My Big Persian Bat Mitzvah By Tannaz Sassooni


I know I’m supposed to have angst about my Bat Mitzvah, but looking back on it, mainly what I see is a great party: a delicious Persian spread, flowing cocktails, and a buzzing dance floor.  What I am angsty about is what was missing.  Save for a few Hebrew School girlfriends, nearly everyone at the party was family or family friends, and nearly everyone was Iranian.

The interface between family and the outside world is tricky for Iranian Jews.  Our fiercely loving family bond is truly beautiful.  But as far as the world outside that community, I grew up with the clear message of ‘you’re not like them’.  Whatever they do is fine for them, but those rules don’t apply to you.  It’s a sentiment that can make it hard to find your place. There was never a directive to nourish myself with experiences, to figure out where I fit in and what my contribution is.

As an adult, I’ve come to value defying that insularism. I get huge joy from connecting with people as different from me as possible. So, if I were to reboot my Bat Mitzvah, I’d change up the crowd.  I’d invite my Tunisian neighbor and her Syrian friend, who shared grim stories from their respective countries as we drove to an Arab nightclub one night: a sense of creeping religious conservatism for one, starving relatives trapped in a war zone for the other. I’d invite my burly, tattooed former coworker who, as our lunchtime conversations grew personal, quietly confided that his ex “Maria” was actually Miguel.  I’d invite my most formative old flame, a  freewheeling, bronze-skinned surfer with just-passable English, who taught me an openness that serves me to this day.  It took me some time to learn it, but the lesson is simple: to truly know yourself, you have to look outward.

This essay was originally published in Jewels of Elul.

Tannaz Sassooni is and forever will be in the middle: of American and Iranian, of geek and cool kid, of techie and artist.



Bar Mitzvah Envy By A. J. Jacobs

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.

To Bar-Mitzvah or to Catcecism...That is the Question By Jon Voss

I guess in the name of diversity, I’m exploring this Rite of Passage from a slightly different perspective.  Of course coming of age rights exist in nearly every culture and religion, and they really are important.  I’m not Jewish, though I did marry a Jew (it turns out).   I came from a religious family, in fact my dad was a priest and my mom was a nun (and my uncle was a priest), so I grew up very much in the Catholic Church in the suburbs of Western Michigan.  For us, Confirmation is the rite in which you take on a new name, light a candle, etc.  The bulk of this revolves around 6 months of Wednesday night classes lead by a combination of priests and lay people.  This whole thing was not optional for me, as you might guess, but I have to say I didn’t put much into it and cheated the system the best I could, choosing one of my friends as my adult sponsor because he had been confirmed a couple of years earlier and counted as an adult!

Of the whole process, really only one thing stands out to me, and that was the Wednesday night lecture on Spiritual Warfare. I think the topic was pretty popular back then and there were lots of dramatic writings about the spiritual warfare of the Bible and how archangels and angels and demons are fighting it out on our behalf.  And we had a very animated guest speaker who was visiting the church to talk about this phenomena.  Looking back, this sounds like a great way to make spirituality relevant to teenagers actually.

HOWEVER, a few hours before this exciting lecture, I was, as was often the case, with my friends at Wilbur Lam’s house.  Wilbur had moved to Kentwood, Michigan from Hong Kong with his older brother and sister.  They were worldy, cool, and incidentally lived in a house with no parents. It was a place for MISFITS and OUTCASTS, though we didn’t care too much if we fit in anywhere.

On this particular evening, someone had some crazy new dope, from where I don’t know. It turned out, this was no ordinary weed though, which I found out soon after leaving the house for Catechism, as it’s called.  Instead of the buzz wearing off by the time I got to church, which was usually the case, I was actually getting higher as I went, cluing me into the fact that this stuff was laced with something. By the time I settled into the pew with other friends, the church lights dimmed for the lecture, I was sweating profusely, and PRAYING that this hour would go by quickly without anyone asking me any questions.  Thank GOD it was a lecture and not a group discussion.

But it did NOT go quickly.  The speaker was amazing, perhaps too amazing in fact. He was very vividly bringing to life the thunderous battles of the archangels, at war for the hearts of people on earth, PEERING into the depths of our thoughts.  And as he spoke, the room seemed to darken and the archangels and demons began to appear above me and I sank deeper into my pew, my locks drenched in sweat.  He continued to go on from the pulpit, the one bright light shining onto him and everyone faded away until it was just HIM talking to ME, about the DEMONS and ANGELS at war for my salvation.  FOR AN ETERNITY.

Well, I survived, and I got out, and it didn’t turn into the afterschool special “Angel Dusted,” about the tragic fall of the popular athlete smashing into the trophy case, but I certainly didn’t sleep at all that night, and it took about three days for things to fully wear off and for me to stop seeing angels and demons.

