At the end of the movie Big, Tom Hanks’ character reverts back to the body of a very young teenager still wearing all the oversized trappings of adulthood; he becomes a small, freckle-faced, tousled-hair kid peeking out the top of an oversized business suit, pant legs bagging on top of large, unlaced dress shoes, tie hanging past his knees, hands hidden in the sleeves of his button-down shirt. Most 13-year-old boys, when forced into formal attire, present a less dramatic image of this scene but still tend to look every bit as uncomfortable in the confines of an adult world and wardrobe.
In the Jewish religion, this is the exact age at which a boy stands before his fellow congregants and recites, in a child’s voice with an occasional crack in timbre, the ancient Hebraic prayers of his forefathers. When he finishes, the others shake his young hand and proclaim, “Today you are a man!”
Of course, no one really thinks that this youngster is ready to move out, get a job, get married, and become a full-fledged adult. But the religious ceremony that is associated with reaching this milestone, bar mitzvah for a 13-year-old boy or bat mitzvah for a 12- or 13-year-old girl, is a significant step in the journey to adulthood. And while those terms are universally recognized, they are frequently used incorrectly, even by those of the Jewish faith.
“People say ‘I was bar or bat mitzvahed’ like it is a verb,” says Rabbi Sabine Meyer, the spiritual leader for Tree of Life Congregation, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Columbia. “But it is not a verb. You become bat mitzvah if you are a girl or you become bar mitzvah if you are a boy. You automatically become a child of the commandments at the age of 13, whether there is a ceremony or not.”
Once a boy or girl has reached this marker, he or she becomes a full member of their religious community and is able to fully participate in every aspect of Jewish life, including being counted as part of a minyan, the group of 10 adult Jews who are required for the recitation of certain prayers.
“It’s like having a birthday,” says Rabbi Meyer. “You turn a year older whether your parents throw you a party or not.”
The ceremony of bar and bat mitzvah, the plural of which is b’nai mitzvah, takes years of religious training and many months spent intensively studying prayers and the Torah — the Five Books of Moses that comprise the very beginning of the Bible — in preparation to stand before a room filled with family, friends, and members of the congregation, while chanting ancient prayers, reading from the sacred Torah scrolls, and reciting passages from the Prophets, all in Hebrew and frequently without the benefit of vowels to help in pronunciation.
So why do Jewish 13-year-olds take on this challenge if they are just going to become a bar or bat mitzvah anyway, simply by virtue of their age?
Rabbi Johnathon Case, leader of conservative synagogue Beth Shalom in Columbia, explains that the level of commitment and the bravery required to stand before a group and chant in a language that goes back thousands of years, participating in a tradition that has gone on unbroken since before Talmudic times, is more than a coming of age ritual; it is a proving of self-worth.
“It is a remarkable rite of passage,” he says. “Once they have passed this bar, they feel themselves better equipped to tackle the more mature things that are coming at them down the road. It’s a wonderful life cycle that just continues on and on through the generations and helps them grow intellectually and spiritually for the balance of their lives, in which we are a small but significant cog.”
He tells his students that the journey and the culminating ceremony is all about the challenge, and that no matter one’s religion, everyone needs to face challenges and surmount them, ultimately showing what they are made of, to themselves, to their friends and family, and to God.
“If you don’t have a testing ground to prove to yourself that you are worthy, if you don’t have a ‘hero’s story,’” he says, “then you will have to invent that tale for yourself or have somebody invent it for you.”
Kacy Kraemer, an eighth grader at Hammond School, made her own hero’s tale when she performed her bat mitzvah ceremony at Beth Shalom this year, with Rabbi Case by her side and friends and family, including parents Carly and Todd Kraemer and younger brother Alex, in attendance. Both Carly and Todd agreed that the challenge and tradition of the ceremony was an important rite of passage for Kacy.
“I wanted Kacy to feel comfortable and confident with who she is,” says Carly. “It’s important to instill faith in her world because now it’s up to her to make decisions and create her own path not only religiously but in life. Todd and I wanted to make sure we did everything we could to create a solid foundation for that.”
Although they belong to a different synagogue, Heather and Todd Weiss share a similar philosophy for their children. Their daughter, Kate, had her bat mitzvah ceremony two years ago at Tree of Life Congregation, and their son, Sam, recently performed his rite of passage there as well with Rabbi Meyer right beside him on the bima — a podium from which the prayers are read.
“It feels like we are checking off those boxes of what’s important to us as parents,” says Heather. “It’s passing that tradition on to our children. For both of ours to actually stand up on the bima and chant from the Torah, and to do it so beautifully, felt like a big step in doing our job as Jewish parents.”
After having completed his bar mitzvah ceremony, Sam, an eighth grader at Midlands Arts Conservatory, now feels ready to take on the responsibilities of being a bar mitzvah.
“It is definitely a little bit different now,” he says, “because now I know that I can go and lead a service. It’s like getting that pass that lets you go into the deep end whenever you want.”
Before they can jump off that deep-end diving board, however, b’nai mitzvah hopefuls have an enormous amount of Biblical study to accomplish. It takes time, commitment, and a good deal of social life sacrifice.
Rabbi Meyer knows it takes several years of religious school attendance plus an additional nine to 12 months of dedicated study with a rabbi or cantor to understand a specific Torah portion and read a passage from it in Hebrew. “When you think of how overscheduled these kids are,” she says, “and here they are making a very public statement. ‘No, I cannot come to soccer practice because I need to go practice with the rabbi.’ There’s no hiding that because they devote so much time to it.”
Carly watched Kacy give up many other activities in preparation for her big day. “Who wants to study and practice Hebrew when you’ve got 20 million other things you want to be doing when you are 12 or 13 years old?” says Carly. “There were lots of things socially that she couldn’t always do, especially in that year leading up to the ceremony.”
