Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bar Mitzvahs Play Better Off Broadway (Jewish Week, 12/19/08)

by Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

It was only a matter of time before bar mitzvah became fodder for a Broadway musical. When the teen-filled cast of “13” landed with a splash in October, it seemed a sure bet to capitalize on the success the mega-hit “High School Musical” franchise and America’s ongoing fascination with all things bar mitzvah.

Alas, “13” didn’t even make it to Musaf.

“Variety” reports that, after failing to play to more than 50 percent capacity, “13” will be closing on Jan. 4, a victim of lukewarm reviews and the economic collapse. But while the lights may be dimming on Broadway, a better version of “13” is playing to wildly cheering crowds each week at a synagogue near you. No tickets are needed, plus we throw in free parking and a kiddush.

One of the unseen benefits of the recession is that people are beginning to recapture the true spirit of bar mitzvah. Parties are being scaled back, as even those accustomed to keeping up with the Steins have become too embarrassed to stage something ostentatious at a time when so many are suffering financially. Modesty and simplicity are de rigueur in hard times — check the falling hemlines.

Although I didn’t have the chance to see “13,” I’ve officiated at maybe a thousand bar and bat mitzvahs and I would venture to guess that each one offered more drama and intrigue than “13” did on its best day. With all the joking we do about bar mitzvahs, we often fail to appreciate their power. It’s unfortunate that in many congregations, the “regulars” see them as annoyances and the service too often is turned into a private, family affair. Properly marketed and executed, this rite of passage could be the cornerstone for community building, rather than the embarrassment it has become.

I try to make each service as riveting as possible. It isn’t as hard as one might think, because each of these students has a spellbinding story to tell. We always distribute a family tree and it’s not surprising to have a child whose lineage goes back to Rashi on one side and Paul Revere on the other. We’re endlessly amazed at how each of these students has somehow forged a new path for this dramatic ascent to Sinai.

The part of my job that I enjoy most is working with each student on the d’var Torah. We brainstorm together, seeking that precious intersection between sacred text and the context of a young adult’s life. The stories I hear could fill an entire week of NBC’s Olympic coverage. These are heartwarming, funny and heroic.

Yes, heroic. Maccabee heroic.

Who can retell? Just this fall, while “13” was bombing on the Great White Way, a stream of heroic 13-year-olds was bringing tears to eyes here in the ‘burbs. My congregants met one young girl who single-handedly organized a blood drive, another trying to save endangered bees and another who imaginatively explained what Jews have in common with vampires (the good ones, from “Twilight”). One extraordinarily courageous girl spoke calmly of how her father’s sudden death last spring brought out the goodness in so many people who reached out to help her family. She said, “For Jews, happiness is really all about accepting what life throws at us and appreciating the good things.”

Max, whose portion was “Noah,” spoke of his recent trip to Kenya, saying that when he came home and saw a deer in the yard, as he had a thousand times before, this time, “I looked at it as if I looked at the first wildebeest in Kenya. And I looked at its legs and muscles and the way it moved and ate. And just then did I realize that each individual, no matter how many there are, is special.”

Adam, a huge sports fan, called the Creation “God’s Top Seven Plays of the Week,” and rattled off an ESPN-like commentary about how the separation of darkness from light was God’s way of determining that World Series games should end much too late for kids on the East Coast.

And then there was Danielle, who attended an international language camp in Marbella, Spain, last summer, only to discover that a large group of girls at the camp was Russian. Knowing that her mother had experienced malicious anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, and never having met a Russian before who wasn’t Jewish, Danielle decided to hide her identity.

“People might not have found out that I was Jewish,” she said, “except that I was practicing for today [her bat mitzvah]. One day my folder slipped out of my suitcase and a Russian girl picked it up and started looking at it. Within an hour, all the Russian girls knew that I was learning Hebrew. As you can imagine, I was afraid of what was going to happen next. The girls started treating me differently and saying cruel things about Jews. Some of them had never met a Jew before.”

Danielle survived the ordeal and compared this perilous journey to the one taken by Abraham in her portion of Lech Lecha. She concluded: “Abraham may have gone very far from home, but the most difficult part of the trip was what went on inside himself. He went far from home in order to find out who he really was.”

And then she declared proudly, “That’s exactly what happened to me.”

So I am happy to announce that “13” is not closing after all. This long-running musical always played best Way Off Broadway, and it continues playing week after week at synagogues throughout the world. It will win no Tonys, the voices might crack on occasion, but it’s the best reality programming around. There is no better drama to be found: the tale of the Jewish people constantly reinventing itself, a coming-of-age saga about that magical moment when a child’s lifelong search for God truly begins.

Check your local listings.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

No comments: