Aaaah, to be a Jewish parent 1,000 years ago. Sure you had to worry about anti-Semites trying to exterminate your people, dying from the flu and wild animals eating your children for lunch, but what a breeze to plan your child’s bar mitzvah. No invitations to send, no DJs to hire, no out-of-towners to house. And, best of all, no agonizing over The Speech.
I’m not talking about your child’s discussion of her Torah portion. After all, your Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose from Florida do not expect a 13-year-old to shed new light on a religious text that has been analyzed by theologians for 2,000 years. I’m talking about your speech to your child — where you have 60 seconds to sum up your feelings about a moment that was 13 years in the making. What makes that speech — The Speech — particularly difficult is that the subject is adulthood, but your 21st-century child is light years from becoming an adult.
Things were different 1,000 years ago. People could legitimately be characterized as “children” or “adults” and age 13 was a logical dividing point: marriages would follow a bar mitzvah by a year or two and life expectancy was relatively short. Today, despite our tradition that sets the 13th year as the start of adulthood, 13 is not the end of childhood or the beginning of adulthood. Instead, it is the start of a new stage — teenager. Neither an adult nor child, a teenager is like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You: Sometimes he seems to be pushing toward adulthood, and at other times he is pulling back toward childhood.
Because parents are speaking to a new teenager about an adulthood that is still far away, The Speech is difficult to write. A parent in 1005 C.E. had it easy: “Son, mazal tov on your bar mitzvah. May you marry one of your cousins next year, have a dozen children and take good care of our goatherd. Amen.” What we should say in 2005 is not as clear.
I have given The Speech a lot of thought lately. Not because I am faced with writing one in the short term (my daughter’s bat mitzvah is in October 2007), but because several friends are choreographing bar mitzvahs this year. When they are not agonizing over invitations and caterers, they are stressing out over The Speech.
One friend called to lament that her rabbi suggested that she write a speech that spoke to her “hopes and dreams” for her child.
“What should I say?” she implored.
I suggested some sappy boilerplate that would satisfy her rabbi, the congregants and her child. But after I hung up the telephone, I realized that the clichés I suggested, the ones that we routinely recite to our teenagers at their bar and bat mitzvahs, really don’t represent the anxiety over the teenage years that rests deep inside our parenting souls.
Of course, I won’t embarrass my daughter at her bat mitzvah by sharing the stress that I will surely feel as I watch the sun set on her childhood. I will undoubtedly tell her that my hope for her is that she retain the special spark she demonstrated from the moment of her birth through her 13th year. But, just between you and me, here is The Speech I would like to give to my daughter on Oct. 13, 2007.
“When a ‘friend’ offers you your first hit of marijuana, I hope you say: ‘No, thank you. I am not mature enough to try a drug. I plan on trying it just once during my senior year in college after it has been screened by a reputable lab not to contain any dangerous substances.’ But if either curiosity or peer pressure overtakes you and you are inclined to say ‘yes,’ I hope that you are at your friend’s house, and her incredibly responsible parents are upstairs watching TV (very quietly), and you start coughing so hard that the parent’s race downstairs to make sure you are OK. (And you are so mortified at being caught that you never experiment with drugs again.)
“I hope that you don’t attend parties in homes where the person responsible for making the mortgage payments and paying the water bill is in Hawaii.
“I hope you learn early on that the angst endemic to the teenager years is temporary and that your life is full of possibility.
“I hope that you never go through that phase where you are embarrassed to be seen with your parents.
“I hope that you always want me to tuck you in.
“I hope that you never get in a car with someone who has been drinking, doing drugs or has had their driver’s license for less than 10 years.
“I hope that you continue to think tongue piercings are gross, smoking is stupid and Britney Spears doesn’t know how to dress.
“I hope that your middle school girlfriends unanimously decide that back-stabbing each other is cruel, and treat each other like actual friends.
“I hope that you don’t have a boyfriend until you are at least 16, and that he doesn’t have anytime to fool around with you because he is too busy studying (because he wants to get into Harvard), practicing the piano and running in marathons to raise money for worthwhile charities. And when you break up after the prom — because you listened to my advice that you should go to college emotionally free to date other people — I hope that it is you who did the breaking up because I don’t want you to suffer the excruciating pain caused when someone you love dumps you.
“I hope that you are always healthy, are the only teenage girl on the planet to love every inch of her body, and count spinach and oranges among your favorite foods.”
“I hope that everyone who meets you throughout your life loves and respects you as much as I do.
Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]