Yesterday we went to the Bar Mitzvah of Nathaniel Frum, the son of David and Danielle. Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs are amazing events. I always come away from them with a sense of awe, because it’s a rite of passage that always works. I cannot remember the last time a young man or woman “failed” this test, even though it’s a very daunting challenge, and even though, at some stage of preparation, most of the kids-become-young-men or women were convinced they couldn’t possibly do it.
There’s a lot of work, learning to chant, not just read–with a lot of memorization involved–long passages in Hebrew. In most cases, one passage is from the Hebrew Torah, a hand written scroll with no vowels, and the other is from the Hebrew Haftorah, a printed text of commentary and prophecy. For the kids who have attended secular schools, I dare say there has been nothing in their previous education that compares with this level of difficulty. Kids aren’t made to memorize a lot of material any more, rote learning having been banned in the names of the false gods of self-esteem and nobody-ever-fails-here. In Bar Mitzvah, as in all serious intellectual examinations, you either get it right or you get it wrong, there is no room for self indulgence. As the Bar Mitzvah candidate chants, there is a clear-eyed expert following along, and unhesitatingly interrupts with corrections if any mistake is made.
Then the candidate gives the congregation some thoughts about the significance of what he/she has read. No one really expects brilliance, but we do expect evidence that the candidate has done some serious thinking, which is an integral part of this rite. Nathaniel was not only thoughtful, but entertaining, using a baseball metaphor to grapple with the story of Jacob’s own rite of passage in the wilderness.
Passing this test–a test that Jews have been taking for millenia–obviously does wonders for genuine self esteem, not the phony sort that comes from pseudo tests and pseudo schools where learning has been dumbed down to ensure nobody fails. That is why, after passage, the candidate is welcomed into the adult community. He/she is now considered a serious person, and that is reason for real pride.
As I say, it always works, as well it should. If we had similarly serious standards in our schools we’d get serious results there, too.