The date for b’nai mitzvah ceremonies is usually selected 12 months or so prior to the event, and while it does not have to coincide with the child’s birthday, once the date is selected and study has begun, the Saturday morning on which the event will take place is not flexible. Portions of the Torah are irrefutably tied to specific dates on the Jewish calendar, and any change of schedule would result in the child being presented with a completely different Torah portion.
With this lack of wiggle room in mind, b’nai mitzvah dates are chosen with extreme care, taking into account the health and age of family members who might be traveling to the ceremony, school, and other life events, and yes, even football.
“Kacy’s birthday is Sept. 10, and there was no way we could do it then,” says Carly. “If you are in South Carolina, you are either a Clemson or Gamecocks fan, and just about everyone goes to every game. If we had had the ceremony in the fall, no one would have come!”
While certain prayers and rituals are common to most services, the b’nai mitzvah ceremony can vary from synagogue to synagogue and even from child to child. “No bar or bat mitzvah is a template for another one,” says Rabbi Case. “Each one is highly individualistic.”
It usually begins with the child’s inaugural call to the bima, shadowed by his or her parents who drape their child with a tallit, the traditional prayer shawl, as the new bar or bat mitzvah chants the blessing over this spiritual garment for the very first time.
“The parents kiss the child before leaving the bima, almost like you do when you take your child to college,” says Rabbi Case. “It’s a voyage that the child has to navigate on his or her own, but here the parents are there close by urging them to succeed.”
Once the tallit has been blessed and the parents have taken their seats, the bar or bat mitzvah honoree begins to lead the Saturday morning service, including a number of Sabbath prayers, a reading from the Torah, and a chant from the prophetic portion called the Haftarah, all recited in Hebrew. Mistakes are sometimes made, but help is always close at hand.
“I chant a little bit louder if they are having trouble with the Hebrew,” says Rabbi Meyer, “but a lot of times all it takes is a reassuring smile. I remind them that the community is also there to celebrate with them, to support them, and to love them.”
Toward the end of the service, the child gives a speech in English about the meaning of their Torah portion and what was learned during their intensive studies with their rabbi. Kacy’s speech stressed the importance of kindness and compassion, while Sam’s portion, focusing on the Ten Commandments, lent itself more to the topic of making mistakes, having consequences, and improving ourselves. The formal speeches are almost always followed by a sigh of relief since the hard part is over, and a more lighthearted address is made by the honoree to thank key players in their lives for helping them to this point in their religious journey.
The entire service can be as long as 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours in length, so it is a marathon not only of religious teachings and prayerful collaboration, but it is a testament to stamina as well. It is not, according to Rabbi Case, a cake walk.
“When the child gets up on the bima and performs in front of the congregation, including all of their friends and their relatives who have come from the four corners of the Earth to watch them, it can be tremendously intimidating,” he says. “And then they do it, they execute it, they come down, and they’re slapped on the back and congratulated and everyone is so proud. Wow! What a powerful moment that is! Life changing!”
And it can be life changing for those who are watching these young people go through this extended but extremely moving religious event as well.
“They are doing this in front of the community, and the community wants to celebrate with them,” says Rabbi Meyer. “What often happens when we watch this beautiful ritual, it affirms not only the kid’s Jewish identity but also reinforces the community’s Jewish identity.”
And it touches those who are not Jewish as well. Unlike in some larger cities where such celebrations are common, both Kacy and Sam are the only Jewish children in their classes, so it was a first for most of their friends who attended. For both the Kraemer and the Weiss families, the reaction from their non-Jewish friends was overwhelmingly positive.
“They may have heard about a bat mitzvah,” says Carly, “but they never had the opportunity to attend one. Everybody was so excited and appreciative. I got so many emails the next day, with friends writing jokingly, ‘My child came home and said, ‘I want to be Jewish!’”
At the conclusion of the ceremonies, Jews and non-Jews alike were ready to celebrate the momentous accomplishments achieved by both Kacy and Sam. Luncheons were served at their respective synagogues, and then everyone got a little rest before the big after-the-b’nai-mitzvah-bashes, which are traditionally held at another venue. The theme of these parties can be totally unrelated to the day’s ceremonial events and are usually selected by the now religiously mature honoree. Because Sam is very involved in theater, he requested a Broadway themed celebration.
“We made a theater playbill for the invitation,” says Heather. “His party was like a VIP opening night with a DJ, caterer, and photo booth. It was great.”
For Kacy’s theme, she picked her favorite TV show, Friends, to be the backdrop for her Saturday night party. The show’s coffee shop was recreated next to an exposed brick wall for a very New York feel, and the decorations were reflective of various beloved episodes, including a foosball table like the one characters Joey and Chandler had in their apartment. At some point in the evening, the song “Hava Naglia” was played, and Kacy was hoisted up on a chair to be bounced around above the heads of her friends.
“It was nerve wracking because one of my cousins was pushing on the back of the chair and I was afraid I was going to fall forward,” says Kacy, “but the whole night was just great, and I got so many texts from my friends — it was the best night ever and so much fun!”
After the DJs went home, the dance floors were swept, and the foosball table returned, Kacy and Sam were left to decide what was next in their journey through a life of Judaism. They have both decided to teach religious school, helping the next group of youngsters prepare for their own b’nai mitzvah celebrations and staying close and involved with the community that has gotten them to where they are now.
“Our job as a synagogue is to make sure they remember where they have come from so that they do not forget where they need to go,” says Rabbi Case. “Nobody gets through life unscathed, so it is vital for them to know we are going to be here next week and next decade. They can plug right back in any time they want, and we will be here ready to support them.”