Fiery Israeli bnai mitzvah puts a new spin on tradition

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I worried about a lot of things before I left on my first trip to Israel. I worried about drinking the water, about jet lag, terrorist attacks and toilet paper. But one thing I never doubted: the universality of Jewish rituals. I'd been to bar and bat mitzvah services in Oakland and in Syracuse, Nashville and Cleveland, and they were all basically the same. I expected the same from Israel.

My first introduction to life-cycle rituals, Israeli-style, was at Kibbutz Na'an, where our tour group had been invited to attend the b'nai mitzvah of the seventh-grade class. I looked forward to being with kibbutz members; I knew we'd find a common language in the V'ahaftah, Avot and Sh'ma.

We arrived on a Tuesday. The kibbutz looked like a 13-year-old's dream: an acre of dinner tables, 3,000 guests and hundreds of children. The crowd was larger than any I'd seen at a b'nai mitzvah, but with a kibbutz population of 1,500, it was understandable.

Over dinner, a kibbutz resident explained that the evening's ceremony culminated a full year of study for the seventh-grade class. The youngsters studied their family histories, themselves, the kibbutz, the land and the state of Israel. They traveled together, wrote family histories and honed their athletic skills.

After dinner, we followed the throng to a lawn the size of a football field on which chairs had been arranged in front of a stage. On the stage was what looked like a set from "American Gladiator": Ropes stretched between two 25-foot scaffolds, netting was positioned on one side. In the background was a 6-foot Star of David and other oversized decorations.

There was no bimah, ark or Torah anywhere in sight.

The ceremony began with music, song and a dance performance. Then the b'nai mitzvah class was called.

The decorations were ignited. The burning Magen David conjured up all kinds of unpleasant images, none of which were consistent with a joyous life-cycle celebration.

Against this flaming backdrop, the 25 b'nai mitzvah mounted the equipment and began performing gymnastics, sliding down ropes, climbing an 8-foot wall and jumping into the net.

After all the youngsters had exhibited their prowess at each station, a door frame was placed center stage and set afire. Each b'nai mitzvah's name was called and as he or she ran through the flaming portal, a brief video of the child was shown on a gigantic screen.

The ceremony concluded with a fireworks display.

There were no Torah readings, prayers, tallitot or even a rabbi. For the b'nai mitzvah students, their families and guests, attire was casual — blue jeans and T-shirts. Our group, in wrinkled travel apparel, comprised some of the better-dressed attendees.

A week later, we were at the Western Wall, where several bar mitzvahs were taking place simultaneously.

Clusters of men wearing earlocks, tallitot, yarmulkes, long frock coats and black-brimmed hats surrounded the boys as they read from one of the Torahs that had been wheeled in on carts for the occasion. Other boys, perched on adults' shoulders, were paraded around with a stream of men in tow. Torahs were raised overhead and prayers were recited. Videocameras recorded the event. The youngsters were wearing suits, prayer shawls, tefillin and new Reeboks.

Their female relatives were easy to spot. Wearing new suits, hats and wigs and standing on chairs, they were the ones peering over the 6-foot barrier that prohibited them from entering the men's section of the Wall.

I felt very much at home in Israel — comfortable, like I belonged. I suffered no ill effects from the water, never feared for my personal safety and even found the toilet paper acceptable.

It was just the Israeli practice of Judaism that left me feeling like a stranger in a strange land.