Celebrations | Times certainly have changed since my bar mitzvah

rabbi david cooper

A lot has changed in the 50 years since I became a bar mitzvah on May 30, 1964, a few days after I turned 13 on the Jewish calendar. The anniversary has spurred my thinking about the many changes of the last half-century, especially as they are reflected in the ways we celebrate this coming-of-age rite in our evolving tradition.

Only one of the girls from my class at Hebrew day school who attended that service had a shul celebration marking her coming of age. My older sister hadn’t had one. In fact, the very first bat mitzvah celebration I know of was only 42 years before the date of my service. In the 1960s, most Jewish girls were still not celebrating such a service.

But today, in most non-Orthodox synagogues young women are celebrating every bit as much as young men. I would not have predicted that. Nor would I have predicted that today so many of the officiants of these services would be female rabbis.

Changing expectations

Even among boys, the ceremony has evolved in the last five decades. For example, what does the celebrant usually chant? In Conservative and Orthodox circles, the boys were expected to chant at least a small segment of Torah and the full haftarah, a reading from the rest of the Hebrew Bible that was associated with that morning’s Torah portion. After all, it was easier to learn how to sing the haftarah, which was chanted from a book with vowels and the musical trope printed right on the page, as opposed to the Torah parchment, which lacked these aids. But it seems that today more youth have come to chant from the Torah scroll than from the haftarah.

In Conservative circles if girls chanted anything at all, it was haftarah or a segment of it, and usually not at the Saturday morning service. Also, girls who engaged in this rite did so at age 12, not 13.

Back then, most of my local Reform synagogues had neither bar nor bat mitzvahs, but rather an annual confirmation of the whole class on Shavuot.

My bar mitzvah

Having grown up in a mixed Orthodox, Conservative and secular family, I had an Orthodox service. My father, who had passed away a few years earlier, was a lay rabbi and cantor, and I was expected to carry some of his legacy. So it was understood that I was to chant most of the full Torah parashah, as well as the haftarah. I was also expected to be the cantor of the service — which was rather easy, since I knew Hebrew and had been attending Orthodox and Conservative services for as long as I could remember.

I enjoyed the year-and-a-half of prep that I did, mostly to learn the Torah and haftarah, with my adult cousin, Isaac, who served as my teacher. Delving into every prayer in the Orthodox Shabbat service became the basis for my appreciation of the liturgy and it was the first poetry that I memorized. It has stayed with me all these years and lies behind all of the liturgical writing I’ve done, especially at Kehilla.

From set to customized service

Four years after I became a bar mitzvah, Arthur Waskow wrote the Freedom Seder, which was printed in Ramparts magazine, of which I was an avid reader. Seeing a social-action haggadah printed in a radical journal signaled to me that I could interweave my Jewish interests and my political activity.

It also told me that I could use my familiarity with the liturgy to create customized services to meet the real spiritual needs of the moment. An early example of this was in the mid-‘70s when, on a mimeograph machine, I rolled out a prayer booklet for my student’s socialist bar mitzvah service.

It turned out that many other people were also using mimeo machines — and then photocopiers and laptops — to create new prayer service books.

Today, in many Jewish spiritual communities and at b’nai mitzvah services, we find a wide variety of variations on the prayers, reflecting the spiritual sensitivities of people in the 21st century. I would not have expected that in 1964, when the only choice we had was which mass-printed siddur to use. During the last 50 years, the Reform movement has de-emphasized confirmation, and more and more synagogues adapted b’nai mitzvah.

In 1964 there was no concept of an Orthodox bat mitzvah service. Admittedly, it is still uncommon, but the pressure to mark a girl’s coming of age has reached into the Orthodox community, where some have experimented with different rituals to reflect the young woman’s coming into her responsibility for mitzvot.

To some extent, this reflects the changes in the education of Orthodox women, some of whom have attained as high or higher level of text mastery as ordained Orthodox men. Some of these women serve as advisers to Jewish law tribunals. And at the Jewish Institute of Riverdale and the Academy of Jewish Religion in Manhattan, a few such women have been ordained as rabba or maharat, a near equivalent to rabbi.

30 years at Kehilla

Kehilla, too, has evolved. From the get-go we treated boys and girls the same. Founding rabbi Burt Jacobson had already departed from the common practice of the time and dispensed with didactic teaching of a full class. Instead, he instituted a system of one teacher with just two students, to work creatively on exploring their spiritualities.

In the early days, we had no building, no sanctuary of our own. We rented space for Saturday morning services, mostly for when we were celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah — less than 10 times a year. Different families rented different locations. There were no havurahs; each family was on its own. Like a wedding, almost all the attendees were invited guests, with few Kehilla congregants, other than close friends, in attendance. Each family produced its own full prayerbook.

A few of those services were led by Rabbi Jacobson or by me, a lay leader, but most of the services were led by the teacher. And the music varied according to whomever was the song leader (sometimes someone unfamiliar with Kehilla). Frankly, the services were nowhere near as participatory as they are today.

Today, our program has each bar/bat mitzvah family within supportive havurahs. The class and their families have many creative opportunities to interact before any of the services begin. We do it in our own building, with our own prayerbook. Even so, each service is different, and each one is an affair to engage both invited guests and the entire congregation.

Rabbi David Cooper
Rabbi David J. Cooper

Rabbi David J. Cooper is emeritus rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, which has an ally relationship with the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair. He has been to Israel and the territories many times from 1967 to the present.