January 19, 2020

Somewhere over the Bar Mitzvah

Planning a bar mitzvah is its own rite of passage. We rush around trying to make sure everything is perfect. We have walk-throughs, run-throughs and checklists. We can almost get lost in the details; there are so many of them. Do the yarmulkes perfectly match the turquoise flower arrangements? Does Aunt Sadie need to be picked up from the airport? Does little Sammy need to practice his speech one more time?

Sometimes the best memories come from moments that weren’t planned: Rebecca starts giggling uncontrollably in the middle of her haftarah; 3-year-old Max escapes his parents and rushes the bimah; David forgets his tie and borrows one from the rabbi.

As someone who has attended, led and coordinated hundreds of bar mitzvahs, I have had my fair share of wacky experiences and truly crazy flukes that no one could have foreseen. There was that one bar mitzvah held under a beautiful tree where, during the parents’ heartfelt blessing to their child, a swarm of bees descended upon the guests from an unseen hive. Or another bar mitzvah on a cruise ship when, right before the young man’s aliyah, the ship’s captain began announcing the day’s activities over the loudspeaker. What could have been a disastrous disruption ended up being one of the most extraordinary moments of the day, breaking any tension, giving the bar mitzvah boy a moment to take a deep breath and embedding the day in everyone’s memory. But most importantly, everyone on that ship knew that after the service ended, shuffleboard was on the Lido Deck.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to officiate at Eli Caplan’s bar mitzvah on Lake Sherwood near Thousand Oaks. The plan was to have the service outside, overlooking the lake with the sun glistening off the water. The whole Caplan family had prepared their own music to play throughout the service. There were three relatives on guitar, two on African drums and the younger brother, Simon, on ukulele. Were they auditioning for “The Gong Show” with their reggae rendition of “Hinei Ma Tov”? No, quite the opposite. They were the hippest, most talented family I’d ever seen. After a couple of rehearsals, they were all set with a Ugandan melody of the Shema and a heavy-metal version of “Heveinu Shalom Alechem” as the grand finale.

The day of the bar mitzvah came and everything was picturesque. We finished the Torah service, and just as Eli’s burly uncle lifted the Torah, I felt a drop of rain hit my lapel. Yes, it began to rain in Los Angeles in the middle of July. And this was no ordinary drizzle; this was a monsoonlike downpour. All of the guests hastily ran for cover.

We were forced to improvise as rain soaked the grounds of Lake Sherwood. Initially, we had planned to have Simon’s ukulele rendition of “Over the Rainbow” toward the end of the service, but in a snap decision, we pushed Simon into the rain to perform for everyone huddled under a canopy. As the song began, little sister Ramona ran into the rain and started hula dancing. Her moves were contagious. Soon other guests ignored the puddles and danced alongside her. For the family, the planning, the primping and the careful orchestration of the service were quickly forgotten as the singing, dancing and ukulele playing brought the event to a new high.

And then it happened … a rainbow appeared over the lake. Some would report later that it was several rainbows. And when the rain stopped, we all wiped off our seats and continued the service in front of a truly majestic sky. Not even the best meteorologist could have predicted a flash rainstorm like this. But we rolled with the punches, and in a quick moment of clarity among the chaos, Eli’s day became a beautiful memory for all who shared in it.

The bar mitzvah is a live event. At any point, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. Sometimes it’s as big as a downpour, other times it’s simply your tallit falling off your shoulders. I use this story as a teachable lesson with my students as they learn their Torah portions. I encourage them to read their portion, not to memorize it — because if their yad slips one verse, or a swarm of angry bees attacks them, they need to be able to adjust midstream. Maybe this is the sweetest message of this age-old rite of passage: In the imperfect moments is where we find perfection.

Todd Shotz is the founder of Hebrew Helpers (hebrewhelpers.com), a Los Angeles-based bar/bat mitzvah tutoring service.