In Part One I wrote about how my eyes were opened to anti-Semitism in Europe when I attended my first bar mitzvah last Saturday. Now I want to focus on the actual experience of this landmark in a young Jewish boy’s (now man’s) life from my protestant Christian perspective. Let’s face it, that’s the only perspective that is wholly mine.
It’s difficult to describe how honored I was by the invitation even though I wasn’t the prime guest. My son’s Jewish friend from the international school chose a handful of friends to invite, and my eldest child was one of them. Vaguely knowing what an important day this was made me proud of my son and quite excited about my +1 status.
How did I prepare? Did I call or email a Jewish friend or acquaintance? Of course not! I hate to cop to how ignorant I am in most any subject (other than the Dutch language), so I turned to the internet. I learned there is a bat mitzvah for girls, that in some synagogue’s women only wear dresses (as I was expected to do as a child in our protestant church) and in others they wear pants, some places have women cover their heads (wore my own scarf just in case), which accessories declare your religion (i.e. the tallit, men’s prayer shawl) and which are simply to show respect (i.e. kippah, the small cap worn by men), that we should follow the movements of others for when to stand and bow (a bit different from Catholic services I’ve attended), and no taking pictures or notes allowed.
One particularly odd practice to me was that people came late, left early, and quietly went to speak with each other during the service. There’s the Rabbi running the service and people obviously not paying attention at times. One acquaintance of mine was appropriately surprised to see me there, waved, and then came over later to talk just a bit.
In the churches where I grew up such interactions would have been seen as disrespectful, disruptive, and would have garnered frowns. I wasn’t even allowed to leave the service to use the restroom unless it was an emergency. Of course I didn’t realize the Shabbat (i.e. Sabbath) service would be 3 hours long. What this different practice gave me was a sense of community, of valuing each other and that we met to be with each other with God. This was refreshing (and I should note similar to the church we attend now). And I felt so much better about being 15 minutes late (we chose the wrong street input for the GPS) when folks were still arriving an 1.5 hour after that.
What struck me the most during the ceremony was the great respect demonstrated for God’s word. The service was what I would call “liturgical” in that scripture passages were pre-chosen based on the Jewish calendar, and then, (I learned this from a Jewish school teacher after) the local Rabbi chose sections based on the particular celebration and for his community. And every Sabbath is a celebration. At one point the open Torah was held up high and turned in a circle for all to see.
Scripture was sung beautifully by the man I’ll call “The Cantor” and the community joined in certain portions such as The Shema and the Amidah (more here), and everyone followed along in a book. Online two books were mentioned, the siddur, or prayerbook, and the chumash, or Torah book, but this synagogue had only one green hardback book that looked a lot like the hymnals I grew up using.
Unfortunately for us, the prayerbook had Hebrew on the right page and corresponding Dutch on left, no English. Occasionally I could make out the song, such as Psalm 99, usually not. No one ever brought out an electronic of any sort, so I didn’t think I should pull my phone out to look up Bible verses.
The Rabbi chanted/sang his readings, and many of the sections were done by various members of the community some of whom appeared to be regular leaders (perhaps another Rabbi?), and some simply tapped for that day. An Israeli dad, who we know because his son was on our sons’ basketball team, did a couple readings. The father, grandmother, and older sister of the young man whose big day we were celebrating also read among several other congregants. I wondered how many of them were family and knew a good number had actually traveled from Israel to be there. I was surprised how many people were part of the service. A “progressive” community according to the synagogue website, maybe I should have expected women to read/chant and wear slacks or for kids to have jeans and tennis shoes. I was really taking it all in.
The primary movement was standing and turning toward the cabinet on the opposite wall from the lectern, though there were some knee bends and bows that I didn’t figure out and were over quickly. The cabinet is called the Ark and is where the Torah or scripture scrolls belonging to that synagogue are kept.
This synagogue actually used 3 different Torah during the service. They are kept in special coverings They were removed from the cabinet with care, carried around the congregation so people could kiss it or touch their scarf or service book to it, and then taken to the front to be uncovered and opened only during certain times.
