Six Figures for a Thirteenth Birthday

By Lily Shoulberg

Growing up in New York City, I’ve always had plenty of Jewish friends, gone to public schools with significant Jewish populations, and, in turn, attended my fair share of lavish bar mitzvahs.  I think most Jewish New Yorkers can attest to the fact that when seventh grade rolls around, the fancy envelopes start pouring in and the schedule becomes filled with saved bar and bat mitzvah dates.  The parties usually feature at least one ice sculpture, and would not be complete without a photographer to capture embarrassing images of all the awkward pre-teen guests.

But what, really, should a bar mitzvah entail?

The bar mitzvah is supposed to occur at the time of the Jewish child’s (traditionally, only Jewish boys) thirteenth birthday.  He reads a section from the Torah, and in doing so, proves that he would be prepared to lead the congregation in a service.  Additionally, there is generally a tzedakah component, wherein the bar mitzvah contributes to a charity of his or her choice.  The significance of a bar mitzvah originally was that it symbolized the coming-of-age and manhood of a Jewish boy.

Today, however, many bar mitzvahs more accurately represent social standing and financial status than religious devotion.  Most of my peers who went through the entire process feel very little connection to their Jewish identities and ultimately regret the exorbitant sum that was spent on a single night of loud music and mediocre food.  Furthermore, very few of them maintained any knowledge of Hebrew and went on to assist in services at their synagogues.

I think I have a unique perspective on the issue.  I attended a number of very fancy bat mitzvahs and certainly felt the societal pressure to follow suit, but had been given quite a bit of freedom and independence by my parents, who felt that I could make the decision for myself.  I attended a year of Hebrew school when I was nine, before deciding that it wasn’t for me.  My parents, as usual, supported my decision.  When seventh grade rolled around, I naturally became envious of my peers and their larger-than-life celebrations, and decided that I would get a private tutor and cram for a bat mitzvah so I could have a fancy party of my own.  Luckily, this decision didn’t even make it past my mind to my parents’ ears.  I realized, not several hours after making this resolution, how fundamentally flawed it really was.  I felt very little religious fervor at the time, my Jewish identity was entirely cultural, and my motivation was completely attributed to societal pressure.

Of course there are Jewish children who feel that their bar mitzvahs signify their religious identities.  Some parents raise their children with the expectation of this rite of passage.  My mother grew up attending Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah without a big party afterwards.  I expect that this greatly contributed to her religiosity and spirituality as she got older.  Because of my mother’s example, I see no problem in raising your children with religion and expecting them to pursue a bar mitzvah for the purpose of instilling them with a spiritual identity.  That being said, it should go hand in hand with actual interest in religion.  The fact that I will have to pursue an adult bat mitzvah of my own volition means that I’ll first have to establish a religious identity, which, to me, is more significant than being motivated by social pressure.  I know that my parents have had their doubts about being so lenient when it came to religion, but I’m glad that it went the way it did.  They clearly did something right if I realized that my superficial desire for a bat mitzvah was for all the wrong reasons.

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