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A Parent’s Perspective on Bar and Bat Mitzvah

I have been a cantor now for 21 years and was a student cantor for 3 years. In those 24 years of officiating at B’nai Mitzvahs, I could never call myself “the parent” of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student….until now.  I have had the honor of standing by the side of at least 700 or more Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, and on May 1st, I will stand by the side of our daughter, Aria, as a cantor and as a parent.

I am now on the “flip side,” the “behind the scenes,” and it is coloring a picture that I never had the honor of experiencing. By the way, when kids come to see me for Bar and Bat Mitzvah meetings, I am pretty sure I am getting the best of them. I am getting the “put on a happy face for the cantor.” As I walk to the sanctuary with my students, I ask them all kind of questions- like “how are they feeling about the big day?” I usually get a little nod, a little headshake, and we move on.

Now I know what is behind the curtain; of course there are nerves about “performing” in front of people, but now I know, the wells of emotion run deep and mean so much more. These students are really wondering- why do I have to do this? What does this really mean to me and to my friends and family? Why would my family make me do this? And adding a pandemic onto Bar and Bat Mitzvah only turns up the volume on this quest for answers. This kind of questioning can be reassured through positive reinforcement and practice, but the reasons and meaning of Bar and Bat Mitzvah, especially in a pandemic, will be revealed some other day…some other year.

This weekend’s Bat Mitzvah says in her D’var Torah: “Even if I don’t appreciate what this day means now, I know that it will mean something in the future.” Our tradition constantly confronts us with teachings that may not have meaning in this moment.

In this week’s Torah portion in Leviticus 11: 29 it states that these foods are not kosher: the mouse, the mole, the lizard, the crocodile, etc. You may be chuckling just like my B’nai Mitzvah students do when I tell them, you need to chant another line of Hebrew. But our deep and glorious tradition teaches us that everything from why we don’t eat those animals to the power of every Hebrew letter can transform us, can connect us to each other, and can strengthen not only our people, but the world.

In this e-KI, I am thanking our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs students and families who have had the courage to proceed in strength during a pandemic, through the questions, through the quiet celebrations, and through the zoom worshippers. We are going through it together, as a parent and as your cantor. May we all have faith that meaning comes from these seeds we have planted in the form of questions and doubts. As the Blessing after reading Torah states: “V’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu,” God has planted “deep within us eternal life” through the study of Torah, which begins with sacred questions. Hold onto your own sacred questions tightly, and be reassured that these seeds through study will flower into your beautiful relationship with Torah, with our community, and with our people.