The importance of learning all aspects of a bar mitzvah service

Don’t be a diva

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

My daughter told me that she and the cantor are spending a good deal of time in lessons learning about a bunch of prayers that she won’t be leading at all at her service. Shouldn’t they just be going over her solos and songs?

— Enraged Mom

Dear Mom,

You sound like a stage mom, Enraged Mom.

Let me explain.

Look at it this way: compare the whole bat mitzvah service to a play. There are many different scenes within a play, which include their own lines of dialogue, characters, entrances, exits, and other actions. Your daughter will only be “starring” (or leading) a few “scenes” (or parts) in the “play” (or service).

So you may reasonably ask: why not prepare her for only for her scenes?

After all, your friends and relatives in attendance will be paying special attention to the moments in the service that feature her, and might not be so interested in the rest of the service. Furthermore, even if she has an understanding of these other scenes, no one will ever know one way or the other. Her time would be better spent rehearsing and practicing her lines, so she looks the best she can.

But another way of looking at things is to view the entire “play” as a whole. Like any good show, it flows from one scene to the next, with some prayers serving as a lead-in to others.

A great actress develops her skills by figuring out her “motivation.” What should her character be thinking about while reciting her lines? In order to know that, she has to be aware of the content and emotional ups and downs of the whole play, not only the scenes where she is featured. If she simply memorizes a bunch of random lines for certain scenes, she will be able to get through the play, but won’t have much of an idea of what’s really going on.

Therefore, during her lessons, your daughter’s cantor is spending time giving her a sense of all the prayers of the service, not just the precious few you will see her leading.

She will know which pages are words of praise, when to express plaintive wishes for our community’s welfare, and even when to recite a prayer of healing for the sick — and more importantly — why she should know.

If your daughter only ever studied the solo parts, she would be missing a significant portion of the service — the context. Your daughter will finish her bat mitzvah by mastering some isolated words, but will miss the opportunity to understand the structure of the whole service.

And isn’t the point of a bat mitzvah to introduce your child to a life of Jewish learning? Why deny her that from the beginning?

Now, tell her to break a leg!

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 cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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