Thoughts on a Bar Mitzvah

The informant is a student at USC and housemate of the collector. They are a screenwriting major, and a person who considers themselves a floater among social groups – “sometimes hangs out with musicians, sometimes with theatre kids.” They come from a family where the mother was Jewish but the father wasn’t, and although the informant is not very religious, they consider Judaism as something core to their identity. 

Are there any traditions that you’ve taken part in or hold of importance?

Yeah, I mean I had a bar mitzvah. That’s definitely a tradition I partook in. I partook in Chanukah, the presents ans the lighting the candles and the different prayers.

It’s interesting. My maternal grandfather – not actually my grandfather, my grandmother remarried – they were very liberal, y’know, for their time. He was my first Hebrew teacher and my first piano teacher. And um – he was fantastic at both – he was a very patient, kind guy and I never really appreciated that, and I should have – it’s not something I’m particularly proud of. He was a really great guy. And I remember – it was something –  this is so small, it’s such a tiny detail. There’s two different ways to speak Hebrew. There is the traditional pronunciation and there is the Ashkenazi pronunciation. Which he had grown up with. There’s a letter in Hebrew that is “T” in the traditional pronunciation and has a “t” sound, but if it’s without a little dot in the middle it is a “s” sound in Ashkenazi. And I remember that he would always correct me on that. It was one of those things that stuck until my bar mitzvah. When I got done – I got bar mitzvah’d in a reform synagogue, with a – y’know in Texas, so like I’m not sure if it counts –


After I trained for months to do my bar mitzvah really well – I had a kickass bar mitzvah, I probably worked harder on that bar mitzvah than I have on anything else in my life. I cared. Y’know I really wanted to fuckin’ kick some ass up there. I really wanted to impress Rachel. Whatever. Not that it matters.

I don’t know. They’re not stories, they’re just like little things.

Tell me about your whole bar mitzvah process, or traditional things that people made you do or partake in.

What’s great about a bar mitzvah is when you’re a thirteen year old kid you don’t really know how to do anything, if that makes any sense. You think you are a capable human, but you’re clearly not. Because you’re thirteen years old. And you’ve never really had any responsibility, and you’ve never really had to do anything. So when I was training for my bar mitzvah, I had never really done that amount of work before. And it really kind of haven’t since. It speaks to my level of either work ethic or choice of career. But it taught me discipline. Because I realize I had kind of bailed on Hebrew school before then, and I really didn’t know a lot, and I wasn’t a particular student of the game. And so I got a tutor, an 80-something year old woman named Sarah Purcell, who was just kind of this five-foot-nothing lithe little force of nature, who just took no shit from anybody. And was very very good at teahing large amounts of material in a short amount of time. And so I buckled down for about six months and I learned my torah portion, my haftara, all of it. It was very intense and I studied constantly – listening to the tapes, she had made tapes of her singing it because it’s very hard to read – what’s really cool about Hebrew is that they actually have music built in to the language in certain places. And there are little tropes that you can use to identify what note or whatever thing to say. And I knew those for a brief period of time.

Did you learn both the torah trope and the haftara trope?

Yeah! I sang the whole thing. It was quite an endeavor. And then I wrote a speech, and I thought I was a writer – I wanted to be a writer since I was like eleven years old. I wrote this speech that was part of the bar mitzvah and the speech was the worst part of it. And I cannot. Just. Thinking about that speech makes me so sad. Just because – I recited something that I thought I was proud of in front of like 70 people and I was like, “this is a great speech you guys, I’m such a great writer,” and I failed so miserably. Everything else about – I thought I was being so deep, and I wasn’t; I think I quoted The Da Vinci Code in my speech – because every twelve-going-on-thirteen year old thinks The Da Vinci Code is so deep and interesting. And it’s so not. It was such a pseudo-intellectual moment. And I realized the second I stepped off the stage that’s just not that. Anyway. I don’t know.

Were your other friends going through this at the same time?

That was a really interesting period in my life. Just because, um… Some of my friends were. I did youth theatre and so that’s where most of my friends were. And a couple of them were inevitably Jewish. But for the most part, I uh… And my sixth-grade girlfriend. Who to this day is probably my only legitimate girlfriend. Um. That was a joke, but still kind of serious. She was going through it at the same time, I suppose. But it was very weird because I was about to move. And so I was kind of wrapping up with the three really close friends that I had had there. We were all very close – like not ALL of us were very close but I was very close with the three of them individually. And so – none of them were Jewish. In fact all of them were card-carrying Christians who’d go to church on Sunday. They really tried.

I was about to move. So I guess the bar mitzvah was weird in that it was kind of a capstone to a period in my life that I didn’t want to end. I kind of developed a good community, I developed good relationships, and I was unhappy to leave it. So at the bar mitzvah I was like I was going out on top.

Your friends that weren’t Jewish came to your bar mitzvah?

Yeah! And they were very supportive and they were sweet. Although they didn’t have to be at all. And we’re still friends. Most of them – actually one of them is here with me at school right now and we still hang out and do stuff. It’s very cool.


Informant was the first among many interviewed who, when asked about traditions, initially thought of something related to religion. I didn’t set out to collect religiously-tied traditions, but it was a trend that appeared!