Imagine you’re 13 and all of a sudden your parents want you to stand up in front of a bunch of people and bow, chant and sing for hours. If you’re Jewish, you’ve heard of this. This is called a bar mitzvah ceremony if you’re a boy, a bat mitzvah ceremony if you’re a girl.
For most kids, it’s so nerve-wracking that Matt Alexrod, a cantor at a New Jersey synagogue, thinks it sounds like an angel’s prank. In Axelrod’s new book, Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: the Ultimate Insider’s Guide, he imagines a meeting between God and the angels in which an angel raises a wing and says, “I’ve got it! Let’s take young people when they’re just starting to go through puberty, their voices are changing, and they’re socially awkward and self-conscious. We’ll make them stand up in front of all their friends and family and make them sing for hours.” “Splendid idea!” agrees God as he rushes off to another meeting. The angel looks around sheepishly, and says, “Actually, I was joking.”
“But now we’re stuck with it,” writes Axelrod, whose job includes helping kids study for the rigorous coming-of-age ceremony. First, know that the term “bar mitzvah” is an adjective, not a noun or a verb, he tells kids. Don’t say you’re going to a bar mitzvah. Don’t say you bar mitzvahed. To get a handle on its proper usage, insert the term “of age” in place of “bar mitzvah” and use it like this: “Because she is bat mitzvah now, she is able to lead part of the service.”
Typically kids start studying for the ceremony nine months in advance and should practise daily for 10 to 15 minutes. “It’s a big body of knowledge the kids have to learn,” Axelrod said on the phone last week. They must memorize hours of Scripture, then recite and sing it in Hebrew whether they understand the language or not.“The singing really takes kids out of their comfort zone.”
His book addresses various “nightmare scenarios,” including the fear of fainting in public. The first time Axelrod saw it, the girl had stopped singing. “As I looked up, I saw her start to slump, and down she went. I was freaked out! The parents jumped up and we all rushed over.” One of the congregants was a doctor. “Imagine that,” says Axelrod in the book. “He told us to let her lie there for a second and maybe elevate her feet just a little to get the blood back up where it belonged. We eventually got her sitting up and the service resumed.” Bottom line: worry more about eating breakfast the day of the ceremony. Don’t try to power through on last night’s sushi.
Dropping the sacred Torah scroll is probably the biggest of all fears, writes Axelrod, because there is an old rabbinical text that states anyone who witnesses the Torah falling to the ground must fast from dawn to dusk for 40 days. “And isn’t this the time when the annoying little brother says, ‘Be careful you don’t drop the Torah or we’ll have to fast for 40 days.’ ” He says teens will get a chance to practise walking around with the sacred Scripture before the ceremony. Besides, he says, “On the rare occasions that I have heard that a Torah scroll was dropped, those who were there were simply told to donate to charity out of respect for the Torah.”
And parents should stop telling kids to make eye contact while singing, he advises. “What do you think you’ll see when you look up?” he asks. “That’s right, Uncle Jerry in the front row. You remember Jerry—he’s the one who thinks it’s funny to put straws in his nose at family dinners and pretend he’s a walrus. Jerry also chooses this time to cross his eyes and puff his cheeks out when he sees his nephew looking up. Every family has an Uncle Jerry,” he warns. “Keep your eyes on the page!”
For kids who think it’s stupid and don’t believe in God, Axelrod counters with this: “You don’t have to believe in God to be a good Jew.” He tells kids that they might like the songs. If they like writing or poetry, they can find meaning in some of the text. “None of these things requires a belief in a divine being, and they’re all wonderful reasons to come.”