The benefit of struggling with bar mitzvah lessons

Affection for imperfection

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

My son is working really hard for his bar mitzvah and we’re very happy with the effort he’s putting in. But he has a tough time with a lot of the Hebrew, so even after all the work, we’re afraid it may not sound great to everyone listening. I can’t help but worry that our family and friends will think he didn’t do a good job.

— A for effort

Dear A,

Let me guess, your “Plan A” was trying to make your son feel better by telling him that it will be OK because no one knows Hebrew so they won’t know when he makes a mistake.

Wrong approach: what that really means is that any congregants who do happen to know a few words of Hebrew will think he’s doing a lousy job.

So, let me help you develop a “Plan B”: look at the big picture.

As a cantor, I love having a student who has a natural ability with language and music. He makes it look easy by flawlessly reciting the prayers and Torah reading so that everyone is duly impressed, not only with him, but with me as well, for preparing him so effectively.

But your son sounds like my dream student. He’s taking something that doesn’t come easy to him and chipping away at it slowly but surely.

There’s something really rewarding about watching a bar mitzvah kid stagger through the service when I know how much effort he put in to get to that point.

Kids and parents love to look at good grades. When a bar mitzvah student recites everything perfectly, everyone in the congregation will predictably feel that he’s done an A+ job.

But imagine having a class in school that is a struggle every day. Maybe the teacher is hard or it’s a difficult subject to master. Still, you work and study and stay up late and spend extra time, and finally, at the end of the marking period, you pull out a B, when you couldn’t imagine even passing at the beginning. I wonder whether that grade feels even sweeter than an easy A.

Your son is already experiencing the true purpose of becoming bar mitzvah — he’s diligently working towards a difficult goal, and assuming responsibility for his own learning. Now help him realize that he does not need to be perfect. Instead, he needs to accept his occasional mistakes, and the fact that sometimes a struggle can be very rewarding.

Do this and not only will you be proud of him at his bar mitzvah, but he will be proud of himself.

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

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