The Bar Mitzvah season of 1982 was not a great time for me.
First of all, I had no Bar Mitzvah myself.
I came from a family of assimilators. Hardcore assimilators.
No seder. No shabbat. Yes to a Christmas tree. Yes, we ate bagels. But often they were blueberry bagels, which are barely Jewish. Presbyterian bagels.
Also, since I wasn’t what you call a ‘winner’ or a ‘socially presentable,’ I wasn’t invited to a lot of other people’s Bar Mitzvahs.
I especially wasn’t invited to Amy Silberstien’s.
She was the most popular girl. And it this was THE Bat Mitzvah of the season.
What was really unfortunate was that everyone who went to her Bat Mitzvah got a t-shirt with a big 13 on the front. And on the back, the t-shirt listed all the names of the kids who were invited to the Bat Mitzvah.
It was like the Vietnam war memorial, but instead of dead soldiers, it was popular 8th graders.
And every day, another kid would wear this shirt to school. So every day I was confronted with a concrete reminder that I was a total loser.
Anyway, I’ve realized in the past few years, I have Bar Mitzvah envy. I wish I had one. I came up with 13 reasons why I wish I’d had a Bar Mitzvah. For the sake of time, I’ve cut it down to 6.5.
1. The social blackmail aspect. I could have invited Amy Silberstein and she might have felt obligated to invite me.
2. The financial aspect, of course. Not having a Bar Mitzvah was a terrible financial decision. No gifts, no checks, no savings bonds.
I did negotiate with my parents. I explained that I was saving them all this money by not having a big party, so at least you could buy me an Atari 800. They agreed.
So I was expressing my Judaism through haggling.
3. Feel like I broke a chain. My grandfather, my father, my sons will have Bar Mitzvahs. I’m the missing link.
4. The executive training. These lucky 13-year-olds get to be little CEOs. They get to decide the games, the theme, the music. Do we hire a band or Larry Ozone, who was the hot Bar Mitzvah DJ, the Skrillex for middle schoolers in 80s New York. And they get to practice speaking in public. I think I’d be a better manager today.
5. I missed the cultural landmarks. I feel lost when I’m at synagogue now. Like with Hebrew. It’s intimidating to me.
A scholar once told me that reading the bible in English is like having sex with a condom on. I’m permanently stuck with the latex experience.
6. Speaking of ignorance, I thought the Haftorah was half of a torah. Like, you don’t want to fill up on the Torah. You just want a taste. My Haftorah portion would have been about King David dancing so wildly that he revealed his balls. That would have been fun/embarrassing to talk about.
6.5 A Bar Mitzvah forces you, at least in a small way, to think about others. I needed a Mitzvah project. I was a selfish little bastard. Even if I went into my do-goodism cynically, it might have had a beneficial effect. As they say in Judaism, deed before creed.
What I’m saying is this: I used to hate the idea of rituals. But since I’ve had kids and gotten all sentimental, I’ve changed my mind. It’s nice to have rituals. They’re irrational. They are ancient, usually based on scientifically invalid beliefs. But they can be beautiful. They can be a link to generations past. And overall, Bar Mitzvahs are good rituals. They’re joyous, they have plenty of food and drink. And they generally don’t involve genitals and sharp instruments. So that’s nice.
A. J. Jacobs is an author, journalist, lecturer and human guinea pig. He has written four New York Times bestsellers that combine memoir, science, humor and a dash of self-help.