The B’nai Mitzvah is the Jewish coming of age ceremony. The Bar Mitzvah (Son of the Commandments) is held for a boy and the Bat Mitzvah (Daughter of the Commandments) for a girl. The ceremony marks the end of the first decade of Jewish education and signifies that a young person is now able to fully participate in his or her community as an adult.
The B’nai Mitzvah is on my mind lately because my son’s best friend became a Bar Mitzvah yesterday.
In many wealthier Jewish communities, especially along the east coast, the cultural and religious significance of the event has been lost, devolving into a display of conspicuous consumption marking a family’s socio-economic status. In other words, very little cultural education is required. Instead the family throws a huge party costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The ceremony resembles a tribal potlach in which a family destroys wealth in exchange for prestige.
I live in New Mexico, however, in a county that is considered frontier by many standards. It most definitely exists at the fringes of known Jewish existence.
In our community, the educational aspect of the B’nai Mitzvah is emphasized while the parties, gifts and other material accompaniments are relatively modest. Because cost and transportation are often problems, and because extended families often live far from Santa Fe, class parents are expected to attend all the children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. We form teams to assist other parents in the class to feed congregants on the day and evening of the Bar Mitzvah. We help parents to get their children to classes. These requirements force us to get to know one another and strengthen the fabric of our community.
In our community, the B’nai mitzvah class students always sit together in the front row with their teachers at B’nai Mitzah ceremonies, and their presence is required. Most students also attend services the Friday evening preceding the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which occurs on a Saturday. The extended family of the acolyte sits in the first two rows on the opposite side of the room.
We are not Orthodox, so men and women, girls and boys, sit together.
The B’nai Mitzvah student is expected to lead the prayers and blessings as if s/he were the Rabbi. S/he must chant the daily Parshah (or Torah portion) and deliver the sermon. Unlike larger eastern communities which often hold more than one B’nai Mitzvah in a service, only one child can be honored at a time. This means that each child is responsible for chanting four or five aliyot (Biblical passages) as opposed to the one or two which might be required elsewhere.
Getting the child to this level of competence can present logistical nightmares. Hebrew school classes take place on Wednesday and Sunday at the Temple in Santa Fe. Many families live in outlying towns. I live in the “city” of Espanola, forty minutes north of Santa Fe, and my children go to school in Los Alamos, thirty minutes west of Espanola, and one hour out of Santa Fe. There is very little public transportation available.
To complicate matters, on Wednesdays, class times are staggered depending on age. So, I had to figure out how to transport my children to Santa Fe from Los Alamos at two different times (when I work in Espanola). Several other families were in the same proverbial boat (or car) so we divided up kids and carpooled. Transportation often involved four families. One car picked up the younger children in Los Alamos and deposited them in Santa Fe, another did the same for the older kids, a third fetched the younger children from Santa Fe and dropped them in Espanola, while a fourth drove older children home. In the winter, blizzards often threw all plans into disarray, resulting in cars driving very slowly through white-out conditions looking for stranded children while other parents frantically screamed directions into cell phones.
I won’t bore you with the details of children who found themselves on the Park and Ride without an escort, forcing enlistment of innocent bystanders into the already heinously complicated transportation solution.
In short, for parents in my community, the B’nai Mitzvah celebrates serious levels of commitment on the part of parents and other community adults to obtain a Jewish education for their children. My children could not have succeeded without the help and flexibility of tutors, the Rabbi and his wife, and other families. The purpose of the post-ceremony parties is to thank the community, not to impress it.
In February when my son was Bar Mitzvahed (a particularly snowy February, I might add), my father, aunt and cousin flew in from Philadelphia. They were joined by my husband’s relatives from New Mexico and my maternal aunt from Albuquerque. I did not know my father when I was growing up. He became a part of my life after my children were born. We were faced with the complicated logistics of integrating several orthodox friends and family members into a reform ceremony. I wasn’t sure how to incorporate new family without alienating my maternal relatives who had always been there. My husband is not Jewish and his family was completely unfamiliar with the proceedings. Some of the participants, and many of the attendees, were Hispanic.
To solve this problem, the Rabbi allowed me to invite my father, in-laws and maternal and paternal aunts and uncles up to the arc where the Torah scrolls are housed as “grandparents” (the aunts and uncles, not the scrolls). One actual grandfather became confused and wandered off in search of a bathroom but we rounded him up before anyone noticed. The entire crowd of “grandparents” joined the procession as we carried the scrolls through the Synagogue before Ben read from them.
As an added courtesy, the cantor threw in a few Ladino songs (Ladino was the vernacular language of Jews in Spain) for our Hispanic guests.
My father is a Kohein, a descendant of Aaron. I had initially planned for him to recite the first of the blessings over the Torah with a close family friend, Phil, who played a major role in my son’s early education. I paired them because Phil is Orthodox and I thought they might like eachother. Our plans were thrown into disarray when Dad announced that a Kohein could not share the bima with a non-Kohein (don’t ask!) but Phil graciously agreed to recite the blessing over a later passage with my husband and I even though Orthodox Jews typically segregate the sexes during services.
The result was a wonderful experience for all.