All due respect to God, but when it comes to human celebration I’ve had to conclude that His rituals were mostly invented by caterers. In particular, I suspect that a pastry chef, not divine will, is behind the bizarre candle-lighting ceremony that is now de rigueur at bar mitzvah celebrations, whether high- or lowbrow, in three-star restaurants or synagogue multipurpose rooms.
Since we began studying bar mitzvahs more closely in anticipation of our son Erez’s, next March, we have seen many variants on what I call the Family Flambé. In its classic incarnation, the rite is introduced when the emcee welcomes the adolescent honoree to the dais at the beginning of the luncheon or dinner. The cake, often shaped like a Torah, is then paraded from the kitchen for a preview, with much the same pomp that accompanies a real Torah when it’s brought from the ark. The cake, however, is studded with tapers—at least 13, and as many as two dozen. Each, we soon learn, is dedicated to a friend or family member, or sometimes an entire nuclear unit, whom the bar mitzvah eulogizes with a fitting (though metrically unorthodox) piece of doggerel. “You’re always there when I need to relax / Please come up, Uncle Milt, Aunt Elaine, cousins Becca and Max.” After Becca and Max fight over the propane match and light their candle, the cycle starts again with Nana Sylvia; by the time all the candles are lit, everyone in the room has been called to the buttercream Torah—and voila, when they return to their seats the salad has been placed.
But if these faux aliyot make a peculiar ritual, they pale in comparison to the supposedly real ones. The signal event of the bar mitzvah ceremony, religiously at least, is the 13-year-old’s first public reading from the Torah. In many congregations, in addition to his portion of this ancient text, the bar mitzvah also reads a haftarah portion—a related selection from a slightly less ancient text that is meant to bear a revealing connection to the biblical story under consideration. As part of his first assignment in preparation for his bar mitzvah, Erez was recently asked by our rabbi to read both his Torah and haftarah portions, in English, and see if he could find such a connection. He couldn’t, unless it was the frequent use of the word “the” in each. Ki Tisa, the Torah portion, concerned, among other things, Moses’s destruction of the Ten Commandments when he found the Israelites cavorting with the Golden Calf. In the haftarah, taken from the first book of Kings, the prophet Elijah instructs the followers of Baal to sacrifice a bull. Was livestock the connection? Possibly, though it was hard to tell because, in literary style, the stories were about as related as The Iliad and Valley of the Dolls.
If intertextual connections were not forthcoming, intergenerational ones certainly were. Watching Erez’s eyes glaze over just trying to understand the English, Andy and I flashed back to our own bar mitzvah ordeals, and realized how much work lay ahead. For Erez would not be reciting lines he more or less understood; this was not like his Drama class’s recent presentation of My Most Embarrassing Moment, in which the words made sense and admitted of paraphrase. No, his bar mitzvah readings are supposed to be perfect despite being in Hebrew, which is mostly gibberish to an American child not raised in a yeshiva. And yet the texts can barely be read, either, because as presented in an actual Torah scroll they are virtually in code. They contain neither vowels (in Hebrew, a semaphore of dots) nor punctuation nor diacritical marks that distinguish, say, the letter that sounds like an s from the one that sounds like a sh. Imagine being asked to sing a song presented to you, in thickly handwritten strokes, as MR HD LTL LM. Or as ML LTL DH RM—because Hebrew, of course, reads from right to left. Would you grasp that Mary had a little lamb? Or would you surmise, just as reasonably by Hebraic rules, that Morey hid a lethal loom?
And even if you got the words right, would you sing them properly? No modern notion of song prepares you for the difficulty of chanting Torah. Words are not set into long-line melodies consisting of regular-length phrases, as in a proper Rodgers and Hammerstein number; instead, every word, and often every syllable of a word, gets its own little tune of three to ten notes, which must be strung together just so. These melodic cells are commonly called trope, and there are about 27 of them, indicated by a mark the size of a sesame seed—also, sadistically, not printed in the scroll.
And so, except for the rare 13-year-old who is already a cryptographer, a gifted musician, and a scholar of ancient Hebrew, a great deal of rote memorization is involved. Putting aside the question of meaning, which I find a lot to put aside, the bar mitzvah Torah reading is a totally abstract and intimidating chore. Teaching a son how to do it, or more likely watching someone else teach him, is for many fathers an act of nostalgia and also revenge, as perhaps circumcision was some years earlier in the process. The Torah does not get any less arcane, or difficult to utter correctly, as each generation goes by.
