Liam Avolio: Reflections From My Bar Mitzvah
The day had finally come. I suppose I knew that it was happening, but it always seemed so far away. But years became months, and months became weeks, and weeks became days. And now, here I was, catching up with family, outside the temple where my Bar Mitzvah service would occur in a few short minutes. As I stood outside on the patio, the cold April wind blowing onto my face, I thought to myself about how I had got here.
I’d been preparing for this day for four years. Four. It’s honestly still unbelievable how much time I put into preparing for a mere two hours. I would say that I was confident in what I had learned, but I was still nervous. Even though, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only a few dozen people there in person, it was still nerve wracking knowing that I would be speaking in front of them in just a few minutes. I walked around, talking to family members, but I wasn’t fully thinking about the conversations. I was busy mulling over in my mind, had I prepared this, was I confident in that? After more than a few cookie cutter conversations of “how are you, I haven’t seen you in forever, you’ve gotten so big,” we sat down for the service.
There are three main parts that I had to prepare for this event. The first is the easiest, because I had been practicing it for the longest. You lead a large portion of the service, which mostly involves singing in Hebrew along with the congregation. It’s the least personal section, because everyone does it, and there isn’t an opportunity to add your own touch to it.
As the service started, the rabbi sang a few songs which I got to participate in, but not lead. And then, the rabbi called me to the Bima to recite the first prayer. I began to sing, יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא (Yitgadal, v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah). I sort of melted into the flow. I’d done this a thousand times and this wasn’t any different. I continued reading, focusing on the text on the page, the group of faces looking at me, the words I was saying, and the next section of the service.
The second section of the service is all about learning, and sharing what you have learned with the group of people in front of you. On a Bar-mitzvah, the teen is called up to chant that week’s portion of the Torah. I had been practicing my portion for over a year, and I felt fairly confident in what I had prepared. Even still, there were doubts in the back of my mind – Did I practice this part enough, is that word pronounced Hi or Hu? (Vowels aren’t included in the Torah, so I had to not only read Hebrew, but remember certain parts.)
The easy part was done. I sat back down with my parents, happy with how I had done singing the prayers. They smiled at me, whispered, “Amazing job, Liam.” I smiled back absentmindedly, but in my head, I was thinking about how I would chant from the ancient book of the Jewish people, the Torah, in just a few short minutes. First, my aunt and uncle were called up to open the ark and lift the Torah onto the table. My brother and sister walked up afterward, and removed the fancy silver decorations from the scroll. Now, it was finally time for me to chant. I walked up to the Bima, and stood in front of the actual Torah scroll for the first time. The handwritten, stylized letters contrasted sharply with the page I had been practicing from. I had prepared a short summary of my portion in English, which I read aloud to the small crowd of people. Afterwards, someone began to sing the blessing before the Torah reading. It was like a timer, counting down until I was going to begin. She finished the blessing, “נותן התורה,” and I started chanting from the Torah. It was strangely relaxing. Even though this was difficult, I had practiced so much, I didn’t even have to focus. The words just came off the page and into the air. It was amazing being able to finally use what I had been learning for so long.
It was done so quickly. It’s amazing how much had built up to those few moments. I honestly don’t really have a vivid memory of what happened while I was chanting. I feel like it sort of started, and then ended the second after. I don’t want to say it was… disappointing, but it just didn’t feel like what I had been preparing for so long was over. The third section of a Bar Mitzvah service is the D’var Torah, which literally means, “A Word of Torah.” It’s when I shared what I learned from my Torah portion, the parts I agreed with, the parts I disagreed with, the questions I had, and how my portion relates to the Bar Mitzvah experience as a whole. I had a lot of ups and downs when writing mine. I really enjoyed studying what the rabbis had said, why they thought that thing x happened to character y. However, a really hard part of this for me was writing about my connections to my personal experience. My portion had a lot to do with how to make sacrifices to G-d. However, that hasn’t been a part of Judaism since around 70 CE, when the second temple was destroyed. It was a difficult subject to relate to modern life, because on the outside it looked as if it had nothing to do with today’s world. I was a bit worried about my D’var. I hadn’t had a lot of time to practice reading what I had written, and I wasn’t confident that I had made something that people would find worth listening to. Nonetheless, I started reading. As I continued, I felt more and more like I had done a good job. I was wrapped up in what I had written, even though I had written in just in the last few weeks. As I finished reading, I shared my questions with the people at the service. I listened to their thoughts on the portion, which were interesting, and often completely different from my own. As the last person finished their thoughts, the main portion of my Bar Mitzvah service was over.
“Bar Mitzvah.” What a strange sounding phrase. A lot of people know it refers to the coming of age ceremony celebrated by Jewish boys when they turn 13 and become “adults” in the eyes of the community. However, it literally refers to not the service, but the person. Any Jewish person becomes a Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah when they turn 13. And I think that this explains the thoughts I had earlier. My Bar Mitzvah service felt anti-climactic because it’s not supposed to be climactic. It’s not the end of a journey. All the practicing, learning, studying I had been doing, they were partly for my Bar Mitzvah service, but they were partly for my life as a Bar Mitzvah. I was preparing, not for a mere two hours, but for the rest of my life as a member of the Jewish community.