those all the way in the back could hear. When he was finished, I saw some stand and clap as the congregation cheered.

It is so important to me that my kid and parents are happy when all is said and done, and that goal was accomplished. The family beamed. I beamed. Yet another new champion of the synagogue and I could not have been prouder. The young man presented himself on his Bar Mitzvah day as if he owned the Shul.

And so he did.

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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