If you’re lucky to make it this far, maybe you do get a second chance, because now our oldest son is 13 (and definitely scarred from that story, sorry Ian).  We do think it’s important, but decided to give him the option of doing a Bar Mitzvah, if you can call it that, based roughly on our (weak and probably heretical) understanding of it, to create his own rite of passage.   So he’s chosen a few adults to learn something from over the course of this year, things that he thinks might be important skills for an adult, and at the end of the year, we’ll have a party and he tells us what he learned and why it’s important.  

First session: his godfather, Uncle AT, teaching him how to DJ.

Ian was a bit too shy to join me on this, but I think we came up with a process together that is both meaningful and optional to him, and gives him the opportunity to play a role in our community  and script that role himself.  I don’t think he’s decided on everything yet, but I think he is hoping to learn some cooking from one of our closest family friends, Deyden. He’s expressed some interest in getting some skateboarding tips from one of his namesakes, Ian Rogers, for a few examples.

Our hope is that we can create a rite of passage that allows us all to look forward to the future (his and ours) while celebrating this INFINITELY PERILOUS and RADICALLY ALIVE phase of youth, in which, for evolutionary reasons, the sense of self-preservation and personal risk is notably absent.

In essence, our rites of passages become our own, and I found that not having a choice in my religious rites drove me to the extremes of creating my own anyway, testing the limits of society through punk-ass reckless behavior.  In the end, I found a community of compassion and tolerance that I wanted to be a part of, and only hope we can create both the kinds of rites that our kids want to partake in, and the kinds of accepting communities they want to grow into.

Jon Voss is the Historypin Strategic Partnerships Director helping to build an open ecosystem of historical data across libraries, archives, and museums worldwide. His innovative work at the intersection of technology and cultural memory is also getting him closer to his childhood dream of perfecting time travel.

Secrets of Manhood (Gorilla Suit Included) By Christopher Noxon

By Christopher Noxon

I’ve got three Jewish kids, two of them teenagers, which means I've been to a ton of Bar Mitzvahs, 80 percent of which have been godawful horrible... and yet I know there’s tremendous worth in what they say when they’re done: You’re an adult and you’re a Jew.

Officially, unambiguously, forevermore – Jewish adult.

And it turns out I’ve been at war with both these things for a while now. The adult part and the Jewish part – I can’t seem to come to terms with either.

While I'm not Jewish by birth and haven't formally converted, I sent my kids to Jewish day school, joined two Temples, started observing Shabbat, and started doing all sorts of creative projects with Reboot. I wrote a whole book that upended the standard definition of maturity and praised grown-ups who refuse to give up stuff they’ve always loved.

So I’m not really an adult and I’m not really a Jew.

I’m a rejuvenile cultural Jew.

Or a Jewish-adjacent adultescent.

Or a Jew-ISH man-child.

Which is cute – but it’s also, I realize… gross. Seriously, I’ve lost all patience for my prevaricating and negotiating and fence-sitting. Maybe because at 44, I really am getting older – my son Charlie had his Bar Mitzvah last year, which means that my son is a Jewish adult and… I’m not.

So… yeah – I’ve been thinking about conversion. I’m still iffy on the God question… and I’m not sure I can ever get on board with the bloodletting… but I’ve had a few lunches with a rabbi and I’m doing my reading and now I’m at least on a formal-ish path toward settling this question once and for all.

Which might mean – what? A Bar Mitzvah? What would that even look like?

Turns out I’ve sort of had one. I was a soft, weird, not at all developed kid at 13, and after attending a Bar Mitzvah for my friend Michael Landsberg, I wanted one too.

At the time I was living with my mom and her girlfriend; besides being heavy-duty feminists, they were seekers who did consciousness-raising potlucks and retreats in the Sequoias with their guru Jean Houston. There was talk in our house of “the Goddess” and the “Cosmic Muffin.”

So when I complained about why it was that Michael Landsburg got a Bar Mitzvah and all I got was a green T-shirt with the text of the Equal Rights Amendment, mom got to work. I think Robert Bly and Iron John had been in the UTNE Reader that month. Anyway, she set about creating a YOUTHHOOD RITE OF PASSAGE RITUAL for their sensitive boy-child.

My moms have a friend and fellow feminist-seeker named Connie who also happens to be married to a corporate tax attorney – they have a house in Zuma with a sunken tennis court and a redwood hot tub and an incredible garden. One weekend when they were away, we went out there and we did this whole thing –I’ve blocked it out, but I have dim memories wearing some kind of robe while candles were lit, bongos were beaten and long meditative silences were observed. Mom tells me she made up a scroll with calligraphy on parchment. 

