Barren and Batty Mitzvahs

Barren and Batty Mitzvahs

One of the kids I tutor struggles with both math and science, so he needs all the help and practice he can get. Yet, strangely enough, his parents force him to spend several hours a week studying neither math nor science, but Narnia. 

That’s right, Narnia, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And it doesn’t stop with the C.S. Lewis books. 

He must familiarize himself with all the fanzines, the invented back-stories, the fictional names, and dates, and he must be able to speak Narnian so that he can communicate with the lion Aslan. 

Okay, it’s not Narnia he’s forced to study, but it is something just as implausible: Judaism

Since early childhood, he’s been “learning” all the “facts” and “dates” associated with the Jewish heroes who never actually existed. He’s learned that the Red Sea was parted by Moses, even though it wasn’t. 

He’s learned the history of Passover, when that wily character, God, decided to screw with the Egyptians just for his own entertainment. 

He learned how the Jews—for some reason—spent forty years in the desert, even though God (supposedly the most powerful force in the universe) was their good buddy and should’ve been able to at least draw them a map. Unlike Narnian, Hebrew is a real language. 

But the kids I work with who go to Hebrew school don’t learn to read or speak it. No, they learn to sound out Hebrew, not understand it, because they take those lessons for one reason only: their bar or bat mitzvah, where they’ll wholeheartedly pledge themselves to the magic man in the sky. And they have no choice. 

You see, if they don’t, he might become angry with them, and...well...who knows what he’ll do? Destroy a city? Make them miss the final shot in the big game? 

They don’t know what will happen, but they do know it will be bad, so they go to Hebrew school in order to perform the magic ritual that will make them, at thirteen (an age when Mom still drives them to soccer practice), a grown man or woman. 

They attend Hebrew school for at least two hours a week for several years. It’s an awful lot of study time to waste on things that never happened. And it’s not just time, it’s money, too. Lots of it! There’s the cost of the Hebrew school tuition, the cost of the service in the temple, and, of course, the cost of the big party.

Here’s the strangest thing of all: Many parents who force their kids to attend Hebrew school and force them to cram for their bar or bat mitzvahs and insist on having a grand party to celebrate it all don’t really believe in any god themselves! 

A lot of them know it’s hogwash, nonsense, absolute rubbish. But they have to keep up with the Joneses (or, in this case perhaps, the Cohens or the Rosenblums), and throw a tremendous party in order to show their devotion to a simple Jewish life devoted to God. It’s true that people also spend ridiculous sums at other events, like weddings. 

But a wedding makes sense in a way: it’s the celebration of two people choosing to commit their lives to one another and perhaps start a family together. But a bar mitzvah is dedicated to a kid who’s all of thirteen and hasn’t even accomplished the goal of completing middle school. 

Yet walk into some of these parties, and you’d think we were honoring the Apollo astronauts. Douglas MacArthur got less fanfare. At the entrance of one party, I attended, giant gold letters about twelve feet in the air spelled out the kid’s name. 

Huge posters of his picture also towered over us everywhere like Zeus from Mount Olympus watching us from above. Another party, which took place at a Ferrari dealership, featured a marching band—as if the Ferrari dealership weren’t loud enough. 

I’ve seen dancers with disco balls for heads and drinks served by ladies who looked like they stepped out of a Stanley Kubrick film. These aren’t even parties, really. They’re Roman triumphs dedicated to adolescents. 

Richard Branson hosts less ridiculous affairs. Mentions of God, of course, are nowhere to be found because the only one being worshipped is the kid. 

I’m amazed that the parents never seem to grasp the incredible irony of spending the morning in the temple hearing about the importance of humility and devotion to God, then spending the evening guzzling martinis as they watch videos dedicated to the greatness of a thirteen-year-old who’s flunking math. 

If you really want your kid to help others—to perform mitzvahs, as my old tribe says—then make sure they learn about math and science and history, rather than forcing them to “learn” hocus-pocus that won’t do anything for anyone. 

They must have real knowledge in order to be good servants of humanity. And humanity needs as many good servants as possible because, I’m sorry to inform you, gods don’t actually exist. This means your kid isn’t one, either.

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A historian, educator, and political pundit who has written for numerous websites and publications, including The Hill, the NY Daily News, Newsday, Newsweek, and The Dictionary of American History. He is also vice president of Long Island Atheists. His fantasy novel for middle-grade students, The Stolen Kingdom, is a free download on Kindle.

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