Erez is fairly musical and a quick study at languages. But he’s no Alan Turing, and the enigma of Biblical cantillation seemed likely to dwarf such sixth grade challenges as Latin and viola. To ease the process, our rabbi suggested that parents of the coming year’s crop of b’nai mitzvah consider purchasing a computer program called Trope Trainer, which could be customized for each student’s Torah and haftarah portion, plus the relevant blessings and even our synagogue’s preferred pronunciations. The program, manufactured by a company called Kinnor, which means “harp” in Hebrew, would not only help our kids learn their material but also, because it might loosely be classified as a computer game, keep them interested in doing so. With its technical bells and whistles—its variable pace and pitch, its cheerful color-coding and robotic sound snippets—Trope Trainer might even make the dreaded process fun. Well, if not fun, then at least less onerous than it was when supervised by harried adults. A motto on Kinnor’s website seemed to allude to this tension: “The software with infinite patience.”
Lacking infinite patience, and sensing a bargain at just $59.95—not to mention a rabbinical discount of 20 percent—I immediately set out to buy the program. But there was one problem. It only runs on Windows.
When we met, Andy and I worried about the stresses of a mixed marriage. I had been using Windows since the beginning of personal computing; he was an early adopter of Mac. Andy was an early adopter in another sense, too: he’d adopted Erez and his younger brother, Lucas, nearly at birth. I adopted them later—a story I’ve told at length elsewhere.
As with all mixed marriages, the big question was: How would we raise the children? While they were toddlers the matter could be tabled. But as school came along, and with it, amazingly soon, assignments involving web searches and typed papers, we realized we had to face the disparity of our customs and beliefs. There were arguments to be made for both systems. Windows was more universally applicable, and had a pleasing Old Testament volatility. Its crashes came like thunderous punishments. Mac was all promises of love and peace. If there were crashes at all, there were pretty resurrections. But it was really because it made our electronic communications simpler that I converted. It was, in a family, simpler to be on the same platform.
This was, in some ways, a version of the religious conflict that had simmered beneath the surface of our relationship from the beginning. While Andy and I are both atheist Jews, we are different kinds of atheist Jews. (The subdivisions of faith within atheism far outnumber those among believers.) Andy, never having been very observant, is content to accept the contradiction implicit in his enjoyment of whatever observance fits into his schedule. I, having been raised more religiously, find that approach not just uncomfortable but untenable: a woolen shirt I can only wear for a few seconds before feeling the need to tear it off. Nevertheless, when we began to discuss how the boys would be raised—in effect, which nonfaith we would try to inculcate—I once again converted. Atheism certainly suited me; but how could I know what would suit them? We often said that a little religion now would be a good inoculation against too much later: a hair of the dogma that bit you.
But I did not think clearly enough about what a little religion leads to before it gets to faithlessness. It first leads to faith. And soon enough a bar mitzvah.
And so, as the Trope Trainer sat useless in its jewel box, here we were trying to figure out what Elijah and the bull had to do with Moses and the Golden Calf or, indeed, with anything. Then I read a line I had somehow missed the first time: “Elijah approached all the people and said, ‘How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!’ ” Whereupon he sacrifices the bull in a blaze of fire to prove his God’s supremacy, thus bringing the idolaters back to their faith. (Though that’s not, unfortunately, the end of the story.) As Elijah might have put it were he a bar mitzvah today, “You’re always there to help me when I fall / please join me at the altar, ye followers of Baal.”
So that was the connection: Elijah, like Moses, wanted people to decide once and for all who they would be. Belief, it seemed, had always been a problem of platforms, the most difficult kind of knot to untangle because it is less about content than habit.
Our computing problem was more easily solved. Sid, a customer representative at Kinnor, suggested I purchase Virtual Windows—a $200 program that allows your Mac computer to pretend it runs in the dominant faith, much as the crypto-Jews of Inquisition-era Spain, in their outward lives, appeared to embrace Catholicism. Sid said that Trope Trainer would work well enough in this neither-fish-nor-fowl environment, though it might seem a bit poky and would use up a huge amount of our computer’s resources in making its constant internal translations and compromises.
I knew what he meant.