Beyond ‘the day’

When I began my work as a b’nai mitzvah teacher almost 25 years ago, I believed that it was all about the day. Everything I taught, every prayer or Torah verse the student studied, every reminder or nudge to study from the parent — it was all about the day.

In these last few years I’ve realized the folly of that belief. That’s not to say that the day isn’t important. It absolutely is. It will be remembered forever. Yes, the day is important, and hopefully it will be the beginning of the next stage of a young person’s Jewish life and mark the continuation of Jewish education. But if we only see the months of preparation as an end goal, and we don’t see all that those months have to offer our young people, then we are truly depriving them. It is during the journey to the bimah that we have the opportunity to help them become the adults we hope they will be.

It is an opportunity to teach or reinforce time management, self-discipline, responsibility, self-assessment, goal setting and the value of hard work. It is a time to teach the importance of communication — about what is difficult, challenging, frustrating, exciting.

It’s a time to teach the importance of asking for help (and how that can be a virtue rather than a sign of weakness). It’s a time to teach coping skills — how to deal with frustration, anxiety, “stage” fright. It’s a time to teach and reinforce problem-solving strategies–strategies that can be called upon during life’s journey.

And then, there are the most precious of the gifts.

The journey helps to build self-confidence, self-empowerment and belief in oneself. That is to say, the young person realizes (with our reminders) that because of hard work and determination, because of blood, sweat and perhaps an occasional tear, because of his or her efforts, a goal has been set and accomplished. With the support and guidance of teacher, clergy and parent, he or she will have achieved a goal, which for many (albeit not all) appeared insurmountable at first but because of his or her efforts that goal was achieved.

Along the way, it is our responsibility to remind the future Jewish adult to look back a week, a month or several months and say: “Look at how fluently you read that verse! Do you remember when you couldn’t get that first word and were ready to give up?” It is then that the Torah verses become a chain of prideful accomplishments.

It is our job to mine the journey of all it offers to our young people — to help them see its treasures — and in the end to remind them that the end came because there was a beginning filled with trepidation, anxiety, fear, awe, excitement and wonder, and because there was a middle filled perhaps with challenge and determination.

And afterwards let them remember that just as they set a goal and achieved it on the day they each became a Jewish adult in the eyes of their community, likewise they can meet every challenge they set for themselves. This is the gift of learning to believe in oneself.

Two students exemplify this lesson.

I had been preparing bar and bat mitzvah students for many years when I first met a new student, Justin. He was an endearing and bright boy with emotional and learning issues.

Justin had a great deal of anxiety about his capability, despite coming into the process knowing a number of the prayers. The Torah reading in particular felt undoable to him. After learning one aliyah, Justin balked at my suggestion that he could learn more.

On the day of his bar mitzvah, he led the congregation in prayer with a powerful and enthusiastic voice, and he chanted from the Torah (two aliyot in the end). Afterwards, as I mingled with the family and friends, one after another complimented me on my work and expressed their pleasant surprise at Justin’s accomplishments as well as his poise and comfort on the bimah. It was clear that this boy — young man — while surrounded by love, was also surrounded by doubt. He was being sold short, which no doubt explained his own lack of belief in himself.

I hoped that what he achieved leading up to and on that day would serve to remind him and others of who Justin really is and what he is capable of handling.

Another student, Mara, was told that she would likely not accomplish all that was expected. She was falling behind in her studies and making little progress. With some private lessons Mara was able to work past the blockage (and her anxiety) and push forward. As the date got closer she timidly asked whether it would be OK to chant a little less Torah or lead a few less prayers.

“Let’s just see what happens if you work hard,” I said.

In the end Mara did everything that was expected. Her parents and I reminded her of how far she had come and how much she was able to accomplish. Her father said that through this she learned to believe in herself.

I recently asked a friend what he gained from his bar mitzvah experience 25 years ago. He stated without hesitation that one of the greatest lessons he walked away with is confidence.

“It was probably one of my first great accomplishments in life and for the first time I understood the true meaning of pride,” he said.

He credited the year of preparation.

Yes, once the months of training and the day has ended; once the celebration has happened and the DJ has gone home; once the gifts have been opened, the cards have been read and the checks have been deposited, there remain the most important gifts.

