Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher

Since, as the Torah says, "Confession is good for the soul," let’s begin with a confession. I am a bar mitzvah teacher. My avocation — my hobby — is the navigation of Jewish girls and boys through the tangled web of the bar mitzvah ceremony.

It is a job that demands a great deal of patience with parents as well as kids. Everything depends on: a) the cranial size of the student, and b) the size of the bribes offered by the parents to the kid.

In most families, a cash gift of a green, oblong paper with a picture of Benjamin Franklin works fine. But parents who are really lousy negotiators sometimes get stuck with a clause in the BAP (Bar Mitzvah Agreement Protocol) that results in a separate phone line for Mark or Miriam; or a trust fund containing a red BMW when the child reaches driving age.

Parent 1: "OK, we’ve signed the contract with Mark. Can you get over here by 7:15? He’s in a great mood — we just gave him some money."

Parent 2: "Come over now. He’s had 50 milligrams of Ritalin. Let’s get started."

Well, Teach stumbles over. Sitting around the kitchen table, I explain to student and family the formidable intellectual challenge posed by the bar mitzvah requirements. The theme is always the same. "It ain’t easy and sooner or later you’re gonna hate me."

Yeah, yeah, they understand — "Let’s Go!" they shout.

Teaching 12-year-olds to chant haftarah is like teaching dolphins to sing "Ah! Che La Morte Ognora" from "Il Trovatore." Sooner or later kids and dolphins swim away. It is not a slick ride on a playground slide.

Take my current student (as Henry Youngman would say; "Yeah, please take him — far away"). Let’s call him Ben. When he talks, his parents open their checkbooks and listen with wide-eyed attention. His mother reveres him and his father addresses him in low, respectful tones. Here, extracted from Ben’s file is the verbatim record of my first conversation with his family.

Me: "Well, it’s time for Ben to begin his bar mitzvah training." (To myself: From what I can tell of Ben’s mental equipment, we shoulda started when he was 6.)

Mother: "Oh, nice of you to call, but I’m not sure Ben wants to be a bar mitzvah." (To herself: My son may not have time for this bar mitzvah stuff. He’s probably the Messiah himself and he’s gonna be busy fixing the world.)

Me: "Well, it’s kinda hard for an 11-year-old to make decisions like this. Why don’t you pitch in and make it for him? Just say yes." (To myself: Lucky he couldn’t express himself at birth — he’d have nixed his own bris. So messy.)

Finally, Mother agreed that since Ben was busy — determining his supper menu preferences every night, deciding on his daily TV agenda, choosing his wardrobe — that yes, she’d relieve him of this bar mitzvah decision.

A bar or bas mitzvah is a real challenge for a 13-year-old: the singing of the haftarah and blessings before and after. Plus the Torah reading and associated blessings. Then, finally, the speech. The Torah reading, especially, is a challenge. It’s not easy. There are no vowels, you see, under those squirmy Hebrew letters and the trop — the tune — is different from the haftarah.

The speech is variable. It can be a simple reading of the words typed up by his teacher; a fail-safe stratagem when the child hasn’t mastered the haftarah until 9:15 the morning of the event. Or, the student can spend weeks researching the prophets and the associated rabbinical commentary. A really scholarly bar mitzvah exegesis can equal a doctoral thesis.

But to deal with kids you need leverage. Something with which to reward, something to punish. But we teachers — unless backed up by parents — have an empty pack. All we can do is conjure up visions of all that loot — those glittering gifts; a Jewish version of Christmas Day. But if the kid already owns the world, what’s to bribe with?

Ah, the times they are a’changing. When I was a bar mitzvah boy, my teacher carried a ruler like a sword. And if you blew the trop he called you a dummy. Imagine! Not a slow learner, not someone with ADD, but a dummy! And believe it or not, he rapped your knuckles with his weapon.

Today he’d be in court. The bar mitzvahee, the ACLU and the parents with Alan Dershowitz at their side, would sue his tzitzit off.

The ideal bar mitzvah is not a bar mitzvah at all, but a bat mitzvah. Girls are easier. Give me a plain 12-year-old female with braces who has no talent for band, chess, basketball or chorus. Undistracted by an admiring world, she’ll shine on the bimah and you’ll get tons of compliments on your pedagogic talents. The synagogue audience will bow as they let you go first through the Kiddush line while the bagels are still fresh. Ah, the perks of a bar mitzvah teacher.

Ted Roberts is a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work appears in several Jewish papers, Disney Magazine, Hadassah, the Wall Street Journal and others. He lives in Huntsville, Ala.