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Reflections on Becoming Bar Mitzvah

Coming of age. Rites of passage. Somehow, to me this brings to mind images of a boy in a loincloth, holding a sword in one hand and a sack of grain in the other, going off into the woods to kill his first bear. Or someone breaking out a bottle of bubbling champagne and drinking to a young man’s right to party!

My son Avraham came of age this week and his rite of passage was nothing like that.

When a Jewish boy comes of age and becomes a Bar Mitzvah, it is not done when he is alone and the focus is not on materialistic pleasures at all. Avraham celebrated his 13th birthday and became a Bar Mitzvah – the stage where his status changes and he becomes responsible for his actions, for adherence to Jewish law and for keeping G-d’s commandments as an adult. It is a glorious, spiritual, solemn and joyful time in a boy’s life, both as an individual and as a privileged part of a history, a community and a people.

When you reach the age of Bar Mitzvah you are automatically qualified to lead synagogue services and to be called up to read from the Torah before the entire congregation. Avraham was always the type to enjoy the stage and I take full responsibility for those genes! When he was little he jumped at the chance to sing the closing hymn in synagogue which is often reserved for the small children. But he’s been chomping at the bit for the chance at the “big time”. And the Bar Mitzvah is definitely that. Avraham had been preparing for this moment for close to a year. He had known which Torah portion of the week would be “his” for a long time and a year ago he started studying for the complicated reading. You would think that since he knows how to read Hebrew and knows how to sing, it would be a simple matter. But the Torah chant has a specific traditional melody and there are many different notes to be learned and memorized. The holiness of the Torah Scrolls demands that every syllable be pronounced exactly right, and while you can practice from a book that shows each symbol note and vowel, once you read from the Torah, there are no reassuring notes, no symbols, no vowels and no punctuation! We tried thinking who our favorite Torah reader in synagogue is—who reads clearly, correctly and sweetly, and we thought of Ed Baras, Sondra’s husband! He graciously agreed to teach Avraham and every week Avraham would go down the block to the Baras home, slowly getting introduced to the beautiful tradition of Torah reading. Our neighbors said they loved hearing his sweet voice singing the sweet ancient tune.

We also had to order Avraham’s tefillin months ago. Upon reaching 13, a boy has the obligation to put on tefillin every day as part of the Morning Prayer service. Tefillin are two square, black leather boxes which contain parchments of Torah verses, written on with ink and quill by a learned scribe, which speak about G-d’s unity, the obligation to observe the commandments, and the responsibility to pass Judaism on to our descendants. Attached to each box are black leather straps. One of the boxes is worn on the upper arm and the other, just above the forehead. The two boxes represent the two ways we serve G-d in this world: thought (the head) and action (the arm). The writing of the Tefillin is painstaking, careful work and this summer, when the writing was done, my husband Kuti took Avraham to the scribe’s studio to watch him place the parchment into the leather boxes. We had bought Avraham a special velvet bag to keep his tefillin in, to hold them and keep them safe. Avraham is the youngest boy in his class and the last to become Bar Mitzvah so he was waiting for the day that he, too, would be able to join the boys who were already expert at putting on tefillin for the prayer service.

The Bar Mitzvah celebrations began on Wednesday, Avraham’s actual birthday, the actual day he would be able to be counted as part of the prayer quorum of ten men and to lead them in prayer. We decided it would be very meaningful to take the immediate family to the Western Wall for that special time. We charged our video cameras and left our house in plenty of time to get to Jerusalem for afternoon prayers, but didn’t take into account having our car break down on the way! Somehow we got going again, parked a bit too far and raced to the glorious courtyard of the Western Wall just as the sun was starting to drop in the sky. Tradition dictates that the afternoon service be said before sunset and if we wanted Avraham to lead the services on time, on his birthday, we had to hurry. We quickly gathered a few more men to complete the quorum, Avraham whipped out his pocket prayer book, stepped up to the podium and started the prayers in a loud, confident, clear voice. I was flabbergasted at his confidence. He had never done this before, but he sounded like he had been doing it all his life. I think the rush added to the excitement of the moment. There were rules to follow, traditions to uphold, and Avraham was going to do it. No one who joined his quorum had a clue that he was a first-timer! After the sun set we prayed the evening service then went into the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem for a festive, celebratory meal. It is customary, that at every meal with at least three men present, the Grace After Meals should be introduced with a special blessing, and once again, Avraham was able to enjoy another first and lead the Grace, something he could not do as a minor.