If the preparation has been handled with care, if the tutor, rabbi, cantor and parents have done their jobs, this young adult will be moving onto the next leg of life’s journey with the most valuable gifts of all.

Jeff Bernhardt is a Jewish educator, social worker and writer living in Los Angeles. He prepares b’nai mitzvah students at Temple Israel of Hollywood and privately.

Strasser – I Wanna New Hug

Back in the primitive days of male hugging, my dad was what trend watchers might call “an early adapter.” When few of the other Little

League dads hugged their sons, my dad clutched my older brother any chance he got, Mr. Focker-like, at the drop of a bat.

My brother appeared to hate the whole experience, which didn’t deter my dad at all. He didn’t get hugs from his dad, and his son was getting hugs, like it or not.

Now, it seems the rest of the world is catching up. For the American male, it’s never been cooler to show affection toward other guys. Or, in the great words of sleazy agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage,” to “hug it out.”

You might think Jews, like the fictional Ari, have long been more comfortable with warmth and physical affection between guys, but I posit that even for ethnic groups considered on the cuddly side of things, acceptable male hugging is only now coming into vogue.

Once, it was reserved for guys who scored a last-second leaning fade-away jumper or pitched a no-hitter. If you wanted a bunch of guys hugging you, you had better be in the end zone spiking a pigskin. Aside from sports achievement hugs, a son might get an embrace from his dad, but only on special occasions — weddings, graduations, funerals, before or after a stint in the military. It would be a constrained, starchy sort of hug, its awkwardness exceeded only by its brevity.

That was before hugging became the new handshaking, on screen and off.

Today, you can not only watch the macho, Queens-bred guys from “Entourage” hugging and back-slapping their way through Hollywood while easily retaining their masculinity, you can also witness the man who may have single-handedly revolutionized the world of straight, male affection: Vince Vaughn. He’s white, he’s white bread, he’s all-American and if he’s coming your way, look out.

Sure, he was chummy and demonstrative with his male buddies in “Swingers” and “Old School,” but in his current hit, “Wedding Crashers,” the 6-foot-5 actor doles out more bear hugs than an addiction counselor on chip day. In this romantic comedy, the most effecting and loving relationship is between Vaughn and his best friend, played by Owen Wilson. Vaughn not only frequently hugs Wilson, but also kisses an elderly gentleman right on the lips. There is nothing even remotely sexual or uncomfortable about this kiss; it is just one man’s way of expressing his joie without even a fleeting concern about whether or not you think he’s straight.

Seeing a man hug another man makes me feel fuzzy inside in a way I can’t explain. It conveys a Vaughn-like self-confidence and swagger. Maybe on some deeper level, it suggests that the males in my pack are at peace and won’t start brawling over resources. I don’t know. Who am I, Margaret Mead? I just think it’s sweet.

There are still limitations to public displays of male affection, subtle rules that must be obeyed, styles of embrace that are acceptable. When I polled my male friends, who likely comprise the first generation of true huggers, I learned some specifics.

There’s the “‘Sopranos’ hug.” This is an embrace that includes two to three burly back slaps (given with enough force to dislodge food from a person’s gullet) followed by a double shoulder squeeze and the simultaneous uttering of an affection-neutralizing epithet. I asked for a demonstration of the “Sopranos hug” and found the whole thing unpleasant. My friend Ted’s handprint still stings on my back, but I got the idea. You throw in a little muscle with your affection, and badda bing, everything is OK.

This leads me to the less painful “high-five hug,” which as you would imagine, begins with a sporty, introductory high-five, and folds into an upper arm pat or in some cases a full embrace. The inclusion of the high-five negates any feminizing effect of physical affection.

The most common male hug seems to be more of a handshake/hug hybrid. You reach out for a handshake, await some non-verbal signal that more is welcome, and let the momentum of your hand pull you into a one-armed embrace.

While hugs are quickly becoming standard, they are not for strangers or acquaintances. Hugs between men are earned, and in many cases signal an upgrade in the friendship.

