I’ve attended countless bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies throughout the years, including those of family members, my children’s classmates, and adult b’nai mitzvah, for men and women who never had a bar or bat mitzvah growing up.
My daughter and I recently attended the second bar mitzvah of a member of our synagogue who just turned 83 years old. The custom of a second bar mitzvah, which has begun to become popular, is based on the reading of Psalm 90:10, which says that 70 years is the expected lifespan of most humans. Reaching age 70, then, can be considered a new start – and therefore, age 83 would be the equivalent to reaching b’nai mitzvah age again. This is also a great way to keep older congregants involved in synagogue life.
The bar mitzvah fell on a perfect Saturday morning, the sanctuary filled with friends and family. Stan, who had celebrated his 83rd birthday the day before, stepped up to the bimah (pulpit) with a wide and contagious smile not unlike those worn by proud 13-year-old boys celebrating their first bar mitzvah. As the congregation looked on, Stan chanted his Hebrew, delivered his d’var Torah, sang a duet with the cantor, and threw out a few good one-liners. He shared his quick wit, enthusiasm, and anecdotes with us, making it clear that he was having fun – and so was everyone else.
Unlike a first-time bar mitzvah, Stan didn’t give thanks to his parents for schlepping him to and from synagogue; after all, he’s had his driver’s license for more than 60 years! And in this case, we already knew many of the bar mitzvah boy’s many accomplishments – educator, family man, and two-time temple president, to name a few. Rather than brag about all he’s done, though, Stan – who continues to be active on the temple board – talked about his goals for the synagogue. Just like a 13-year-old, he was looking to the future.
In his address, Stan selflessly acknowledged people in attendance, both for their personal accomplishments and for their many contributions to the temple. Although the day should have been all about Stan, he instead made sure it was a day for everyone. How many b’nai mitzvah students get to have their adult daughter chant the aliyah or their wife address the congregation?
The luncheon that followed was a jubilant affair. There was no DJ and while we didn’t lift Stan on a chair, people were moved about, talking to one another, looking at photos on display of Stan though the years, and enjoying a table filled with Smarties, Necco Wafers, candy dots, and taffy. (Grown men were like little boys in a candy store as they headed for that table to collect the sweets.)
As the luncheon came to an end, people said their goodbyes to Stan and handed him envelopes, presumably full of congratulations. It seems some bar mitzvah traditions don’t change, even 70 years later!
Now, my daughter has begun to plan my second bar mitzvah – despite the fact that it’s more than two decades away. In fact, I asked the cantor to look up my Torah portion, and I still have my Haftarah portion booklet, all these years later, complete with all the markings and trope. Inspired by Stan, I’m thinking that I may not wait until I turn 83 to recreate some part of my entry into adulthood, according to Jewish tradition, on an upcoming Friday night.
Howard Lev is a member of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, N.Y. and currently serves on the temple’s rituals committee. Married with two children, Howard is a theatre professional who has worked on a number of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including the national tour of The King & I. He has also been published in Newsday.