Hold the hip-hop &mdash No balloons, no dancing girls, just a call to the Torah

My son, age 11 at the time, looked up at me with an expression shot through with pain and suffering. “Why, Dad,” he pleaded, “why do I have to go back to Sunday school? I hate it so much.”

Mustering my best Ward Cleaver-“Father Knows Best” impression, I said something like, “Aaron, it’s important you learn about your heritage and that you prepare for your bar mitzvah.”

That only led to more probing interrogatives: why, why, why? None of it made sense or mattered to him; the Hebrew was gibberish, the Torah lessons irrelevant to his life.

How could I make him see the value of Hebrew school? Moreover, who was I to lecture him? I was raised in a devoutly secular household, and my own Jewish education at his age consisted of little more than knowing the difference between kugel and kreplach.

As an adult, I had made strides, cobbling together a wobbly smattering of Jewish history, theology and culture, all filtered though the clouded lens of a California baby boomer.

My argument of last resort to him was: “Son, you need to see this bar mitzvah experience through to the end. Life is about follow-through.”

But the hollowness of my words struck me. How could I ask my son to undertake this challenge when I had never bothered to do so myself?

There seemed to be only one thing to do. If I were to insist on my son becoming a bar mitzvah, I could ask no less of myself. So I signed up for my synagogue’s adult b’nai mitzvah class.

Not that I had much desire initially. Having been for some months on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit with Aaron’s friends, I’d had enough of noisy DJs spinning “YMCA,” and joining other hippo-hipped grown-ups jiggling the Macarena.

I’d had enough of the pasta salads and tortilla wraps, the oversized centerpieces, the wacky baseball or Barbie “themes,” turning the sacred rite into an MTV concert special. I perceived as well as anyone the over-commercialized travesty the modern bar mitzvah had become.

So, with my own adult bar mitzvah, I intended to model something different for my son: a little Judaic self-respect. No balloons, no dancing girls. Just a simple call to the Torah.

True, I embarked on the bar mitzvah process not for myself, but rather as an object lesson for my son. Still, I wouldn’t let that deter me.

And here’s the good part. Learning the trope for my Torah portion, writing a speech, conferring with the rabbi, I found there was something in this for me.

It wasn’t about becoming a man, as the cliché would have it. It was about honoring a connection to a communal Jewish past and taking my place on a continuum that spanned centuries.

By the time of the ceremony, I had done a 180. I was no longer doing this for Aaron; I was doing it strictly for myself.

When I stood before the Torah in the sanctuary that night, the Hebrew letters seemed ablaze. The sound of my own chanting voice resonated deep inside me.

From the bimah, I looked up to find Aaron in the back row, fidgeting. Perhaps none of this impacted him.

Two years later, he did go on to become a bar mitzvah. He performed well, had the de rigueur bar mitzvah blow-out (tortilla wraps, dancing girls). And that, as far as I know, was the last time my now 20-year-old son set foot in a synagogue.

But I’m not concerned.

Perhaps I planted a seed when Aaron saw me up on the bimah that night, a seed that may sprout someday. There’s no way to know yet, but I hope he will reconnect with Judaism, maybe when he has children of his own, as I did.

Whether he does or not, my own experience taught me that as public a demonstration as the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is, the internal component was the most important part. Becoming bar mitzvah is an exercise in emotional maturation, challenging at any age.

It’s been a few years now. My Hebrew’s gotten rusty and I don’t belong to that synagogue anymore. My son lives in L.A., and I doubt he thinks much about his bar mitzvah.

But I still think about mine. I think about that moment on the bimah when I noticed my boy sitting at the back of the sanctuary; how I then quickly looked away from him to read the lines and chant the melodies I had by then committed to memory.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.