Letter from Synagogue
15 December 2004, 10:34 AM
There was no discussion during last week’s service, as we were celebrating the bar mitzvah of one of our congregation. He’s a good kid, and he reminds me a lot of myself at that age (poor sap), and I felt an unjustifiably avuncular pride as I watched and listened. I hope he’ll be at shul this week; I’m afraid that most often the bar mitzvah marks an end to the obligation to attend weekly service, rather than an introduction to full membership in that service. Ah, well.
Oh, and for those of you who have experienced the thing, let me tell you that I am now one of those old guys in the back who wasn’t invited to the bar mitzvah, and sings loudly and tunelessly whilst the friends and family of the fountain pen mumble. You remember them? That’s me.
For those who didn’t grow up in the tradition, let me try to paint the picture. Our synagogue is smallish, and the social service is on Friday night, so the Saturday morning service struggles to keep its head over ten. Lately, we’ve been averaging fifteen or so, five of which usually straggle in late. For a bar mitzvah, the boy’s uncles and aunts and grandparents and cousins come, and his friends from school, and some of his friends’ parents, and some of his parents’ friends, and I would guess there were a couple of hundred people there altogether, many of whom had never attended Shabbat services before, and many more of whom hadn’t attended in years. Scattered among the celebrating throng are those fifteen who had been there last week and the week before.
Now, unlike those Christian services I’ve attended (which may or may not be typical, I don’t know) most of the songs are the same every week. We may add a few or skip a couple depending on time, but we aren’t picking a different four each week out of four hundred. So people who attend every week soon memorize the songs and (if they want to) sing them with an energy and confidence that you get when you know a song really really well. And of the two-and-a-half hour service, about an hour and a half is singing. So for the new and the occasional shul-goer, there’s a good deal of mumbling and peering at the book (which doesn’t print the tunes) (well, there’s only one service I’ve been to that regularly prints all the tunes and it was a very nice service indeed, but an exception).
Anyway, for the bar or bat mitvah, standing up at the front, it’s pretty clear that there are a handful of people making a ruckus, and that he didn’t invite any of those people, and it’s all a bit distracting. At one point when I asked a buddy to help me practice the haftorah blessings, he started singing along, off tune and a beat and a half late. This was, it turned out, pretty much the most helpful rehearsal I got. I wish I’d done as much for Joshua beforehand; in the event, he did just fine.