Sunday, January 14, 2007

Speech at Lexei's bar mitzvah on 13th January 2007

Hello everybody. Here we all are again. I’ve got five minutes with a more or less captive audience. Once again, for those of you who are familiar with a traditional bar mitzvah, fasten your seat belts. And for those of you who have never been to a bar mitzvah before, rest assured that this is entirely authentic, and that all bar mitzvahs are exactly like this.

If this were a religious bar mitzvah, this would be the spot for the rabbi’s sermon, in which he would expound in a learned way on the significance of this week’s torah portion. Since this is a secular ceremony, it’s very tempting to have a reading from an important secularist text – perhaps an extract from Richard Dawkins’ new book ‘The God Delusion’, on why religion is not only wrong but also stupid and harmful. Fortunately for you, though, I understand that good manners require that I show a little forbearance.

So, back to Plan A, and a little exposition on the torah portion. As you will hear shortly, Lexei’s torah portion, and the associated haftorah portion, are both about somebody being called to a duty that they are reluctant to take on. Well, sometimes we feel the same about being secular Jews. It would have been easier to take the mainstream, religious route. Somebody else would have done the intellectual and pedagological schlepping. We would just have dropped the kids off at a synagogue cheder on Sunday morning, and then had the morning off – instead of having to make up a syllabus, run classes, make up a bar mitzvah ceremony, and so on. Plenty of other people manage like that, and most of their kids more or less get the message that religion, and Jewish culture have their own proper, small place that needn’t spill over into everyday life.

But it honestly felt to us like there really wasn’t any choice. We tried the other route, and in the end it just didn’t make any sense for us. For me the turning point came at a parents’ morning at the synagogue cheder, when one of the speakers – Clive Lawton, for those of you that know him -- asked, rhetorically, what was the point of sending your children to cheder to learn how to daven if you didn’t daven yourself? I had to agree, and Lexei stopped going to the synagogue cheder the following week. Almost certainly not the effect that he had in mind, but there you are.

So we started running our own secular cheder in the front room about three years ago – Lexei, Daniela, Abe, Max and me. We already had a bit of a model, because Leslie had been running a bar and bat mitzvah group in our kitchen for a couple of years – that’s the one Louis went to. But this was the first time that I’d done anything like teaching. So we learned to read Hebrew – and when I say ‘we’ here, I use that particular pronoun carefully. We studied bible stories, some of which were dramatised by a selection of beanie babies and other stuffed animals. We did Jewish history too, and we’ve just spent half of a term learning about the holocaust – Zionism, Israel, and the Palestinians next term, wish me luck!

We studied Jewish folklore – kicking off with the traditional story of the Rabbi who turned into a werewolf. We invented Jewish Top Trumps, merrily infringing copyright as we went. We added Jewish humour – and we learned the famous and important joke about the old Jewish guys who tell the same jokes over and over again, until in the end they just give each joke a number, then tell each other the number and all laugh together. And we didn’t just add stuff – we added people too, so that there were more and more kids in the front room – can we have a wave please, Susie, and Effie? So we added another teacher, too, because with the best will in the world I couldn’t teach Hebrew to ten kids at once. I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have made it through the last two years without my friend and co-teacher, Ms Lukom.

One of the things we do in our secular cheder is to look at Jewish customs and traditions as something that is evolving rather than static. So let’s have a bit of a go now, with a look at how the bar mitzvah itself has evolved. At Louis’ bar mitzvah ceremony, I explained what it meant for us as secular Jews to have a coming of age ceremony in the form of a bar mitzvah. This meant, in effect, to claim the symbolism of the bar mitzvah and to turn it into something that is meaningful for us. Actually, it turns out that this isn’t such a strange thing to have done. Everybody knows the joke about the elephant safari bar mitzvah, but the big bar mitzvah, as we know it, isn’t a timeless tradition at all. It’s only about fifty years old. Older men here will remember a small celebration at their own house, with a few bits of plaive cake, some bridge rolls, and some tiny glasses of cherry brandy.

