So the decision has been made, we have two rabbis involved, and we’re heading for a Bar Mitzvah this spring. Over the winter vacation, my son, 13, even got to study his Hebrew with my 86-year-old father, who happens to be his only Jewish grandparent.
Some folks are curious, bewildered, or even disgruntled, about why we would undertake the involved process of Bar Mitzvah preparation for a child raised in an interfaith community. Let me try to explain.
Many of our reasons should sound familiar: we want our child to learn the Sabbath prayers, affirm a deep connection to Judaism, celebrate his imminent manhood, and have the formative experience of standing up and leading a worship service. And we want to provide an opportunity to bring the generations of our family and friends together, to kvell and feel nachas and dance a joyful hora.
So why is this Bar Mitzvah different from all others? My child’s family tree includes more Christian than Jewish branches. Celebrating a coming of age together provides a chance to share with extended family the possibility of interfaith community. We will honor and acknowledge all of my son’s heritage in this rite of passage, including a blessing from our interfaith minister. Coming from our interfaith worldview, it would be both inauthentic and disrespectful to do otherwise.
Judaism’s Hebrew liturgy has survived through the millenia, through the diaspora, through the Holocaust. When my children learn to decipher Hebrew, and recite Hebrew prayers, they affirm their connection to this powerful history. But at the same time, all religions and rituals evolve over time, and Judaism is no different. In creating a coming of age ceremony that reflects the full heritage of my children, we realize that we are pushing boundaries.
In designing these ceremonies for my children, I try not to become completely paralyzed by the (often conflicting) “requirements” for a Bar Mitzvah, issued by various sages and authorities. The truth is that the Bar Mitzvah tradition is not an ancient one. Since I began planning for my daughter’s coming-of-age five years ago, I have spent a lot of time fending off the “a Bar Mitzvah has to include such-and-such” statements. With each of my children, I have tried to help them craft a rite of passage best suited to their own place in their spiritual journey.
Technically, a child who reaches the age of 13 becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (“son or daughter of the commandment”), whether or not a ceremony occurs. Originally, reaching this age simply meant the child could now fully participate in Jewish rituals, such as fasting on Yom Kippur or counting as part of a minyan. In the Middle Ages, this milestone began to be recognized by calling the Bar Mitzvah boy up to the bimah for the first time, to say the blessings over the Torah reading, in what is known as an aliyah. More recently, the tradition of the first aliyah at age 13 evolved into chanting all of the Shabbat prayers, the entire Torah portion, and the accompanying haftorah. My son will lead prayers, and chant from the Torah.
I know only too well from personal experience that as interfaith children we are constantly called on to defend our Jewish identities, and that saying I “had a Bar Mitzvah” helps to deflect these inquiries. In creating these ceremonies for our children, we arm them with a positive retort when questioned on this subject. This does not diminish the fact that the actual day of celebration for my daughter was truly a spiritual experience for her, for her parents, and for many of the Jews and Christians who shared it with us. And I know that it will be just as meaningful for my son, in the spring.