Focus on Family the Contemporary Bar Mitzvah: Or, No You Can’t Wear a Red Zoot Suit by Jane Ulman

“No, Jeremy, you cannot wear ‘liberty spikes’ to your Bar Mitzvah party,” I say, referring to the hairstyle that transforms my son’s head into the Statue of Liberty’s crown.

“Mom, you don’t understand,” he says. “Even when I’m 50, I’ll be spiking my hair.”

“OK,” he counters, “what if instead of liberty spikes, I wear a red zoot suit?”

Most people think the Bar Mitzvah is a religious ceremony in which the 13-year-old assumes adult responsibilities according to Jewish law and tradition.

It is.

But it is also a negotiation over liberty spikes and red zoot suits, an opportunity to push the limits and push one’s parents’ buttons, a struggle from dependence to increasing independence.

In short, it is a rite of passage, a term coined by the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in 1909 to mark the tumultuous and crucial transition from childhood to adulthood. A transition which, according to van Gennep, encompasses a separation from society, a transformation and a return to society in a new role.

Clearly, as most parents today would attest, any 13-year-old worth his extra-hold gel should be separated from society. At least until he turns 20.

But instead of banishing our 13-year-old to boot camp or, even better, the Bermuda Triangle, we Jews induct him into the community with a ritual that is significant and transformative. We confer on him full adult responsibilities as a member of the tribe and shower him with love, acceptance and checks in multiples of $18.

Because, as Judah ben Tema, a second-century rabbi, tells us, “At thirteen, one is ready for mitzvot.”

And because, since the 16th century, rabbis have been calling 13-year-old boys to the bimah to read Torah.

This spring, interestingly, all of my sons are engaged in some rite of passage, propelling them closer to manhood and sending the testosterone levels in our home soaring.

Danny, 11, is moving from elementary school to middle school, where he will have his own locker and schedule of classes. Gabe, 15, recently received his driving permit, the first step on the road to mobility. And Zack, 18, is graduating high school, leaving for college in Massachusetts in a few months.

But none of these events, including the high school graduation, is as meaningful and as substantial as the Bar Mitzvah. For Jeremy is not only moving into the future, he is also affirming his solid footing in the past, in a heritage thousands of years old that provides him with values, morals and a structure for dealing with life’s questions and confusion.

Take his drasha, or commentary on the Torah, for instance, which he will present to the congregation.

In this portion, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, murders an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who have been behaving immorally. In return, God awards Pinchas and all his descendants with permanent priesthood in Israel.

“That’s not right,” Jeremy says. “In the Torah, God tells us not to commit murder.”

Also in this portion, God tells Moses to climb the mountains of Avarim to see the land that has been given to the Israelites. As punishment, Moses is to prepare to die there and not enter the Promised Land.

“That’s also not right,” Jeremy says. “All Moses did was hit the rock instead of talking to it. He was getting water for the Israelites.”

“How come God rewards a murder and punishes a misdemeanor?” Jeremy asks. “What kind of God is this?”

As a 13-year-old, Jeremy wrestles with right and wrong, with justice and injustice, with good and evil, on a daily basis. In the world, he sees terrorists murder innocent victims. At school, he feels unfairly blamed for the actions and outbursts of his classmates. And at home, he is not allowed to wear liberty spikes or a red zoot suit to his Bar Mitzvah party.

“Life’s not fair,” he complains, repeating the mantra of every teen-ager.

But he says this with the increasing awareness of an adult.

Because, as the cantor at the University Synagogue, Jay Frailich, says, “The most important part of the Bar Mitzvah is not the ceremony but the process.”

For Jeremy, this process began at his brit milah, or circumcision, where he was initiated into the covenant of Judaism and where my husband, Larry, and I promised to bring him to a life of gemilut chasadim, or good deeds; Torah; and chupah, the wedding canopy.

And it has continued through 11 years of Jewish preschool and day school, through celebrations of Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, through attendance at Jewish day camp, dances and b’nai mitzvah.

Yes, Jeremy can chant his Torah portion and his Haftarah like a pro. He can recite prayers such as the V’ahavta and the G’vurot. He can lead the entire morning service.

But even more important, Jeremy can face fundamental and difficult ethical issues that are not only embedded in the Torah but that also manifest themselves in “real life.” He can determine what kind of human being he wants to be in this seemingly unfair world.

Ideally, Jeremy knows not to wear liberty spikes and red zoot suits, not to tattoo his body or join a cult. Ideally, he has the courage and confidence and tools to act on his convictions.

But, of course, and not always ideally, Jeremy is still only 13.

“Mom,” he says, “do you think I could spike just the front of my hair? And maybe wear a navy blue zoot suit?”

Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.

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