As women, we’re expected to hug. If you are female and we’ve met before, I’m pretty much going to have to touch you in some way to convey that I like you, or that I’m not a cold, unfeeling snob. It’s a given, which is what makes male on male affection even more irresistible. Guys don’t have to hug each other. In doing so, they risk looking foolish. Still, the male hug’s time has come, and there’s an embrace for every guy’s comfort level — from the handshake hug to the full Focker.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at

A Leg Up

Nothing says casual first date like fresh flowers and kettle corn. So when Matt the internist suggests we spend Sunday afternoon exploring a Santa Monica street fair, I’m in. We share roasted almonds, sunshine and our own true Hollywood stories. There’s a lot I like about Matt — he’s well-traveled, well-read, and well-built. Somewhere between the organic fruit and the bad art, I tell Matt I spent my morning at the gym.

"Yeah, you look like you work out a lot — you have those thick soccer legs."

"I’m sorry, what?"

"They might just look that way ’cause they’re so short."

He did not just say I have thick legs. He did! He just called my legs thick. And short. And he insulted soccer. I have to hand it to Matt, he sure knows how to sweet talk the ladies. Why doesn’t he just come right out and say I have the thighs of Goliath?

Now Matt has no clue he’s committed a dating taboo.

"So, what’s your schedule like this week, ya wanna hang out again?"

Sure Matt, we’ll double date. You, me, and those two tree trunks I call my limbs. We could catch a flick. Of course we’ll have to go to a theater with stadium seating, so Stubby and Solid here have plenty of leg room. Wouldn’t want my vice-grip thighs to wrap around you during the scary parts. No really, I’m just kidding, a second date would be great, Mr. Clean. Oh, I’m sorry, did I just call you bald? No, of course not. Because polite people — normal people, people who get action more than once a year — don’t point out someone’s physical flaws on a first date. By the way, have you heard of an orthodontist?

Perhaps I’m being too hard on poor Matt, but his comments sunk my battleship. If he’s focused on what’s wrong with me before the second date, what’s going to happen by the fifth date? The fifth week? Our fifth anniversary?

"Happy Anniversary, babe. We made it despite your dry elbows and wide hips."

No wonder Orthodox women cover everything but their ankles.

But maybe I brought this on myself. Matt was the one who suggested the outdoor date, but I was the one who arrived in low-rise shorts, a tight baby tee and platform flip flops. So, technically, I have only myself to blame. I was the one who exposed my gargantuan, size-4 bod to criticism. I’m surprised Matt held it together in the presence of such sizable mass. The horror! The horror! I’m also surprised he didn’t suggest I lay off the fair’s free samples.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive, a drama queen, but being single is hard on the ego. I meet a lot of men, I kiss a lot of frogs, I get a lot of pink slips. With all that rejection it’s easy to ask, "What’s wrong with me?" It’s normal to fall down the rabbit hole of self-doubt. Now the man I’m on a date with is pushing me further over the edge. In dating, self-confidence is key; self-confidence is sexy, and it’s hard to feel confident when your date is feeding your insecurities.

I know, I know. Matt asked me on a second date, which means he didn’t intend to insult me; he just didn’t think before he spoke. But to call my legs "thick" and "short," he had to have thought it to himself at some point. And that’s the real reason why I won’t be seeing him again.

He could have said, "Yeah, you look like you work out — you have great abs," or "nice arms" or "the body of a teenage pop star, let’s go to Vegas and pull a Britney." But he didn’t. He gave me the classic L.A. look-up-look-down, then noted what was negative about my body. In dating, in life, it’s easy to find problems if you look for them. I don’t want that in a relationship. I want a man who looks for what’s right, not what’s wrong. I want a man who focuses on my flair, not my flaws. I want a man whose "Kiddush" cup is half-full.

I know I’m not Maxim cover girl material. I never claimed to be a gazelle. Short legs run in the Davis fam. Well, technically, our short legs don’t run. It’s hard to be quick with such a small stride. It’s more like I power jog or gallop or walk with a quick gait. Whatever I do, I don’t play center. I don’t model mini-skirts. And I have yet to buy a pair of pants that don’t need to be shortened. Still, I like my legs. Sure, they’re a little muscular, but I’m happy being the thighmaster. And the man who looks for the positives in life will realize that dating a woman with powerful thighs has its benefits. ‘Cause I got legs and I know how to use them.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at