December 10, 2019

Loving B’nai Mitzvahs

In American pop culture, the words “bar mitzvah” don’t exactly prompt religious awe. Instead, a cocktail of humor, pathos, anxiety and cost comes to mind.

And while these are certainly part of the picture — there’s nothing to be done about the brutal realities of being 12 — I see the whole process from a very different angle.

I’ve been tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students continually for 18 years. Most of my adult life I’ve been teaching kids to sing the tropes for Torah chanting, to lead prayers, to write their commentary on the weekly portion. I often officiate the ceremony, too, for unaffiliated families.

I don’t have to think about catering, invitations or the social intricacies of eighth grade. Instead, I have the luxury of thinking about the ceremony as a tribal initiation, a passing-down of traditions and knowledge, a confirmation of the continuation of our people.

From this point of view, I offer this small ode to the beauty of bar and bat mitzvah.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery.

Sometimes my students come to the Torah Hut, a little free-standing office in my backyard lined with holy books. Often, we meet online. But it hardly matters; either way, week after week, ancient melodies come to life in the air between us.

We step into our archetypal roles as teacher and student, one of us passing on the tradition, and one of us receiving it, and each of us being changed in the process.

Our vocal cords vibrate with the same frequencies of our ancestors, our lips pronounce the same letters. We wrestle with the issues raised by the Torah portion — and invariably, my students’ questions about the text echo those of the rabbis, written a thousand years before.

But teaching Torah is only half of my job. The other half is to help strengthen the student’s spiritual life. What do they believe about the Divine? What does Judaism mean to them? How do these ancient traditions carry over into our contemporary lives? At 12, a young person is finally able to ask these questions.

These conversations have no right answer, of course. Whether a student is a passionate believer in God or a committed atheist makes no difference to me; I am here to be their guide in discovering what it is they believe.

At first, my students often have great difficulty articulating thoughts about spirituality. I explain that it’s not their fault. Life in secular America does not offer us many opportunities to talk about our own personal spirituality, and as advanced as we are with technology and academics, spiritual intelligence is underutilized in our daily lives.

So, we start with baby steps. In one of my favorite assignments, students write interview questions for their families — about “spiritual” matters but not including the word God, since that word often shuts down conversation entirely. They report the answers back to me; then I interview the students with their own questions. The resulting two hours of conversation are a window into the inner lives of the entire family, and a beautiful acknowledgment of their diversity of beliefs — simply as humans, beyond their roles as parent or grandparent or sibling.

I want to invite these young Jews into the great human journey of mystery, wonder and a place beyond intellectual knowing.

In order to stand in that sacred place, we have to remove our shoes, as Moses did at the burning bush. To be at once carefully attuned to our intuition and utterly inexpert — a skill I hope my students will remember long after their Torah portion has been forgotten.

So, when I think about a bar or bat mitzvah, I think not about cracking voices, or slideshows or theme colors. Instead, I think about the end of childhood, the very beginning of adulthood, and families in the slow, exciting, heartbreaking process of that transition.

I think about communities gathering to affirm the beautiful traditions of our tribe, the sacred words we have carried over ages and exiles, which have improbably made it to this very day and are now our responsibility to pass on.

I think about how lucky I am to get to spend an hour with a 12-year-old discussing ancient alphabets, modern social justice and the meaning of life.

And I think about how lucky we Jews are, to be given this path to walk together through one of the great transitions of human life.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.