As we start a new calendar year, we mark off dates that will require our presence: school dinners, graduations, weddings, family reunions and birthdays. Let’s circle one such occasion and offer the challenge of 2015: changing the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.
There are interesting articles and responsa that raise questions about aspects of the ceremony: Should a Jewish celebration of accepting mitzvot be non-kosher and the cause for Sabbath desecration? Is anyone an adult at 12 or 13? What happens when this ceremony becomes a farewell party to Judaism?
These questions are meaningful for me as well. But I want to focus on a standard feature of these events: the video. I long for the days before Power Point, when a few foam boards with a photo montage was all you needed to make the kid happy. Now I am regularly subjected to half-hour biopics that tell the story of … well, what story is it exactly?
It is basically the narration of the child’s life as a toddler, kindergartener, elementary schooler and awkward middle schooler. The child’s friends will clap wildly when an image of one of them appears. There will be the great aunt who will give a smaller check because she did not show up in one slide. There will definitely be one girl sobbing in the ladies’ room stalls because she’s been left out.
There will, of course, be the mandatory slide of the bar mitzvah in diapers, and everyone will laugh. There will be the child on a grandparent’s knee, and everyone will kvell. There will be painful family vacation photos where the child in question is the blurry one in the red bathing suit three people in from the left. People, we don’t want to see your family in bathing suits. Ever. Even if you are all candidates for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. TMI, I say.
Let’s face it, pre-adolescent children just aren’t that interesting. They don’t yet have a story. And a simcha is not a time to subject a captive audience to today’s equivalent of your home videos. Do that on your own time, even if you are paying for the meal.
I don’t mean to say that bar/bat mitzvah videos are boring. Of course they’re boring. Everyone knows that. So are most of the speeches and poems. As part of our social reciprocity in the collective we call community, we are willing to subject ourselves to your boredom so that you will tolerate ours. It’s a well-known deal. The problem with simcha videos is not tedium but messaging.
The story that is important — the narrative that a child joins on this occasion — is the story of the Jewish people. That’s the exciting, meaningful story. A bar/bat mitzvah is not a celebration of a child, in which case the photos of said youngster would be totally appropriate. The bar/bat mitzvah is arguably not a celebration at all. It is a marker of a major transition in the life of a Jewish person: when he or she takes on the adult responsibilities incumbent upon being a member of the Jewish community. These include visiting the sick, giving a tenth of one’s income to charity (yes, this includes bar/bat mitzvah checks), participating in collective prayer services, observing Shabbat and holidays, studying texts of Jewish meaning, attuning oneself to the grammar of compassion that is foundational to our faith. The list goes on.
If you want to make a video of that, go around taking pictures of people in need, of a pair of tefillin, of a soldier in Israel fighting on our borders and of an old woman praying at the Wall. Create a picture of Jewish life during the days of the Talmud, the Spanish Inquisition, the Renaissance and Poland in the 18th century. In that video put in a passage from the Bible and maybe a medieval commentator or two. Don’t forget to show an image of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and some obscure everyday heroes of Jewish life.
Make this video aspirational because that’s what the bar/bat mitzvah is all about. It’s not about the child. It’s about our Jewish story. If we keep telling kids through videos and speeches how wonderful they are but forget to tell them how wonderful Jewish life is, then we will have failed them at this transitional time. Our job as Jewish adults is to welcome and inspire a new crop of Jewish adults to take their place in this majestic story. Don’t tell them that they are fabulous the way they are but just how fabulous they could be if they took one great meaningful leap into their own Jewish future.
Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at ericabrown.com.