And then we went skinny dipping. Me, my mom and Pam, soaking in the hot tub and jumping in the black-bottom pool. Because that’s what you did in 1981 with your two moms. A year or so before they’d taken me to a place in Topanga Canyon called Elysian Fields where I played tennis with a lady who beat me in straight sets wearing nothing but sneakers and socks with little pom-poms on the ankles.

Thank the Cosmic Muffin that mom didn’t decide to do the youthhood ritual at Elysian.

But anyway, at least she did something. It wasn’t a lavish luncheon, but my fruity Malibu Youth-hood Rite of Passage hadn’t been all that different from Michael Landsberg’s. Like Michael, I’d stood up with my parental units and made a formal entry into post-childhood in a strange, sweet, barely-understood, really-pretty batshit religious ceremony. We both had our scrolls. And like Michael, the lasting evidence of this event is a photograph – he got the portrait of himself wearing a wide-collared tan suit and staring meaningfully out the window of Temple Beth Shalolm… and when I asked my mom about this a few weeks ago, she went to her stack of photo albums and pulled out this:

bunny shot.jpg

The most embarrassing thing about this photo for me is not the nakedness, or even the bunny – it’s the face. Look how fucking happy I am! As I say, I remember little about that day, but I’m pretty sure I was loving the whole thing.

Which only reinforces for me that even in its most humiliating, fuzzy-headed woo-woo form, the rite-of-passage ritual is a good thing. It’s affirming. It’s important. I’m glad my moms did it for me. I just wish it could’ve been somehow a little more relevant, something about being a grown-up man?

A few years ago a bunch of us from Reboot were going camping together just after our friend Jill’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. Since we apparently share a compulsive need to customize every last scrap of inherited tradition to our own personal preferences, we decided to have a crack at the Bar Mitzvah.

What we came up with was this: on our first full day camping together, as everyone was lazing around a big open meadow, I came charging out of my cabin in a gorilla suit – that’s a whole other story. Anyhow, I grabbed hold of the Bar Mitzvah boy and forcibly escorted him away, leading all the men from our group up a nearby bluff. After getting everyone up the hill, I took off the mask and we sat Jill’s son down on the grass. 

Then our friend Amichai, this amazing Israeli scholar, did a shpiel about tribal traditions in which the men would pull a boy away from the care of their mothers and only return them after they’d performed initiation rites. I pictured bones in noses, facial tattoos. Happily, all Amichai had in mind was going around the circle and having everyone share a “secret of manhood.”

The secrets ranged from the practical to the profound. One guy talked about stones in the river making the song and how hardship creates character. An electrician told Isaac to “always buy real estate.” Someone’s dad said that, “when you’re out on a date, always let a woman through the door first. You look gentlemanly and it allows you to check out her tuchus.” Another guy did this whole speech about how you shouldn’t smoke pot when you’re a teenager because it’ll screw up your short-term memory but that it’s OK when you’re older.

I remember another guy stroking his chin solemnly, squinting his eyes and then saying, simply, “Everyone masturbates. You know that, right?”

But the thing I remember most was a writer friend who said, whispering it like a secret, “Everyone wants to be invited.”

None of it was earth-shattering, but Isaac liked it and all the guys did too and we’ve done it three times since. A few weeks ago my friend Rachel borrowed the gorilla suit and had an uncle put it on at a family party; the gorilla pulled her son outside and led him through the streets of Beverly Hills to Roxbury Park, where we all sat around cross-legged in the grass and did a round of wisdom-sharing.  A few months ago we did it with three Bar Mitzvah boys in the circle and I wore a giant yellow chicken costume.

Who knows? Maybe this is how new traditions are born – maybe Good Life Gorilla or the Wisdom Chicken will catch on and thousands of little Hebrew teens will know the terror of being kidnapped by their parents in animal costumes. It’s true that none of the actual “secrets of manhood” we’ve shared have been revelatory, but there’s something amazing about even the promise of learning a forbidden thing. Even if what that ends of being is a clumsy attempt at wisdom or just the reheated lecturing of middle aged guys – it can feel pretty profound. 

Part of the reason, I think, is what that guy whispered at the first circle: “Everyone wants to be invited.” Being pulled aside by the adults, singled out and invited into a world, told you belong in an actual community – that’s what the ritual is really about. If I ever have a Bar Mitzvah, I’d like a little of that. That’s part of why my moms’ youthhood passage ritual was ultimately so forgettable – there was no community to be invited into. All I really entered was a hot tub.

I do know one thing for sure: I’d rather be abducted by a gorilla than pose naked with a bunny rabbit.

Christopher Noxon is a writer, daddy, and doodler.