Bar Mitzvah Prep in the 21st Century’s Tech Age

In the Coen Brother’s movie “A Serious Man,” we see young Danny practicing his haftorah for his bar mitzvah by listening to the cantor’s rendition of it on his record player. That scene was undoubtedly sentimental for Jewish men of a certain age who prepared for their bar mitzvah by keying up the phonograph in their parents’ living room.

Ben Stiller Bar Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah preparation has come a long way since the days of the record album. In the 1980s and early 1990s cantors and bar/bat mitzvah tutors recorded their voices onto audio cassette tapes so their twelve-year-old students could walk around the house listening to the chanting on a Sony Walkman. In fact, I remember many nights falling asleep with my black foamy headphones on while I listened to the late Cantor Larry Vieder of Adat Shalom Synagogue repeating the Torah trope (cantilation notes) and the long haftorah for my bar mitzvah. The mid-1990s saw the transition from the audio tapes to music CDs when bar mitzvah tutors began hooking up microphones to the computer and recording the bar mitzvah portion onto blank CD-Roms.

In recent years we’ve seen bar and bat mitzvah students receiving the audio version of the haftorah and blessings they need to learn via email, a concept that anyone over the age of thirty would find amazing.

The way Jewish teens prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah has changed dramatically thanks to technological innovation. Not only has the audio format changed over the years, but so too has the way in which these young men and women are being tutored.

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Who Owns Jewish Ritual?

My rabbinic networks have been abuzz about the second episode of a new reality TV show on TLC called “The Sisterhood.” I first learned of the controversial episode when someone Tweeted the clip to me asking me what I thought. I then sent an article about the episode from The Christian Post to my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program and an interesting discussion ensued.

TLC’s new reality TV show “The Sisterhood” has been panned by Christians for disrespecting Christianity and by Jewish people for using Jewish ritual in a Christian framework.

The new reality show features Texas couple Brian Lewis and his wife Tara and their children. The show premiered on New Year’s day. In the second episode, the family discusses their preparation for their son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. The couple’s 13-year-old son Trevor however isn’t Jewish and neither are his parents. In fact, Trevor’s father is a Christian pastor who was raised in a Jewish household before converting to Christianity before marriage.

In the show Tara speaks directly to the camera, explaining, “To celebrate our Jewish heritage, we are throwing him a Bar Mitzvah. A Christian Bar Mitzvah.” Brian explains it as more than just a passing of age ceremony and more of  a social event.

The notion of a Christian boy celebrating a bar mitzvah was enough to irk many Jewish viewers, but the show ruffled even more feathers by using Jewish ritual items for the occasion. Pastor Brian reveals to his son the tallit that he will wear for his ceremony.

This raises the question of whether Jewish people “own” such concepts as a bar mitzvah and traditionally Jewish ritual garb like a tallit. After all, the Jewish people were not the first people to create entering adulthood ceremonies or prayer shawls (those are likely borrowed from the ancient Egyptians). So, the episode actually encourages an interesting conversation about the kishke (gut) reaction to seeing a religious Christian family appropriating a Jewish life-cycle event and Jewish ritual items. Interestingly, some Jewish people even took exception with the cake prepared for Trevor’s bar mitzvah resembling a Torah scroll.

I’ll get back to the Christian bar mitzvah, but two very recent events forced me to consider these issues as well. Sitting in a session on Tuesday morning at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, a gentleman wearing tzitzit (a four cornered undergarment with ritual fringes hanging out) sat down next to me. I immediately noticed that he wasn’t wearing a kippah (yarmulke) although the four braided fringes complete with threads of blue were proudly dangling around his waist. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was a religious Christian and not Jewish. Eavesdropping on the conversation he was having with the woman on the other side of me, I heard him explain that he and his family live a devout Christian lifestyle in Texas in accordance with both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Rohan Marley shows off his gold Jewish Star necklace as I display my gold chai necklace.

