The wonder years

Jewish Family Identity Forum
Rituals in Jewish life series

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek

“How incredible is it that a teen leads the worship service for the whole congregation and everyone takes such pride and joy in it!” exclaimed a friend during my son’s Bar Mitzvah luncheon. “And he had to learn so much! But the best part was when you passed on the responsibility for keeping the commandments to your son: it was such a public statement of the obligations and not just the benefits of becoming an adult. The whole thing made becoming a teen more than just another candle on the birthday cake or a step closer to getting a driver’s license. I wish we had something like that in my religious tradition…”

More than a dozen years after the event, I still remember my friend’s wonderment and how she zeroed in on its significance. A Bar Mitzvah — like the parallel Bat Mitzvah for girls — is more than just a rite of passage or an expanded birthday celebration; it is designed to be a springboard into the future.

Jewish rituals are not simply spotlights on single, discrete moments in time. Nor are they like beads on a necklace, each dazzling in its own right but connected only by a thin wire of time or text, one to another.

Rather they are more like chapter headings or recipe titles that are meaningless without the context of the book and the content that follows.

By way of example, I recently heard a discussion between radio talk show host Dennis Prager and a young Jewish father who, wanting to maintain his son’s Jewish identity, had him ritually circumcised on the eighth day although he and his wife plan to raise the child in her Catholic faith.

Even in the most liberal interpretation, this youngster’s Jewish identity has no context and no content, linked to the past only by a momentary rite and not connected at all to the future.

So what about Bar or Bat Mitzvah? In the traditional view, it is an automatic, birthday-generated change in status: one day you are a child, the next you are an adult in terms of ritual participation and moral obligation.

There is no formal observance other than an aliyah (blessing over the Torah reading) and perhaps the chanting from the Haftorah (a reading from the Prophets).

In modern times, however, this rite of passage has taken on a different character. For some, it’s just a shimmering pearl, a pretty outfit, a sparkling party: it shines for but a moment.

For others, it’s a junior “bucket list” accomplishment: recognition that you attended Sunday school, learned some blessings, and led a religious service: endpoints, not beginnings. For still others, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a serious undertaking, both a meaningful accomplishment as well as a segue into other forms of Jewish learning, and even the doorway into synagogue leadership.

But what about Jewish living? If the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is about taking on the adult obligation of the commandments in daily life, how are we guiding our teens to fulfill this commitment?

Encouraging our children to live Jewishly seemed so much easier in the younger years: Honor your parents. Be nice.  Share. Say thank you. Tell the truth. Take care of your pet.

But what about teens? These are the wonder years; teens are full of questions. All too often we find them so intimidating that we leave the task to professionals (youth group leaders, Jewish studies instructors, camp counselors, Hillel directors); reduce it to the occasional soup kitchen, tzedakah donation, mitzvah project, or Israel experience (more for the fun and college resume potential than for the obligation); or ignore it altogether (assuming that the juvenile Judaism of the early years is adequate preparation for adulthood).

But authentic Jewish living doesn’t arise from Hebrew school or intermittent activities or professional programs.  Learned through practice, it’s the skill of viewing the world through the lens of Judaism and making Jewish choices: something you do every day.

What are the core values by which you live and make decisions?  How can you use them to frame questions in response to the wonderings of your teens?

Teens wonder: Why am I here? What is my purpose?  How am I unique and special (and separate from my parents)? Parents believe: It’s important to improve the world in some way.

Tradition teaches: Every person was created in the image of God: equally important, infinitely unique, each with a special gift or strength to discover, and with unlimited potential to do good in the world.

Parents ask: What would your friends say is unique about you? How can people do good in the world?  When do you already do good?

Teens wonder: What happens when I choose…? Parents believe: The choices you make impact both you and others.  Tradition teaches: Because of free will, humans can make choices that either elevate or debase themselves or others, both in the short-term and in the long run.

Parents ask: Which choice would make you a better person? How would your choice affect your …?

Teens wonder: What does it take to get along? Parents believe: Manners, trustworthiness, humility, appropriate dress, and friendliness are important social qualities. Tradition teaches: derekh eretz encompasses common decency and the unwritten rules of “the way things work” in order for society to function.  Parents ask: What might be the advantage to writing a thank- you note after the interview?  How is promotion handled at your job?

We wonder why the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has lost its significance as a springboard into Jewish adulthood.

Perhaps we should look at how we adults, and especially parents, are guiding our kids to live Jewish lives during the wonder years.

Family Discussion: What is something teens wonder about?  What are your beliefs about the topic? What does Jewish tradition teach? As a guide or mentor, what could you ask a teen that would encourage a Jewish perspective on the topic?


Literature to share
Marcel Marceau: Master Mime by Gloria Spielman — Who knew that this world-renowned entertainer was a devotee of Charlie Chaplin and smuggled children out of Nazi-occupied France? These are just a few of the fascinating facts revealed in the fast-paced illustrated book for elementary ages. Worth reading at home or in the classroom.

Counterfeiter: How a Norwegian Jew Survived the Holocaust by Moritz Nachtstern and Ragnar Arntzen — With the punch of a novel, this memoir recounts the author’s participation in the Nazis’ secret plot to produce millions of counterfeit British bank notes. Made popular by the 2007 movie The Counterfeiters, the book provides much more detail and insight into the men of Sachsenhausen’s Block 19 counterfeiters. A worthwhile read.

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