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Bar Mitzvah Book Review by Marlena Thompson: Age-Old Wisdom in a Modern Classic
Review of Putting God On The Guest List: How To Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning Of Your Child's Bar Or Bat Mitzvah by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, (Jewish Lights, 1996. 2nd edition, 185 pp., $16.95 ).
Lay and rabbinical leaders alike have wrestled with the problem of how to safeguard the spiritual elements of Judaism in an age which openly embraces unbridled materialism. As we approach the millennium, issues of spirituality loom larger than ever. It is therefore not surprising to encounter a revised edition of a book that, when it originally debuted in 1991, reminded an entire generation that the Bar and Bat Mitzvah should be a time for planning to unwrap "gifts of the spirit" instead of presents from friends and relatives.
Though a Reform rabbi, Salkin's message is Judaically universal. Salkin goes well beyond predictable admonitions against the "culture of glitz" responsible for the ostentatious celebrations that have provoked widespread ridicule and disdain. He offers both practical and spiritual guidance to parents of all denominations to find ways to restore meaning to what may well be the most significant rite of passage in their child's life.
Salkin is not the first to deplore the undue emphasis many American Jewish families place on the mechanics of the "event" – i.e., keeping up with party trends, designing "unique" invitations, acquiring the best caterers, etc. But he is one of the few who openly protest excessive focus on the "show of skill" expected of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah during the religious ceremony. He notes that the current demand for a letter perfect "performance" on the part of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has turned many young people into "expert lip synchers in Torah and haftorah."
Salkin calls for a reemphasis on the inner meaning of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, saying: "...Inner meanings, spirituality, and such venerable Jewish values as study, justice, giving, sanctity, and moderation in consumption can become more real as a result of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We should focus not only on reading the Torah, but also on hearing the Torah as uniquely addressed to us, in our time, in our place."
Although this book is a gem from front to back, a chapter that truly stands out is one entitled, "Putting The Mitzvah Back Into Bar/Bat Mitzvah." Besides providing a long overdue distinction between the "Yiddish-ized" version of the word, mitzveh, commonly translated as "good deed," and the Hebrew word, "mitzvah," signifying a "holy obligation" and one of God's 613 commandments, Salkin lists a number of "mitzvoth," (of the latter variety) and how they may be fulfilled in a meaningful way during the Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience. For example, in order to assist their child to fulfill the mitzvah of Gemilut Chasadim, i.e., Acts of Loving kindness, (best understood as "non-financial giving"), Salkin suggests that parents encourage their son or daughter to visit someone who is ill or who has lost a loved one, or to learn skills that may be demonstrated at a pediatric ward of a nearby hospital.
Another notable chapter entitled "The Changing Jewish Family" includes some down-to-earth advice for parents who are separated, divorced, intermarried, or who have converted to Judaism. For example, Salkin tells those parents who are divorced or separated and caught up in issues such as whether or not the new spouse or "significant other" should have an opportunity to go up to the Torah and bless it, that whatever the controversy, parents should follow one basic rule: to declare a truce and never make a child feel emotionally divided. Salkin also offers a way for non-Jewish parents to have more involvement in the religious ceremony without demeaning tradition. While acknowledging that it is not appropriate for a non-Jew to say the words "asher bachar banu," (who has chosen us) while reciting the blessing over the Torah, Salkin notes that it is only fitting to honor a non-Jewish parent who has supported his or her child's Jewish education. To this end, he includes a prayer he has written for a non-Jewish parent to read after the Jewish parent has given thanks in Hebrew for the gift of the Torah.
This revised and updated edition is a book that should be required reading for all parents planning the Bar or Bat Mitzvah "process" for their child.