The second event took place yesterday at CES when I visited with Bob Marley’s son Rohan at the House of Marley booth. House of Marley is a headphones company and part of the Marley family of brands including the Marley Mellow Mood drink that is owned by Bob Marley’s family and investors from the Detroit Jewish community including Gary Shiffman and Alon Kaufman. Rohan, a former football player for the University of Miami and the Canadian Football League, proudly displays a gold Jewish star around his neck. When I asked him why he wears a Jewish star I got a heartfelt ten-minute explanation of how his Rastafarian belief draws from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He told me that the Jewish star is his way of reminding himself daily of the ethics of the Jewish biblical tradition and how that is the foundation of Christianity.

While some would be uncomfortable with gentiles wearing tzitzit or a Jewish star necklace, my feeling is that we Jews don’t have the trademark on such things. Yes, they are inherently Jewish in our time and in our culture, but what is preventing someone else from adopting those items and connecting their own narrative to them. Who says that only Jews can get married under a chuppah or dance the hora at a wedding? Who says that a Christian boy with Jewish ancestry can’t have a ceremony on his 13th birthday called a bar mitzvah? It might make some Jews uncomfortable, but that gut reaction should lead to a conversation about why it elicits that response.

My colleague, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Miami, provided me with some insightful links and images on such topics as specifically Christian tzitizit and tallit, Christian chuppas and ketubas (wedding contracts), South Koreans studying Talmud, and Christian Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We are living in interesting times, but religions have historically borrowed and appropriated different traditions and rituals from each other.

Another one of my colleagues, Rabbi Joshua Ratner, offered that he takes exception with non-Jews “picking up rituals they (and often we) don’t understand just because they look cool. I have far less of an issue with imitation/syncretism if the object being ‘borrowed’ has some understood meaning that results in others wanting to borrow it, rather than its aesthetic content. But that just begs the question–to be Rabbis Without Borders, if we know that religious syncretism is a way of life, do we now have an obligation to educate the non-Jewish public as well as our particular Jewish communities?”

That comment reminded me of when I was a child and my father would let me borrow his tools. If you’re going to use my hammer, he would say, let me first show you how to use it correctly. But does borrowing something mean the borrower has to use it the same way the lender does? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to determine which religious rituals they want to use from other faiths and have the ability to put their own spin on them without criticism? As uncomfortable as that may make some of us, I think the answer is yes.

Here’s the clip from the “A Christian Bar Mitzvah” episode of The Sisterhood:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Boy With Stutter Raps Adon Olam

I was looking forward to meeting many of the inspirational educators and thought leaders at the #140edu conference in New York City this week, but the one speaker I was really excited to meet was Lil Jaxe.

A few months ago, I watched a video of this 13-year-old boy at a previous #140conf and was amazed, impressed, and inspired. Lil Jaxe has a severe stutter, but he discovered that when he raps it goes away. So, it’s a good thing for him that he’s a talented rapper. And he’s only 13 so I’m predicting that he’s got a very successful career ahead of him.

Lil Jaxe presented before me at the #140edu conference today and I had a chance to shmooze with him a bit in the Green Room at the 92nd St. Y after his presentation. Here’s the video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam as he did back in April at his bar mitzvah.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Blessing for Aunt on Auntie’s Day

This Sunday is Auntie’s Day. I only know this because I’ve become “Cyberspace Friends” with Melanie Notkin, the founder of SavvyAuntie.com. Melanie let me know that Auntie’s Day was approaching and asked if I’d contribute my third article for her blog. I decided that a blessing for aunts was in order…

I have wonderful memories of my bar mitzvah. I was a “day school kid,” so I had that going for me when it came to grasping the Hebrew verses I’d have to chant from the Torah. But on the negative side, I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it; and to make matters worse, I had that awkward “going through puberty” voice thing going on.

My bar mitzvah party was fun and everyone seemed to have a great time, but the memory that sticks with me almost 23 years later is the Shabbat dinner the night before for close family and friends that my aunt put together. My aunt and uncle had just moved into a beautiful new home, and the Friday night dinner for close friends and family would be their first opportunity (of hundreds) to play gracious hosts.

To this day, I remember that my aunt went above-and-beyond (and then even further beyond) to prepare a delicious dinner. Her house looked immaculate. Everyone enjoyed themselves.