The form of the big bar mitzvah is to a very great extent copied from the form of the big Jewish wedding. You can see that, for example, in the way that the ritual of lifting up the bar mitzvah boy on a chair has become part of the ritual – among the Orthodox, that’s something that you do at weddings. The same with the entirely invented ritual of the ‘bar mitzvah cake’. In fact, much of the ritual of the bar mitzvah party owes its origins to the traditional enemy of the Jewish people, the Jewish caterer.

Even the religious bar mitzvah ceremony isn’t all that old – perhaps a few hundred years. Once upon a time the big coming of age event for boys was around five years old, when the child was taken from its mother and given to the Rabbi to be educated. This was a public ceremony, which included the child being carried through the streets, and involved special foods, including food like eggs and cakes on which the verses of the torah were actually written (and by the way, this led to some very interesting discussions between rabbis as to whether it was permissible to excrete holy words).

In the Ashkenazic world this event more or less disappeared around the late middle ages, as part of a much bigger set of changes affecting both the Christian and the Jewish worlds. This is when the Christian practice of oblation – when parents gave their children to monasteries – came to an end. In the Jewish world, before this time there was nothing particularly special about the age thirteen. Some rabbinical authorities treated children as little adults, who were eligible for religious duties as long as they were physically capable of them – that’s still the principle in some sephardic communities. Biblical sources tended to treat twenty years as representing maturity, and for some purposes, like studying kabala, the appropriate age is at least forty. Well, at least Madonna is OK on that score.

It’s only from the fifteenth century onwards that Jewish children were seen as taking on the rights and responsibilities of adulthood at thirteen. The ceremony of the bar mitzvah, to mark the Jewish boy as having attained the age at which he could be counted in a minyan and called to the reading of the law, dates from this time.

Well, that’s the end of the history lesson. The point of it is really that social institutions, and especially religious traditions, like the bar mitzvah, are made up by people like us. We’ve got just as much right to make up our own way of doing things as did the rabbis in medieval Germany. What is, is the product of a process of change, and can be changed.

We tend to think about Jewish culture, and Judaism, in terms of its permanence and its resistance to change. Mike Leigh’s play about North London Jews was called ‘Two Thousand Years’ because we are fond of depicting our stuff as being two thousand years old. Everyone knows the joke about the Chassidic rabbis and the light bulb.

But the reality is that Jewishness has changed, in a very fundamental way, several times. The religion described in Judges, for example, is a decentralised affair with multiple holy places and holy men, and probably multiple deities too. The Judaism of the temple period, invented during the Bronze age monarchies that sort of correspond to the Book of Kings, involved a single centre, a hereditary priestly caste, a corps of priestly musicians, animal sacrifices, and so on. Talmudic Judaism, with rabbis and scholars and synagogues and Torah readings, is yet another invention – partly a response to the destruction of the temple, partly a recognition of the fact that even before that destruction huge numbers of Jews lived outside the land of Israel. Much of the familiar traditional liturgy and ritual is from the Middle Ages, or even later.

Right now, most Jews live their lives in the English-speaking world. Most of us are well integrated into the wider community, in terms of economic activity, friendships, and relationships. Cognitively and intellectually, most are already secularists.

So what does this secular bar mitzvah ceremony mean, to our family and our little community? Standing here, in this building which is not a synagogue, in the middle of a ceremony which is not a religious ceremony, we might be engaged in act of pointless frivolity – a departure from the Jewish mainstream which is just a stopping off point on the road to assimilation and disappearance.

Or we might be at the front of the next wave of change – the bellwethers, or harbingers, or whatever word you like, of the next kind of Jewishness to emerge. In which case when Lexei tells his grandchildren one day that he had a secular bar mitzvah, they’ll say, impatiently I hope, “Well duh – what other kind is there?” I can think of no better picture with which to leave you.