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Over Easy: Stranger in a Strange Land

Jewish boy reads Bar Mitzvah

Jewish boy reads from the Torah

Subtitle: In which msmolly and her Gentile family attend our first Bar Mitzvah.

Apologies in advance if I misstate anything, or bore to tears those who are familiar with Bar Mitzvahs. Corrections are welcome, and as always, there’s no such thing as off topic! I badly needed a break from politics today.

My son’s second wife of four years and her three beautiful children are Jewish. The oldest boy, a bright and engaging 13 year old, will be called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah tomorrow, and because this is comparable in importance to a wedding, family will gather from near and far to attend all of the related events.

Wikipedia tells me that in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, “bar” means “son” and “mitzvah” means “governed by commandment or law.” In rabbinical usage, the word “bar” means “under the category of” or “subject to.” According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, they become accountable for their actions — a bar mitzvah. (Although the term is commonly used to refer to the ritual, the phrase originally refers to the person.)

I have never attended a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. My grown children may be a bit more culturally aware than I, but many of us have not had this experience. So we’ve had to do a bit of research, and also considerable agonizing over appropriate attire, type of gift, etc.

The first event is Shabbat tonight (Friday) at the Temple. The Bar Mitzvah invitation reads, “Shabbat Services with Oneg to follow.” Oneg?? Google is my friend, so I learn that,

Oneg Shabbat,  (Hebrew: “Joy of Sabbath”), informal Sabbath (or Friday evening) gathering of Jews in a synagogue or private home to express outwardly the happiness inherent in the Sabbath holiday. Now more social than religious, the group entertains itself with music, drama, community discussions, lectures, or the singing of religious melodies—all in keeping with the biblical injunction, “and call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). Usually refreshments are provided to complement the congenial atmosphere and perpetuate in spirit the Talmud’s recommendation to eat three full meals that day.

The Bar Mitzvah service is Saturday, and my grandson will lead the entire service, reading from the Torah, in part in Hebrew. He has been attending classes and practicing for two years. A luncheon will follow the service, hosted by my daughter-in-law’s mother and her husband. In the evening there will be a party for all ages, with a “World Cup” theme for food and decor. Although they’ve tried hard to keep the cost down, my son said all of it will come to almost $5,000! And that’s not nearly what some families spend on more elaborate Bar Mitzvah celebrations. One family rented the entire Indianapolis Children’s Museum for their son’s Bar Mitzvah party!

What does one wear to a Bar Mitzvah? This has caused considerable angst, especially for my daughter and son-in-law. Does a “suit” really mean a suit, or will nice slacks and dress shirt, tasteful sportcoat and tie suffice? My son-in-law is a tech employee at a bank, sometimes works from home, and does not own an actual suit. My daughter, an elementary school teacher, purchased a nice (but inexpensive) dress and shoes, but there are three separate events, and my daughter-in-law (the Bar Mitzvah’s mother) and her daughter (age 10) are wearing different clothing for each event.

And what is an appropriate gift for a Bar Mitzvah? Since I am not conversant with Jewish tradition, I eschewed symbolic gifts and opted for money. If giving money, how much is proper? Again, Google to the rescue: The meaning of Chai (??)

Because it means “life,” the Chai (??) is consequently a symbol that captures an important aspect of Judaism. According to the gematria, which is a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters, the letters Het (?) and Yud (?) add up to the number 18. The Het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. As a result, 18 is a popular number that represents good luck. At weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events Jews often give gifts of money in multiples of 18, symbolically giving the recipient the gift of “life” or luck.

So beginning this evening, having done my research, decked out in appropriate clothing and bearing a check in an amount that’s a multiple of 18, I will be a stranger in a strange land at these ceremonies, and will celebrate the religious coming of age of a delightful young man I have grown to love dearly since his mother married my son four years ago. I plan to enjoy every minute and learn as much as I can, and to banish all thoughts of politics from my weary brain, at least for the weekend. Mazel Tov, Maxwell Dean!

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."