For me, more important than the food or the centerpieces that made her newly decorated dining room look so fancy was that I felt so relaxed in her home. I won’t go on record on the Web by admitting that my uncle likely snuck me a drink, but I do remember feeling peaceful and unstressed that night. While many 13-year-old boys experience butterflies in the stomach on the night before their bar mitzvah, I have a vivid recollection of having felt ready for the next day and able to just enjoy the evening at my aunt and uncle’s home.

Many people had important roles to play with the success of my bar mitzvah. My parents planned a wonderful celebration that Saturday night. My grandparents hosted everyone for lunch back at their home following the synagogue services. The rabbis and cantor all were integral to my entry into Jewish adulthood. But to this day, I feel like my aunt was the unsung hero of that memorable weekend. Six years later my aunt reprised the role of Friday night dinner hostess before my brother’s bar mitzvah. Like me, he too felt relaxed the night before his big day.

At a bar or bat mitzvah there’s a special blessing said by the parents as they mark the transition of their child into a more responsible individual. Additionally, the parents and grandparents offer a blessing of gratitude for reaching such a milestone. I’d like to suggest a special blessing for the Savvy Auntie of the bar or bat mitzvah. The aunt who makes sure the bar mitzvah boy’s tie is straight before he stands before hundreds to read from the Torah. The aunt who makes sure her niece’s hair is just right before her party. A blessing for the aunt who is ready with a needle and thread to fix a rip in the suit pants. For the aunt who has a wet cloth to remove a stain. For the aunt who lovingly opens her home for a relaxing evening before the big event.

May God who blessed our ancestors bless my beloved aunt who is often the unsung hero. She is there to nurture and to love. Thank you, God, for the gift of aunts who, together with parents, grandparents, teachers and friends, play a significant role in my life and in my upbringing.
And let us say, Amen.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

David Arquette’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Scream

Jewish celebs having bar mitzvah celebrations seems to be a trend in Hollywood these days. Most recently, Drake celebrated a second bar mitzvah during the filming of a music video in Miami. Actor Kirk Douglas famously celebrated his second bar mitzvah in December 1999 at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on the occasion of his 83rd birthday (it’s a tradition to have a second bar mitzvah at 83).

Of course there have also been famous fictional bar mitzvah celebrations like “Krusty the Klown’s Wet ‘n’ Wild Bar Mitzvah” on “The Simpsons” and Ari Gold’s daughter’s bat mitzvah on “Entourage”.

Today it was announced that actor David Arquette had a bar mitzvah at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. The last newsworthy bar mitzvah at the Kotel was in May 2010 when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (then Obama’s Chief of Staff) brought his family to the Old City of Jerusalem to have his son’s bar mitzvah.

David Arquette is currently in Jerusalem shooting an episode of his “Mile High” show, which airs on the Travel Channel. While in Jerusalem, Arquette attended a bar mitzvah ceremony and was asked if he would like to have one as well. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, officiated at the ceremony in which Arquette wore a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and tefillin (prayer phylacteries). Two years ago, Arquette told the Jewish Journal, “I wanted a bar mitzvah but didn’t have one as a kid… maybe for my 40th birthday.”

According to the Jewish Or Not blog, David Arquette is Jewish. His mother was born Jewish and is the daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor. Arquette’s father converted to Islam. Arquette has been married to actress Courtney Cox, who starred in “Friends” television sitcom and co-starred with Arquette in the “Scream” films.

On his personal Twitter account, Arquette posted: “I had my bar mitzvah today at the wall. Finally I’m a man.”

If anyone would like to plant a tree in honor of David Arquette’s bar mitzvah, simply click this link.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Muhammad Ali Attends Grandson’s Bar Mitzvah

Jacob Wertheimer becoming a bar mitzvah this past April at Philly’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue doesn’t sound like a newsworthy story. It does make news when the proud grandfather is The Champ.

Muhammad Ali’s grandson Jacob Wertheimer was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at a small service of only about 150 people. Jacob is the son of Ali’s daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer, an attorney. Ali was in the congregation watching with pride according to the Sweet Science boxing website in an article written by Muhammad Ali’s personal biographer Thomas Hauser, as reported by JTA. There was no mention of whether the bar mitzvah boy floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee on the bimah.

