Everything old is new again

Bar mitzvah at Western Wall, Jerusalem. (Steve Lubetkin Photo/Used by permission)
Bar mitzvah at Western Wall, Jerusalem. (Steve Lubetkin Photo/Used by permission)

I read an article in which Lisa Kudrow told the story of her son’s bar mitzvah at a mall. Her son was 16 and had gone to the mall to purchase a new game.

Some men asked, “Kid, are you Jewish?”

And he said “well, half.”

They asked, “which half?”

“My mother,” he said.

“That’s good, come here,” they said.

They asked if he had had a bar mitzvah and he responded that he hadn’t. They asked him if he wanted to have one and he said “yeah.” They then proceeded to wrap (what I presume were) tefillin around his arm (the article said they wrapped fill-in around his arm😂), and covered his head and got him to recite a prayer. They even took a picture for his mom.

He went home and told Kudrow about the new video game he had bought at the mall and added “Oh, yeah. And I  was bar mitzvahed.” That confused Kudrow, so he showed her the picture. She went on to say that “it was funny because my family, they were like ‘Oh, okay,’ and they wrote checks. You know, like for a bar mitzvah present.” Kudrow, not considering herself to be religious, never had a bar mitzvah for her son. But her family wrote checks and gave him money as Bar Mitzvah presents, even though it was a bar mitzvah without any guests or party.

We know that there need be no celebration nor even a ceremony, a boy at 13 becomes obligated to observe the mitzvot, he becomes bar mitzvah. So I guess the mall ceremony was a different way of acknowledging a transitional moment (please don’t comment on what it really was. This is just a starting point).

Was it an old or a new ritual?

I was not always a fan of rituals. I thought rituals were words you recited, at set times, repeatedly, because you had to. There was no creativity, and often no real emotional involvement. Rituals were like my mother saying “because I said so.” But a little critical thinking, and a lot of study, brought me to a different place. As Professor Google says, “rituals are a feature of all known human societies. They include not only worship rites, but also rites of passage, atonement and purification, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, coronations and presidential inaugurations, marriages, and funerals.” And might I add, daily meditation, taking a seventh inning stretch, and for me, watching Jeopardy every night.

We are at an age where so much seems to be happening so fast. Our children are getting older faster than we did, and we faster than our parents. How did my father show up as the man in the mirror? How do we mark this passage of time, how do we face all these changes?

Lisa Kudrow’s son followed an age old tradition, although not the way most of us did it, to mark his becoming bar mitzvah. We have traditional rituals, and we can create new ones. Like (as in my last column) taking a daily retreat, to a magical place to provide emotional upliftings. And for those of you who have been having difficulty confronting the news, try this: https://www.irwinkeller.com/itzikswell/2022/4/11/prayer-for-reading-the-news. Reb Irwin has written many beautiful songs and prayers, but this one ritual, said each day before reading or watching the news, is especially helpful now.

We now have rituals for so many different transitional moments. We can find rituals for taking off wedding rings at the end of mourning, leaving the family home, and older adult cohabitation, amongst other new rituals on this JewishSacredAging.com website. We have access online to a wealth of rituals for almost every conceivable event. Of course, if you can’t find one, you can make one up. What do we need for an effective ritual? Different commentators have included invocation, emotion, gratitude, tradition, transformation, closure and celebration as necessary. I think we create rituals to meet the individual needs and circumstances. My formula is an acknowledgement of what has happened (the past), gratitude for what we have (the present), and an invention and hope for what is next (the future). Rituals for these times may be designed to put the past behind us. And since every day produces a new past, the ritual may be most effective when done every day. Ask yourself, what new ritual can I create, or what existing ritual can I adopt, that will make every day a little better.

In a posting on Scientific American from their Harvard Business School study, Francesca Gino and Michael Norton noted the extraordinary variety of ritual. Rituals, they said, are performed in communal settings, and in solitude; in  fixed, repeated sequences of actions, or not. People engage in rituals with the intention of achieving a wide set of desired outcomes, from reducing their anxiety to boosting their confidence, alleviating their grief to performing well in a competition, or even to make it rain. There is research that suggests that rituals can be extremely effective. They added that despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true. Many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.

They did say some rituals are unlikely to be effective, as knocking on wood will not bring rain.

After all, everyone knows you also need to wish it would rain.

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