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Can any two words strike more fear into the minds of otherwise reasonable adults and kids then…(wait for it)…BAR MITZVAH?
So many things to learn! So many tasks to do! So many checks to write! So many people living in your house you suddenly want to kill!
Calm down, don’t go meshuggeneh — I’m here to help you sort the whole thing out. (Lady, really, put down the vase.)
I’m Cantor Matt Axelrod and this is my column “Cantor banter.” Nice to meet you.
For more than 20 years, I have helped families go though the same journey you’re now trying to navigate. I’m well versed in the facts, details, and yes, misconceptions associated with this sacred right of passage. In this column, I will answer readers’ questions and offer advice about what’s truly important and what you really don’t have to worry about — which may very well surprise you.
So, let’s jump into our very first letter of query, shall we?
Dear Cantor Matt,
What exactly is a bar mitzvah?
Ask 100 Jews what “bar mitzvah” really means and I guarantee that at least 99 will answer “son (or daughter) of the commandments.”
Would someone explain to me what “son of the commandments” means exactly? Do you introduce your child by saying, “I’d like you to meet Jared, son of Thou Shalt Not Kill?”
To me, that tired translation has been confusing the Jewish people since Abraham panicked over the caterer’s bill and decided to save some money by sacrificing his son Isaac instead.
In recent years, I’ve embarked on a one-man grammar campaign in an attempt to get people to use the term “bar mitzvah” correctly. Some people use bar mitzvah as a noun:
“I’m sorry, I can’t play golf next Saturday. I have to go to a bar mitzvah.”
And many people use bar mitzvah as if it were a verb:
“My grandmother was never bat mitvahed, so I don’t know if she can get called up to the Torah.”
That makes it sound like it’s something that we professional Jews “do” to someone, doesn’t it?
“Careful, don’t get too close to the Cantor or you’ll get bar mitzvahed!”
The real, official, and correct way to use the term is as an adjective:
“He should be fasting on yom kippur because he’s bar mitzvah.”
We describe a 13-year-old Jewish kid as being “bar” or “bat mitzvah.” It’s not something that happens to you, and it doesn’t require a lavish, expensive party. It simply refers to a Jewish youth that is now old enough to begin taking responsibility for observing the Jewish laws, rituals, and traditions.
This transformation doesn’t technically require anything more than living long enough for a Jewish boy or girl to reach the age of 13 according to the Jewish calendar — which is a lot like a regular calendar but all the months have funny names and the holidays keep moving around.
Think of the bar mitzvah service — and all the preparation, study, and money that go into it — as recognizing and celebrating the fact that your child has reached an important age in the Jewish tradition.
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at email@example.com.
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