Jacob Wertheimer, Muhammad Ali’s grandson on vacation with his parents

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay and raised as a Baptist, but famously converted to Islam in the 60s. Ali’s daughter Khaliah was raised as a Muslim. According to her, the young Jacob was given a choice and without pressure from his parents, “he chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture.” It sounds like Judaism won by a decision!

Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer also mentioned that it “meant a lot to Jacob” that his grandfather Muhammad Ali was in attendance. According to JTA, the theme of the bar mitzvah party was diversity and inclusiveness.

On the occasion of The Champ’s 70th birthday, JTA’s archivist Adam Soclof compiled a list of articles chronicling Ali’s bouts and bonding moments with the Jewish community dating back to 1970. Ali has made some critical comments about Israel over the years, but is still widely respected in the Jewish community. Perhaps Ali’s Jewish grandson will travel to Israel and change his grandfather’s sentiments.

While Billy Crystal has always amused me with his dead-on impersonation of Muhammad Ali, this scene from Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” is a personal favorite:

Mazel Tov to Muhammad Ali and his entire family on Jacob’s bar mitzvah!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Drake’s Bar Mitzvah (Again)

In Judaism when a Jewish man turns 83 he ceremoniously celebrates his bar mitzvah for the second time. The reason for this is that Judaism believes that the length of a man’s life is 70 years so at 83-years-old he symbolically turns 13 once again. Aubrey Drake Graham, AKA “Drake”, is only 26 and far from the traditional age of getting a re-do on the bar mitzvah ceremony, but that didn’t stop the Jewish rapper from having what he has termed a “re-bar mitzvah”.

Apparently, last fall on October 24, 2011 (a Monday) Drake decided to have a re-bar mitzvah as a re-commitment to the Jewish religion. We learn this from Drake’s new music video for his song “HYFR” (look it up!). The video opens with footage of a cute little Drake as a child at a friend or relative’s bar mitzvah saying “mazel tov” to the camera. There is also video footage of the young Drake dancing at the bar mitzvah.

The next part of the music video shows the outside of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Miami. The camera then takes us inside Temple Israel where we see Drake’s bar mitzvah ceremony, including his reading from the Torah after kissing the the inside of the scroll with the tzitzit (fringes) of his tallit (prayer shawl).

Then things get a little crazy and become more typical of a rap video. Of course Drake gets lifted in a chair for the traditional Horah dance, but there is also the debauchery one would expect of a party attended by the likes of Lil Wayne (in a panda suit!), Trey Songz, Birdman and DJ Khaled.

Drake with a bottle of Manischewitz wine next to a guy wearing a JCC basketball jersey.

According to an interview with Drake (whose mother is Jewish), his original bar mitzvah took place in a nice Italian restaurant where he wore a yarmulke and read from his “portion”. However, he says he never went to Hebrew School (“I cheated!”). Perhaps that’s why he was eager to have a “re-bar mitzvah” in October. Matisyahu once said about Drake: “He’s Jewish, but he’s not representing Judaism. He happens to be Jewish just like Bob Dylan happened to be Jewish, but what I’m doing is really tapping into my roots and culture, and trying to blend that with the mainstream… Drake’s being Jewish is just a by-product.”

The “HYFR” video is too explicit for this blog, but it is available on YouTube by searching for “Drake” and “Bar Mitzvah”.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Teens

When I was twelve-years-old I took part in a Joe Cornell dance class with just about every other Jewish teen my age in Metro Detroit to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvah circuit. When my mother was twelve she also learned to dance from Joe Cornell. It’s something of a Detroit tradition.

While Joe Cornell has been retired for many years, the company is still around (after more than fifty years) and has actually grown immeasurably over the past decade under the leadership of owners Steve Jasgur and his sister Becca Jasgur Schlussel. In addition to providing DJ services and dancers for bar and bat mitzvah parties, Joe Cornell still runs its “Learn to Dance” dance studio for the pre-bar and bat mitzvah crowd.