Why might a 13-year-old Jewish boy choose to have his Bar Mitzvah in Holland when he had the option to do it in Tel Aviv? I don’t know all his reasons, but one might have been the particular Torah from which he read. When the Nazis were taking over Europe, they destroyed synagogues and all the sacred Hebrew items they could find. In Den Hague, the Jewish community removed and hid every item they could. Apparently they did such a good job, that the Nazis didn’t recognize their building was a synagogue, so this is one of few that remained undamaged by the invaders. Having come from Spain in 1492, their Torah was saved and is now the oldest Torah being used in worship any where in the world. Perhaps, though, this boy wanted to serve with a larger role during the ceremony than one could do in Israel where, the Rabbi told us, 150 Bar Mitzvah’s were celebrated the previous weekend during the Rabbi’s visit there.
When this boy, now young man, went to the lectern to read from the oldest Torah, I listened and reacted like I do at weddings, crying and dabbing at my face with my tissue. When he sang again later in a clear strong voice, my soul felt connected to his God who is also my God. During his speech I laughed and cried at the same time as he addressed the community, a young man now taking on the responsibilities of such, becoming accountable for following the teachings of his spiritual heritage. He reflected all this in his poise, his strength, his humor, his gratefulness for God, family and friends.
Truly, the Bar Mitzvah was beautiful. I recognized so few words, Adonia (Lord of Lords, used often in the Bible and by Jesus to address God in what Christian’s call The Lord’s Prayer), Yeshua (The Lord is Salvation, also Joshua, used by Christians in Greek Iēsous or in English Jesus), Elohim (God the Creator). Always the focus of the Bar Mitzvah was on our God. I prayed. I sang. I worshiped much like I did the following day at our church in The Hague.
A few sections of the Shabbat service were teachings on what was read, and these were given in English. I was so grateful. The Rabbi told us we were celebrating not only a Bar Mitzvah but the first Sabbath of the Celebration of Light, the time of spring and increasing light in the world, a time of growth and renewal for the earth and for our souls. He spoke about the sacrifices that used to be given at first the tabernacle and then later at the temple during its time, and how now our sacrifices are our hearts, given completely to God. He quoted a passage I also grew up with about God not wanting our animal or grain offerings but rather the sacrifices of prayers, of our praises. We prayed together for peace, for Jews around the world, for the country of the Netherlands, for the King here. I prayed for everyone to see the Light incarnate.
My first Bar Mitzvah was a time of learning, experience and worship. I could write so much more. The on-site reception that followed wasn’t much different from my own church wedding reception in atmosphere. Minor differences, the young man was carried in his chair for a lap or two around the tables with folks cheering, and there was no meat in the various dishes served. But there were two kinds of cake as well as several finger foods and more. I was enriched and left with a well-fed spirit.
I found myself wondering, did Jesus have a Bar Mitzvah? Was that what was happening when his parents lost him at the temple? (Looked that one up on BibleGateway). I know there are many Jewish Christians, do they celebrate Bar or Bat Mitzvahs? (See Jews for Jesus.) As a Christian I never lose site of the fact that I believe the Hebrew Messiah spoken of in the Torah has already come, his name is Jesus of Nazareth, and he is my Savior. Jesus is the most important person in my life, and yet how easy it has been for me in my practice of Christian faith to lose site of the Jewishness of my Lord. That the first chosen people were the biological children of Abraham, that God chose to bless the world through this people, and that I have been adopted into that family (Ephesians 1:5).
I continue to reflect on my First Bar Mitzvah and am tempted to attend Shabbat again. In our world today, so many rites of passage for young men and women have been lost. My son is thirteen, and as I looked at him with the kippah I only wished there were a special Christian celebration to emphasize responsibility and spiritual growth at this time in his life.
Kristin King is an author, publisher and co-founder of the nonprofit Future Hope Africa which is based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is from Kentucky (USA) and lives as an expat in Holland.