The liturgical center of a traditional Bar Mitzvah is the 13-year-old’s personal confrontation with a piece of Old Testament the Torah portion. You learn it in Hebrew. You reflect on it. And you craft a speech explaining what the passage means to you, your family, your friends, and most importantly, to the handful of 13-year-old girls who, amazingly, agreed to come to your big day.
LORI: Steven! We came because you invited us!
SB: Hey, Lori. That’s Lori Bring, everyone. Back in 1980 she was one of the four girls who attended my Bar Mitzvah. And the only one I was really friends with.
LORI: And the only one who was Jewish!
That’s a whole other topic.
So to give you a sense how this tradition welcomed me into Jewish adulthood, I’m going to read you a lightly edited version of my Torah portion, 14th chapter of Leviticus, Parsha Metzorah.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the law of the person afflicted with leprosy.”
Leprosy. My Bar Mitzvah was about leprosy.
“The person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool, and some hyssop. Slaughter one of the birds. Take the live bird, the stick, the wool, and the hyssop, and dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, which should be in an earthenware vessel. The Kohen will then sprinkle this mixture seven times upon the leper, and then release the live, bloodsoaked bird into an open field...”
(to Lori:) Do you remember any of this?
LORI: Not really. All I remember was my dress, it was awful (details) and that Kim B of all people was there.
SB: I know. Kim B!
LORI: How did you get her to come?
SB: I have no idea! She was so pretty and so not Jewish. And then here I am introducing her to my heritage by reciting a weird magic cure for a super gross skin disease. “Hey, Kim, did I mention that the leper can go back into camp once he ritually bathes after shaving off his hair all of his hair?”
LORI: Steven, this is disgusting!
SB: My point exactly.
So, to our God’s perhaps notsomedicallysound treatment for these poor people; add a Cantor who couldn’t give a big Yiddish shit about anything to do with Parsha Metzorah other than the smoothness of my rote memorized phonetic Hebrew chanting of it mix in no education or context for why God and Moses were taking time to discuss leper purification; and simmer for six months in a deep bath of pubescent hormones... -and you’ve got a recipe for enough alienating busywork to, hypothetically, contribute to putting a young man off synagogue Judaism for several decades.
Where this leads me tonight is to this thought: If I had it to do over again, I would seriously rethink the “Torah portion” portion of the Bar Mitzvah. In other words: Could we have Bar Mitzvahs without so much Bible?
The Bar Mitzvah is supposed to mark the point of maturation, when a Jew becomes able to take responsibility for his or her actions. So if you’re going to spend months focusing on a piece of text, why not choose one that can more naturally pertain to that? Something that makes them reflect on the decisions and actions they might take, and why they’ll take them. I’d still have this text be something Jewish; a Bar Mitzvah should relate directly to Judaism. Teachers would curate a kind of core curriculum that they and students could together choose from. Fiction, nonfiction…. There could be film. And as in the traditional tradition, you’d take a little section of a key text, read it closely, talk about it.
I was looking for an example on my own bookshelf … I came up with some Philip Roth. Chapter 2 of his great counterhistory “The Plot Against America,” is this little set piece called “Loudmouth Jew.”
It’s 1941. FDR has just lost the presidency in a landslide to Charles Lindbergh, who is of course a huge antiSemite. And most of the country is in love with him. The Roths take a longplanned trip to Washington DC, and find that Lindbergh’s election has caused some sort of top to pop, and America’s great Goyish majority is suddenly unleashing all this apparently pentup hostility towards Jews. The Roths get kicked out of hotels and hassled in restaurants and the police won’t help them... It’s the author’s dark fantasy on the illusion of assimilation, of paranoia justified, and what actions his fictional parents responsible, grownup Jews might take in the face of grave injustice.
For a 13-year-old in 1980 or 2013, that chapter gives a lot more to chew on than a Bronze Age prescription for a bacterial infection.
My point is this: There is huge potential for Bar Mitzvah kids to engage more meaningfully with the great Jewish tradition of textual analysis. Maybe let’s realize that the Old Testament isn’t always going to be the best way to fulfill this potential.
That said, I was in a sense lucky back then to get the portion I did because just a few verses away is where the writers of Leviticus teach us how to treat a man who, quote, “issues a sickly and unnatural seminal discharge.”
No 13-year-old should have to contemplate such a thing, let alone chant it in Hebrew to Kim Brunner.
Steve Bodow is co-executive producer and former head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which he has plagued since 2002. He has also directed theater (Elevator Repair Service), written for magazines, and played a lot of Werewolf.