My own children are still too young to even be thinking about attending bar and bat mitzvahs, but I read with interest an article about a new program that Joe Cornell is running at local Hebrew Schools and day schools. Patch.com reported on Joe Cornell’s Mitzvah Circuit 101 gatherings, which teach b’nai mitzvah etiquette to teens. Attending bar and bat mitzvah services and parties requires a lot of social cues that many twelve- and thirteen-year-olds don’t yet possess or at least haven’t yet had to draw upon. I remember my parents teaching me the etiquette for responding to a bar or bat mitzvah invitation before attending my first one, but there are still many other aspects of good manners that these children (and they are still children) must learn.

“We were asked to speak to a group of students about how to behave, respond to invitations and socialize successfully and we jumped at the chance,” Jasgur said. “It was great fun – and the kids really got into the discussion of do’s and don’ts. Then, of course, we had to add an element of fun to the night, so we gave the group a taste of the kind of Joe Cornell fun they’ll see at b’nai mitzvah parties this year.”

“In preparation for the 7th-grade social scene, our dance program teaches 6th-graders social interaction and social responsibility,” Schlussel said. “This Mitzvah Circuit program is simply an extension for that 21st century cotillion-style preparation we specialize in. We all want our children to be gracious guests, but sometimes the lessons hit home more readily when conveyed by someone new.”

When I was a twenty-year-old youth group adviser I was asked to be on a panel that discussed teens’ behavior at bar and bat mitzvahs in front of an audience of parents. I remember thinking how ironic that was since it was only seven years earlier that I was one of the misbehaving teens at these parties. In recent years, however, I have certainly noticed that teens are better behaved at both b’nai mitzvah services and the parties that follow. I think it’s imperative that these middle schoolers are learning about the etiquette required at bar and bat mitzvahs as it will improve the experience for everyone, and I’m glad that Joe Cornell Entertainment has taken the lead on this.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Remembering Debbie Friedman

In Memory of Debbie Friedman (1952-2011)

Debbie Friedman’s music is so fully integrated into synagogue liturgy,
that in many congregations it is considered “traditional.”


I don’t remember the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 90’s as a very spiritual place. I began rabbinical school in 1998 and there was a general consensus that the Seminary was lacking ruach (spiritual energy).

I do, however, remember a day when, for a few hours, the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue was transcended into the most ruach-filled place I ever experienced. Before classes officially commenced again following winter recess, the rabbinical school had a mandatory “mini-mester.” One year, the theme was on spirituality in prayer.

To conclude the mini-mester, the popular Jewish singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman came to the Seminary to lead a healing service. Her energy electrified the Seminary’s synagogue where students, faculty and guests were singing and dancing. I remember thinking that if I could bottle up her ruach and sell it to congregations around the globe, I’d be a billionaire. Her music adds so much life and feeling to our liturgy.

Debbie Friedman’s version of the Mi Sheberach (prayer for healing) has inspired Jews all over the world to make a communal prayer for healing a staple of every Shabbat service. Her “Alef-Bet” song is how my three children learned the Hebrew Alphabet. So many brides have walked down the aisle or circled their grooms to Debbie Friedman’s “Lechi Lach.” “Miriam’s Song” has become the theme song at every gathering of Jewish women, especially at the yearly Passover seders for women that Debbie Friedman led in New York. And hundreds of thousands of current and former Jewish campers only know Debbie Friedman’s version of havdallah, the prayers ending the Jewish sabbath.

Debbie Friedman died today in an Orange County, California hospital after being hospitalized for pneumonia. She spent Shabbat in a medically induced coma. She had battled health problems in the past, which likely led to her dedicating much of her career to healing services and soulful prayers for the ill.

Ann Coppel’s award winning documentary about Debbie Friedman, “A Journey of Spirit,” gave her fans an inside perspective of her life and health battles. According to the “A Journey of Spirit” website, “For children and adults alike, Debbie Friedman’s music is living Judaism. With her honest, pure voice as their guide, a whole generation of Jews has come to embrace the liturgy through her melodies. Here they find relevance and meaning in the words of the prophets, the messages of ancient rabbis, and the sacred texts of the Jewish religion. In her 30+ year career, Debbie Friedman has recorded 19 albums. She was influenced by American popular music of the 1960’s and 70’s… Now she is influencing younger singers and songwriters with her own dynamic style.”

May the memory of Debbie Friedman be for spiritual blessings always.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller