My word: Rights and rites of passage

A bar mitzva celebration serves as a bonding experience.

The western wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The western wall
Psst! Don't tell everyone but we Jews do something worse to our sons than circumcise them when they are eight days old.
When they are babies, circumcision is part of a quick procedure and the newborns are not aware of what is going on around them.
Compared to having a bar mitzva, a brit mila (as circumcision is called in Hebrew) is not much of an ordeal for the child.
A bar mitzva takes a 13-year-old boy, at the start of those oh-so-selfconscious teen years, and puts him firmly center stage. No longer the passive partner in the covenant with God, as he was as a baby, the new teenager has to take an active role in this ceremony – reading and reciting blessings out loud in public.
Ask most Jewish men what they remember of their brit mila, and none of those circumcised a week after birth will be able to recall anything. Ask them about their bar mitzvas, however, and they all have a story to tell, be it from the synagogue service on the day, being bombarded with candies by well-wishers, learning to put on tefillin for the first time, or celebrating their coming of age with some kind of party, trip or project.
Jewish men all over the world share this experience – each according to his family’s own customs and traditions but all in a way that has enough similarities for them to recognize having been through the same rite of passage.
Bar mitzva traditions, and bat mitzva celebrations for 12-year-old girls, have been very much on my mind this year.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a personal column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine describing the birth of my son.
The essay, titled “A labor of love,” was later voted the third most moving article in the Post that year. The first and second places went to coverage of 9/11 and the Dolphinarium terrorist attack in June 2001, in which 21 Israelis – the majority of them teenagers – were murdered by a Hamas suicide bomber outside a Tel Aviv disco. I think by the time readers reached my article they were craving some good news, a reason to collectively celebrate.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana, 13 years later, we could still all do with more reasons to celebrate.
YOSSI WAS born into the second intifada. In Jerusalem, in particular, the explosions of Palestinian suicide bombers punctuated our lives on an almost daily basis. Buses, coffee shops, shopping malls and wedding halls – all were targets for the brutal attacks, attacks against innocent lives and a way of life; assaults on freedom and the value of human life.
Three terror attacks took place in Israel on the day of my son’s brit.
Two days later, I broke my own rule never to feed him while watching the TV news: The promise dissolved amid footage of the Twin Towers crashing down.
A few months after that, I clutched my baby tightly to my chest as I heard about the death of journalist Daniel Pearl. “I am a Jew,” Pearl declared in almost his last words before al-Qaida murderers killed him.
Today, beheadings such as Pearl’s remain barbaric, although shockingly they are no longer rare.
Islamic State, al-Qaida’s even more evil offspring, has learned to use social media that didn't yet exist in 2001 to spread its warped ideology and try to instill fear via public decapitations.
The world changed in September 2001. My son was born at the start of a world war, a global jihad, although even now not everyone wants to acknowledge it.
My son’s life could be measured in terms of the different wars and campaigns that Israel has been through. I never envisaged the motherly advice I would dispense at various points throughout his childhood would include reminders to seek shelter in the event of a rocket attack.
I recently looked at an American website with a bar mitzva checklist.
The first category of preparations was headed: “Three to four years before.”
I was so taken aback, I didn’t read on to discover what I was meant to have done so long ago. Anyway it’s too late now.
The bar mitzva experience around the world has much in common – but also some obvious differences.
Three months ago, Israel was at war – hundreds of rockets a day were launched indiscriminately at our homes.
War helps put things in perspective.
Less than a month ago, I had an only-in-Israel discussion with the caterer on the choice of menu, the color of the tablecloths, “oh, and where the guests can take shelter in the event of a siren.” In the global scheme of things, the shade of the table linen did not seem worth obsessing over.
And yet our lives have been defined by far more than war and terror. This is our victory: I look back at photos over the years and I see my son wearing Purim costumes and marking milestones at school; I see hikes and vacations; there are many friends; a parade of pets and other animals; and family – lots of family – and lots of joy.
Yossi, you have spent several months preparing to read from the Torah for your bar mitzva. As you have studied I have seen you mature.
In Nitzavim-Vayelech we are (again) warned of the dire consequences of turning away from God, but also we learn of the blessings of following the commandments.
As Moses takes his leave and hands over to Joshua, we understand that we the Jewish people are all standing together before God.
The commentary on the Torah notes that the word “kulchem” – all of you – includes past and future generations.
There is, as you have noted when you prepared your bar mitzva speech, a sense of the power of Jewish unity and continuity, particularly pertinent as this portion is always read ahead of the Jewish New Year.
Yossi, you are part of an amazing chain of human experience stretching back thousands of years and lying ahead to the end of time.
Eight days after you were born, we smothered you with love and blessings as you were ushered into the Covenant of Abraham at your brit. Your grandparents and I could not have been happier to have you in our lives. Today, now taller than me and with your own unique personality and sense of humor, you are again surrounded with love and good wishes as you celebrate your bar mitzva. Some relatives and friends have traveled from afar to be with you; others, far away, are thinking of you.
You are part of a family, community, country and people. May this knowledge always give you strength: May it be a source of pride for you and may you continue to be a source of pride for us all.
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