Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher

Since, as the Chumash says, "Confession is good for the soul", let's begin with a confession. I am a Bar Mitzvah teacher. My avocation - my hobby - is the navigation of Jewish boys through the tangled web of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

In most families, a cash gift of a green, oblong paper with a picture of Benjamin Franklin works fine. But parents who are really lousy negotiators sometimes get stuck with a clause in the BAP (Bar Mitzvah Agreement Protocol) which results in a separate phone line for Mark or Ben: or a trust fund containing a red BMW when the child reaches driving age.

Usually, the first step by parents, after signing the contract drawn up by the child's legal representative, is the call to the Bar Mitzvah teacher.

Parent: "OK, we've signed the contract with Mark. Can you get over here by 7:15? He's in a great mood - we just gave him some money."

Starving Bar Mitzvah Teacher: "Uh, I planned to wash out some underwear and a few shirts. They're $1.25 at the laundry, you know."

Parent: "Later, later. Come over now. He's had 50 milligrams of ritalin. Let's get started."

Well, Teach stumbles over. And around the kitchen table explains to student and family the formidable intellectual challenge posed by the Bar Mitzvah requirements. The theme is always the same. "It ain't easy and sooner or later you're gonna hate me." Yeah, yeah, they understand - "LET'S GO!" they shout.

Teaching 12 year olds to chant Haftorah is like teaching dolphins to sing A che le Morte from Ill Trovatore. Sooner or later kids and dolphins swim away. It is not a slick ride on a playground slide.

Take my current student (as Henry Youngman would say; "Yeah, please take him - far away"). Let's call him Ben. When he talks, his parents open their checkbooks and listen with wide-eyed attention. His mother reveres him and his father addresses him in low, respectful tones. Here, extracted from Ben's file is the verbatim record of my first conversation with his family.

Me - the Bar Mitzvah Teacher: "Well, it's time for Ben to begin his Bar Mitzvah training."

To myself: (From what I can tell of Ben's mental equipment, we shoulda started when he was six.)

Mother: "Oh, nice of you to call, but I'm not sure Ben wants to be a Bar Mitzvah."

To herself: (My son may not have time for this Bar Mitzvah stuff. He's probably the Messiah, himself, and he's gonna be busy fixing the world.)

Bar Mitzvah Teacher: "Well, it's kinda hard for a 12 year old to make decisions like this. Why don't you pitch in and make it for him? Just say yes."

To myself: (Lucky he couldn't express himself at birth - he'd have nixed his own Bris. So messy.)

Finally, Mother agreed that since Ben was busy - determining his supper menu preferences every night, deciding on his daily TV agenda, choosing his wardrobe - that yes, she'd relieve him of this Bar Mitzvah decision.

A Bar Mitzvah is a real challenge for a young boy: the singing of the Haftorah and blessings before and after. Plus the Torah reading and associated blessings. Then finally the speech. The Torah reading, especially, is a challenge. It's not easy. There are no vowels, you see, under those squirmy Hebrew letters and the trop - the tune - is different from the Haftorah.

The speech is variable. It can be a simple reading of the words typed up by his teacher; a fail-safe stratagem when the child hasn't mastered the Haftorah until 9:15 the morning of the event. Or - the student can spend weeks researching the prophets and the associated Rabbinical commentary. Listen; a really scholarly Bar Mitzvah exegesis can equal a PhD thesis.

But none of my students have ever failed; every Bar Mitzvahee gets a minimum C+ grade. And I've never had a student who didn't show up. Don't laugh. I've had one or two who called the Coach the Friday before: "Mr. Roberts, I've got kinda feverish feeling and I'll bet I gotta temperature so I won't be at the synagogue. Would you just bring the presents over? I'll pay the rental fee for the truck."

The problem is, to deal with kids you need leverage. Something to reward with - something to punish with. But we teachers - unless backed up by parents - have an empty pack. All we can do is conjure up visions of all that loot - those glittering gifts. A Jewish version of Christmas Day. But if the kid already owns the world, what's to bribe with?

Ah, the times they are a'changing. When I was a Bar Mitzvah boy, my teacher carried a ruler like a sword. And if you blew the trop - the haftorah tunes - he called you a dummy. Imagine! Not a slow learner, not an Attention Deficit Disorder victim, but a DUMMY! And believe it or not, he rapped your knuckles with his weapon, the ruler.

Today he'd be in court. The Bar Mitzvahee, the ACLU and the parents with Alan Dershowitz at their side, would sue his Tsitzis off.

The ideal Bar Mitzvahee is a plain 12 year old, shunned by 12 year old females, who has no talent for band, chess, basketball, or math. Undistracted by an admiring world, he'll shine on the Bimah and you'll get tons of compliments on your pedagogic talents. The synagogue audience will bow as they let you go first through the kiddish line (before the other fressers have used the cream cheese fork to pollute the chicken salad) while the bagels are still fresh. Ah, the perks of a Bar Mitzvah teacher.