Coming-of-age ceremony can take many forms

The precepts of many Jewish traditions are a valuable guide for healthy and thoughtful living, regardless of the religion we are born into.

Let’s take a look at the bar mitzvah.

If we posit for a moment that most of the crime and gang-related activity that takes place is perpetrated by young men between the ages of 15 and 25, we can conclude that there is a tremendous surge of male energy as young men enter their teenage years. These young men are not taught discipline and are not taught that thinking is a reasonable option when confronted by raging hormones. These qualities, among others, are taught to Jewish youth in our community.

We teach that when a boy turns 13 he becomes responsible for his behavior. We present our sons to our community with a ceremony that teaches the need to think before they act. By a rigorous course of study the bar mitzvah bocher learns the value of taking on a difficult and profound task that is challenging and ultimately uplifting. We give our sons (and daughters) a sense of identity and a power other than that of raging hormones.

I am a music teacher, composer and author. A few years back the Jewish mother of one of my students came to me and told me that although she very much wanted her son to be a bar mitzvah, his father is not Jewish and the son was resisting the training. She wanted somehow to still have a coming-of-age ceremony that was imbued with the Jewish ideal of thoughtfulness, rigorous study, spirituality and the acknowledgement of youth growing toward adulthood with consciousness.

Together we devised a program of study that was to last one full year. First of all, the youth was to choose an activity that would benefit his community. He decided to tutor younger children in math. Secondly, I devised a difficult musical program that he was to learn. As a harpsichord as well as piano student of mine, he learned a piece by Scarlatti on the harpsichord and he learned Beethoven and Mozart on the piano. Throughout the year we had meetings, separately from his piano lessons, where we discussed what he was learning.

He kept a journal about his tutoring experience so he could reflect on what he learned from those he was teaching and what he learned about himself as a teacher. He did an in-depth study requiring research on historically informed performance about the keyboard pieces he was playing, and about the instruments he was playing them on. He wrote a marvelous and witty speech and actually gave a drosh about his experiences as a tutor and his experience as a musician. He spoke with knowledge and depth about the instruments and the composers he was going to perform.

This was the order of the “service.” His parents spoke first. Then there were various others who had known him throughout his life. Then the student got up and gave his speech, interspersing it with performed pieces on the two keyboards. Afterwards there was party, etc.

What did he learn from this? He learned the very important precepts that Judaism has to offer young men. He learned discipline. He learned how to be thoughtful and to construct an interpretation of his world for others. He learned that people were willing to take him seriously and treat him accordingly. He learned the value of giving back to his community by doing community service (the mitzvah in bar mitzvah). Although there was no overt mention of God per se, the entire ceremony and presentation was a Judaic and profound coming-of-age ceremony that enriched his life and that of his family.

I fully believe that all children can benefit from a coming-of-age ceremony in order to better understand themselves in the world and in order to learn to harness their power in the service of good.

Sheli Nan is a published composer, author and music teacher residing in the Bay Area:

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