Spirit and Story


Bat Mitzvah Bonanza

By Steve Greenberg

Several weeks ago I had the great fortune to attend a bat mitzvah in Tozeur, Tunisia. More than a hundred family members and friends, from the US, France and Israel converged upon this unlikely destination for a double bat mitzvah. Tozeur is a dusty little town six hours south of Tunis on the edge of the desert. About an hour’s drive from the center of Tozeur is the Palatial Hotel, facing the Rising Mountains on one side and a flat expanse of the desert on the other. In the valley below the Hotel are the ruins of a twelfth century village. The Hotel itself is magical and mysterious, a luxury fortress in the midst of an arid wasteland.

This event was not just a bat mitzvah. It was also a travel experience, a boisterous family reunion, a kosher catered feast and an extravaganza (for example, after havadalah in the ruined village, Arabian horsemen rode up into the valley with torches and swords).

Now extravagance is hardly a new phenomenon when it comes to bat and bar mitzvahs. The competition between affluent families for the most outrageous theme party bar and bat mitzvahs still rages from Los Angeles to Great Neck. However, there were important differences between the Jurassic Park Bar Mitzvah and this event that led me not only to attend, but to help plan the event and to serve as the family’s rabbi for the event.

As I see it, the bat/bar mitzvah in America has become a graduation from -- as opposed to a graduation to -- ceremony. After a few years of mostly uninspiring afternoon Hebrew school -- timed to interfere with just about every high school sports program -- we provide our early teens with a grand finale. Having suffered through the extra effort of bar/bat mitzvah training, they are now to be freed from the exhausting and not necessarily meaningful burden of Jewish education. Only a select few will choose to continue their Jewish education beyond this point, attending either Hebrew High or Confirmation classes until they are sixteen.

Of course there was a time when the bar or bat mitzvah signified not the end of something, as it generally does today, but the beginning of something. It was a formal induction ceremony into the adult Jewish community with all its duties, obligations and privileges. Today the ritual marks a liberation from the sphere of Jewish obligation and, in particular, from that most tedious obligation of preparing for the bat or bar mitzvah itself.

Now one might contend that while the definition of adult Judaisms has changed drastically, the ritual actually does usher teens into their Jewish adulthood. Given that the adult Judaism of most Americans obligates minimally, includes no demand for ongoing Torah learning or observance, and while there is a firm expectation of Jewish pride, there is little demanded beyond the nostalgic hope that we all find Jewish spouses. The point is that if this is what many if not most synagogue bat/bar mitzvah’s are like, then why not play a bit with the model.

By the end of this summer I will have done a total of three bat mitzvah’s (interesting that so far that this has included no bar mitzvahs) with families not affiliated with synagogues and with youths who have never attended Hebrew school. The teens have been often been the impetus. Their friends are having wonderful parties and they too want a bat mitzvah. Well, given the situation, the parents are at a loss of how to proceed, having not really been involved at all in the whole scene.

What has occurred, partially by my suggestion, is that each family hire for the year before the event a young and talented tutor for reparation of the event. In each case the unique interests of the child are central, Hebrew reading is accomplished relatively quickly in the first few months, and then, depending on the capacity and interests of the youth, a ceremony is shaped.

In one, the young woman read from a Torah scroll on the top of Masada. In Tozeur the girls led the family shabbat, introducing and leading shalom aleichem, kiddush, netilat yadaim, and motzi and ending shabbat with a beautiful havdalah service. In another in Vienna, the daughter will be called up to the Torah, say the blessings over the reading, and give drash to assembled family and guests which she has been working on for months. In each case I met with the bat mitzvah and her family to lay out the point of the life cycle moment.

Each youngster was asked to think of the ways that they were committing to live adult Jewish lives. The force of the moment was not a set of hoops to jump to prove something about the past, but a set of commitments to articulate about the future. A list of the ways that adults act upon their Jewishness was developed with the youths and their parents and they were asked to choose among them a few which during the last few years in their parents home they would commit to. It always included some tzedakah or gemilut hasadim and often included a commitment to spend a summer in Israel during highschool and the promise to choose a university among those that have an active Jewish campus life. It also included a conversation on finding a meaningful career with tikkun olam in mind. How much import these conversations and teenage commitments will have had is impossible to guess. What was most important is that the whole endeavor was pleasant, meaningful and memorable for everyone and that the future was point of it all.

This trend to buck the synagogues and arrange self-styled bar and bat mitzvah events is just beginning. No doubt, the freedom and independence to stage such an event, particularly in exotic places, will be more common among the affluent. Still, the move is significant and as more families begin to experience these renegade life cycle events they will want the freedom and creativity which they offer. The ceremony in Tozeur was so much more real, despite the rather surreal setting, than the Great Neck variety. The girls were orchestrating a family shabbat, its beginning and its end rather than performing a painstaking once-in-a-lifetime Torah reading. The sephardic (and orginally Tunisian) roots of the family were visible. After kiddush,

Papa Penot, the girls grandfather, blessed them on the balcony overlooking the desert, and for a full minute he did not open his eyes as he opened a channel to the heavens for the blessing of his dear children. The assembled crowd fell silent and was moved. While the family is hardly shabbat observant, the graceful and beautiful Maman, their 88 year old grandmother, having spent shabbat afternoon on the arranged jeep tour and hike, asked me in French when shabbat was out so that she could have a smoke. It is likely that the success of this particular event was in part due to the strong family traditions and the particular pattern of observance and non-observance, knowledge and ignorance common among sephardic Jews.

After the celebration I found myself in Paris having dinner at one of the kosher restaurants in the Marais. A man sitting in the table opposite was eating a dish that looked interesting. I asked him what he had ordered. He motioned to me to come to him and dipped in his fork and raised to me offering me a taste. The directness was surprising and pleasant. After tasting I said to him that he must be North African, the offering to share food with strangers being a common Moroccan and Tunisian custom. He said that he was from Tunisia and so I shared with him my recent experience in Tozeur. His son overheard us and bolted to the table. In French almost too fast for me to understand he implored his father. He had heard about Tozeur and the palace in the desert. "This is where I want to have the wedding," he cried! His father looked at me and asked, so, "do you do weddings?"


To join the conversation at Spirit and Story Talk, click here: arrow

To access the Spirit and Story Archives, click here:

Copyright c. 2000, CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

Send mail to Clal Webmaster
with questions or comments about this web site