February 25, 2020

The Silver-Haired Bar Mitzvah Boy

“I’d like to order a cake for a bar mitzvah,” I said to the lady behind the counter at the kosher bakery. “Please put on the top, ‘Mazal tov, Spencer.'”

“Your son’s name is Spencer?” she asked.

“No, my husband’s name is Spencer,” I replied.

“But you said this is for a bar mitzvah.”

“Yes,” I said. “My husband’s bar mitzvah.”

My husband was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah in 2001, more or less on the sixth anniversary of his conversion to Judaism. People started asking Spencer when he was going to have a bar mitzvah when his hair was barely dry from the mikvah.

He started studying Hebrew the following year, and, after mastering the alephbet, signed up for a class that made its way through the siddur and into the Torah. He also led services a couple of times at our temple.

Still, he put off scheduling a bar mitzvah, even as the encouragement edged into arm-twisting. I finally pinned him down to a date by tying it to my dad’s 70th birthday, which would get the whole family together.

Spencer had attended plenty of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies by then, and his goal was more or less to “do what the kids do.” Our temple, Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, has very few bar mitzvah ceremonies, so it could offer Spencer a Shabbat morning service to himself.

He led the service as shaliach tzibbur, chanted 16 verses of Torah, opened the haftarah reading and delivered a d’var Torah.

“Today I am a silver-haired man,” he told the congregation.

It was wonderful to look out from the bimah and see family members and most of our friends filling the shul. Spencer admitted afterward that while he’d been pushed into having his bar mitzvah, he was ready to be pushed. He felt a real sense of accomplishment and an intensified connection to Judaism.

Although men and women of all ages and backgrounds have undertaken adult bar mitzvah during the past 30 years or so, the phenomenon typically has focused on women who weren’t called to the Torah as girls, as exemplified by The Journal’s recent story on the ceremony involving 31 b’not mitzvah at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. Relatively few men who grew up Jewish think about pursuing bar mitzvah, especially if they went through the process as youngsters.

But as I listened to Spencer give his drash, I found myself thinking what a satisfying experience adult bar mitzvah might be for some men who had less-than-compelling bar mitzvah experiences as youngsters.

Just as Spencer came late to Judaism, so do a lot of people who grew up Jewish come late to an evaluation of their own spiritual needs and connection with Judaism as a faith. What might have been a forced, pro forma ritual at 13, might have real meaning at 35 or 45 or 55.

I’ve heard that many Jewish men, well-educated and professionally accomplished, don’t want to go through the humbling experience of learning or re-learning Hebrew and Bible cantillation. But even if that’s true, I can’t imagine a better way for a Jewish man to model pride in his Jewishness and respect for learning to his community and his own children. The man who swallows hard and opens a Hebrew primer may cause ripples that stir generations to come.

Nor do I think even the busiest temple is unable to make room for a solo adult bar or bat mitzvah. The adult ceremony, which usually isn’t followed by a big party, lends itself well to a Shabbat afternoon service or even a holiday Monday.

Inspiring as group adult b’nai mitzvah can be, there’s something to be said for taking on the same task the children do. A parent-and-child duo might also work if the timing is right.

If I’ve planted a seed, just remember two things: Wear a dark jacket, because you’re going to sweat. And bring Kleenex, because your spouse is going to cry.

Ellen Jaffe-Gill is a cantorial intern at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey and editor of “The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom” (Citadel Press). Her e-mail address is matmid@earthlink.net.