Bar mitzvah boy puts Mel Brooks on the bimah

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Signs that the bar mitzvah you're attending is not your average coming-of-age ceremony:

*A kid named Lucky with shoulder-length maroon hair, a friend of the bar mitzvah boy, reads a few lines about adolescence being the pathway to adulthood.

*The typed program features a picture of the bar mitzvah boy behind the wheel of a pickup truck, with the words "JUST BAR MITZVAHED" spray-painted on the tailgate.

*After the service and before the DJ, the bar mitzvah leads his more musically inclined guests in a jam session.

*Rather than focusing on the Torah portion, the bar mitzvah boy delivers a speech about Mel Brooks.

*There is no Torah portion. Or a Torah, for that matter.

That is what took place last Friday night, as Ariel Andres Rodrigues-Bluer, the son of Claudio Bluer, originally from Argentina, and Nina Rodrigues, originally from Brazil, became a bar mitzvah. Ariel, 14, of Oakland, and his mother had made a family tree that was in the back of the room, showing relatives living in South America, Israel and beyond.

Since this particular bar mitzvah took place at the Humanist congregation of Kol Hadash, there was no mention of God, and Ariel did not read from the Torah.

Humanistic Judaism was founded in Detroit 39 years ago, and is based on Judaism as a culture without the religious aspects.

All that was explained in the program handed out at the beginning of the service in the Albany Community Center: "We accept the Torah as important Jewish literature. But we reject the validity of its worldview and the binding character of its laws."

Lucia Brandon, the madricha, or counselor, who trained Ariel, explained that b'nai mitzvah at Kol Hadash can read from the Torah if they want to.

"We do not require the children to do the Torah parashah [portion of the week], and we also don't require them to know Hebrew," she said. "If they want to know it, it's fine; they can take lessons."

Ariel's decision not to read a parashah met approval with some of his friends; no doubt regulars on the b'nai mitzvah circuit, they approached him afterward to say they'd enjoyed the ceremony. Commented one: "It's so great to hear a language I can understand."

Ariel's only requirement was to pick a hero who embodies Jewish values (though the person did not have to be Jewish), then research that person and deliver a speech about him or her. Ariel chose funnyman Brooks, saying that his favorite part of the research was renting Brooks' movies. Brooks may not have developed the atomic bomb or founded psychoanalysis, but he "brought laughter, joy and hope to a lot of people," said Ariel, discussing why he chose him.

Ariel quoted a young Brooks as he stood on the diving board at a Catskill resort where he worked as a teenager. "'Oy! Business is terrible! I can't go on!'

"That sounds like something I would do," said Ariel.

In its 15 years of existence, the Albany-based Humanist community has celebrated a handful of b'nai mitzvah. But this was the first to be celebrated by the entire community, and the first such ceremony of someone who grew up going to Kol Hadash services. Ariel starting attending with his parents when he was 7.

Its nontheistic approach appeals to him because "I think when you stay away from the idea of God, and an external conflict or force, it's more about finding yourself." Therefore, to Ariel, his bar mitzvah was not about entering into a covenant with God, but "basically finding someone I could relate with, which helps me see what I really think of myself."

In her congratulatory speech, Brandon said, "Ariel would be dragged to Shabbat but never complained. He was our youngest participating member."

More than 100 people were in attendance — including Ariel's paternal grandmother, who flew in from Buenos Aires — as he led the 45-minute service.

With braces on his teeth and a buzz haircut, Ariel led the Humanist Sh'ma, which was printed on the program: "Hear o Israel, Our people are one, humanity is one." He talked about what being Jewish means to him: "Using the values I've been taught, tikkun olam."

He thanked his family, especially for his saxophone, guitar and CD collection, "which all made me who I am today."

In a post-bar mitzvah discussion on Monday, Ariel said he was grateful for the opportunity to show his friends what Humanistic Judaism is all about.

Being Jewish gives him a sense of belonging, he explained, and an opportunity to meet others with similar values.

"It was a good feeling to talk about this really cool guy," he said of Brooks, "and how his values relate to Humanistic ones."

Bernie Rosen, a Berkeley resident and member of Kol Hadash, thought the bar mitzvah had gone over well. "His adolescent humor really came through. No one was offended, and there was enough seriousness to make it appropriately reflective for Shabbat."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."