I’m almost shocked at how little I remember of my Bar Mitzvah. I don’t recall my Haftorah reading, or what the rabbi said, or what music played at the reception.
I learned Hebrew, but I’ve forgotten all of it. Every Hanukkah, I look up the letters on the Dreidel.
My Bar Mitzvah was supposed to be such a momentous occasion, a defining moment, my passage from childhood to adulthood. It was the day I became a man! Why do I remember so little of it?
Probably because I did it for the wrong reasons – the party, the presents, the peer pressure – rather than any feeling of emerging maturity, any sense of religious devotion. I did it because all Jewish 13-year-old males do it.
It seems laughable that any ritual could make me “a man” at that age, when my mother still drove me to school, made my lunch, and even made my bed. (After all, she’s a Jewish mother.) Only years later did I gain enough self-confidence to hold my own in a basketball game, to ask a girl on a date, to speak in front of an audience.
And yes, the confidence to relate to Judaism on my own terms, not my rabbi’s terms. I can figure out for myself what is important to me about Judaism.
For me, it’s my cultural identity. It’s Jewish food: tsimmes, latkes, pastrami sandwiches. It’s Henny Youngman, the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen. It’s my tribe.
I can hang on to the culture, the food, the humor, the community, the history, without necessarily clinging to Israel, Hebrew, prayer, God, religion.
I can grapple with these questions, and now I understand that Judaism is all about grappling with these questions. Finally, I feel like a man!
Isn’t that right, mom?
This essay was originally published in Jewels of Elul.
Dan Fost is a freelance writer in San Rafael, CA, specializing in technology and baseball.