Thursday and Friday were spent with last minute arrangements, more cooking and baking and defrosting the pans and pans of food, delicacies and cakes that had been prepared these past weeks and stacked in freezers. We were also busy enjoying visiting with my mother and sisters who had arrived from America for the celebration. Shopping for clothing was laughably easy. My big girls were given money and told to find a new outfit for the Bar Mitzvah and I managed to find something too. But the boys… the Jewish dress “uniform”, especially in the communities of Judea and Samaria, is a crisp white button-down shirt (not even tucked in!) and a pair of pants. I happily bought each of my three boys a few new white shirts and we were set!

Shabbat is the culmination of the Bar Mitzvah celebration. We gathered in the social hall of the synagogue after the evening prayers which welcome the Shabbat, and we had a lovely family meal, my brother-in-law and son-in-law standing up to speak, offering traditional learned discussions of Torah readings and blessing the Bar Mitzvah boy with a long, G-d-fearing life, filled with faith and good deeds.

The next day started early. The prayer service my husband and boys have been going to for years, starts at 7:30 in the morning (!) and I was moved to see how quickly the synagogue filled with our friends who came to share our wonderful occasion and to hear Avraham’s reading. I made sure to stand right near the partition that modestly separates the men’s section and the ladies’ section, so I could get a good view of Avraham putting on his prayer shawl and standing proudly near the podium where the Torah Scrolls were spread. He started the chant in his perfectly lovely voice, the sound carrying beautifully through the whole congregation. I followed the words in my Bible, not realizing how tense I was until he reached the end of the close to 40 minute reading and I felt my hands unclench. Proud? That doesn’t come close to what I was feeling. I had no time to dwell on the emotion of that moment when I was hit with another. Avraham, picking up the Torah and carrying it to the Holy Ark and gently and lovingly placing it inside, then, matter-of-factly returning to the podium to lead the rest of the prayer service.

After prayers we invited the congregation to a celebratory breakfast where everyone congratulated Avraham on his becoming a man, on his initiation into his people’s covenant. Then Avraham stood up to speak, elaborating on the tractate of Talmud he had taken upon himself to study throughout the year, completing it right before his birthday. I love how Judaism encourages the celebration of reaching different stages of our lives in a solid, spiritual, meaningful manner. I’m not saying that Avraham’s not a normal 13 year old boy, who put an Ipod Touch as the first thing on his “wish list”. But he also knew he wanted to study and present this tractate of Talmud at his party, and he also wrote down which books of Bible and Talmud commentaries he wanted to get as presents, because Torah study is a principle valued dearly.

Then the Rabbi of Karnei Shomron, a good friend of our family, stood up to speak and I was bursting with pride that he saw Avraham, in synagogue, at Zionist Youth activities, in the streets of our community, as a good Jewish boy.

When I stood up to speak I was scared I would get overcome with emotion. But I kept my eyes on Avraham and not on the 200 other people who filled the room and I made believe I was talking to him. And I was. I wanted to tell him how special he was… that he had a personality that lit up our home and that he should never let his qualities of enthusiasm, leadership and curiosity fade. I told him that even though he was our fifth child, he was privileged to be a first for us. He was our first son after four daughters and, more moving to me, he was our first child to be born in Israel. It thrills me to see how much he is part of this land and how much Israel is a part of him. Whether that means that he takes it for granted that Israel belongs to him—and he should—or whether it means he is comfortable enough to hitchhike all over the country, climb every mountain, crawl though every cave and swim each riverbed. Of course, in my mind, as he gets older, I also think of Avraham as my first Israeli soldier, but I try not to think about the fact that in five years he will be joining the young boys who defend this land.

After Shabbat we had another party, this time just for Avraham and forty of his school and neighborhood friends. We hired a DJ who kept them dancing for three hours to all the popular Israeli and Hassidic music and it was great fun watching the boys leaping and dancing gracefully and happily, taking short breaks to cool themselves off with drinks or to eat the falafel and ice cream we set out for them. Jewish dancing is a wondrous thing. It doesn’t break off into individuals dancing across from each other, or even into couples. Jewish dancing involves circles… people dancing, joined hand in hand, the steps, whether simple or more complicated, done together in joyous (sometimes very sweaty) celebration. Avraham was in his prime and when the DJ handed him a microphone, he brought the house down with his own performance of a song.

This was truly his day and I only hope that as the excitement fades, the desire to grow in his service to G-d doesn’t, and I pray for G-d to grant him the strength and wisdom to continue in a righteous path. And I hope that Kuti and I can guide him to become a man we and all of the people of Israel can be proud of. Mazal Tov!


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities