Reading this week’s cover story about new trends on the bar/bat mitzvah scene got me reminiscing about my own coming-of-age affair, which – I was shocked to discover when I did the math – took place 25 years ago this month. Honestly, I can’t say I remember much about my bar mitzvah weekend. There was a Friday night dinner at our house and Shabbat lunch at the shul (where I gave a speech, not a word of which I wrote or can recall). A fleet of relatives came from out of town, including, most notably, distant cousins who lived on a moshav near Haifa, Israel.
I can picture the tuxedo-themed place cards, the tie I wore, asking my parents to buy personalized bentschers to give out to guests and them generously agreeing, and not much else. But if it all seems like a blur now, I think it felt the same way then. The details weren’t important to me. Nothing was important, other than getting the layning right. Not just right – perfect.
My bar mitzvah parashah was Korach, though due to a slight miscalculation, I began by studying the previous reading, Shlach (thankfully, the error was quickly discovered). There was, however, never any question about who would be my bar mitzvah teacher. My father was a respected ba’al koreh – he is to this day – noted for his attention to detail, a tendency toward the theatrical, and deliberate pacing (which, to be fair, does not always sit well with his audience). I’d watched him teach other bar mitzvah kids, nurturing the talented and not-so-talented students alike, challenging each of them to put on the performance of their life.
We must have started my lessons a good 10 months before the big day and, from then on, we studied just about every morning. My father would drive me to school and I’d spend the trip practising trope, the musical language of the Torah. This seemed to me a winning arrangement at the outset, as it meant I didn’t have to ride the bus. But as the year wore on, my perspective changed – not that I disliked learning to layn, but the process was wearing. I doubt even my father would deny this.
In the end, though, I think we both got the result we wanted. By the time I stepped up to the bimah that Shabbat morning a quarter-century ago (and then further up onto a stool to raise my eyeline above the lip of the wooden table on which the Torah lay), I was completely ready. I remember my knees shaking during the first aliyah, and that, when it was over, I turned to the gabbai and said something along the lines of “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” After that, my grandfather came up for the Levi portion and it was smooth sailing.
Sitting next to my father in the pew moments before ascending the stage, I leaned over and said I didn’t need him to stand next to me during the layning. He had brought me to that point, taught me everything I needed to succeed. Now it was time to face the music.