A Bar Mitzvah: a great experience

I’m nearly 65 and yet had never been to a Bar Mitvah until yesterday. That deficiency seems to be common among British gentiles, but I’m very glad now that I have been to one. It was combined with the weekly Shabbat service and was a wonderful experience–profound, uplifting, and fun.

The boy did extraordinarily well, not only making a wise speech but also reading without making a mistake and chanting long sections of Hebrew. It must have been daunting to undertake and as a consequence given a great sense of achievement once completed. I wondered if we secular folk couldn’t come up with some similar ritual, but a ritual steeped in 3000 years of faith will inevitably have greater power and meaning. Yesterday’s boy could not have done better, but some boys and girls would surely not be capable of such a performance; I was relieved to learn that the ceremony is matched to the capability of the child.


I loved the mixing of the English and Hebrew as the Shabbat service zipped along at a great rate. The music was strong and moving and combined with the words with split-second timing. The choir was behind a screen, just as happened in Vivaldi’s Venice; and this reform synagogue had an organ, something that began in reform synagogues in Germany in the early 19th century and moved to Britain soon afterwards. There are no organs in orthodox synagogues.

Every Shabbat includes a prayer of healing for the sick and a prayer for the dead and then ends with all the children under 13 up at the front singing a bouncy song with the rabbis. “Always end with a song,” my comedian brother insists. The prayer for the sick included a reference to restoring “wholeness of the soul.” I liked that phrase: it seems to me to carry an idea richer and more mysterious than simply health. (I’ve tried to find a Jewish prayer that mentions “wholeness of the soul” but failed.) Jews do not believe in an afterlife, but the dead are with us in memories, words they may have left us, and in how we think and behave. I thought of Syd, may father, and was glad that I’d been prompted to think of him.

(I also thought of Rabbi Julia Neuberger giving a talk at the Southbank Festival of Death on how Jews are lousy at death but great at grieving. http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2012/02/01/richard-smith-death-festival-day-three/ She argued that they are lousy at death because they have to squeeze out every last piece of life, even beyond the point where life is a burden and death peace. Think of Ariel Sharon who spent some nine years in a deep coma (probably ”brain dead”) before he finally died.)

Jews set great store by learning, and the series of forthcoming talks at the synagogue, announced at the end of the service, included wise speakers and challenging subjects. The sermon reflected the love of learning and had more the feel of a well-constructed lecture than a chunk of preaching. The rabbi took the Torah text of Joseph being embalmed, showing that the Jews in Israel had adopted Egyptian ways and so assimilated or acculturated. She discussed the possibility that the Jews had never actually been in Egypt, something I felt would not happen in a less evidence-based sermon. In contrast the Jews had certainly been in Babylon and had not assimilated but had brought back the stories of the flood and the Tower of Babel. Her broader point was that those who had known being strangers, the Jews, should reflect on how much arrivals in a new country–Muslims, for example–should assimilate and how much stick to their own customs.

The service made clear the extent of community that the synagogue fostered. Not only were the talks and meetings but also those in the synagogue were asked to volunteer to ring old people if the snow continues and make arrangements to help those that they found needed help.

At the party afterwards before we ate we did the Horah, where all hundred or so of us joined hands and danced round the table to the sound of Klezmer music. As always, physical activity raised energy and excitement levels; and then the Bar Mitzvah boy was carried on a chair.

I ended the day understanding more how Jews had survived thousands of years without a homeland and been such a successful people.


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