Cantor Matt Axelrod has a few tips for his b’nei mitzva students: Don’t doodle on your bar/bat mitzva folder. Mistakes are okay. Go to the bathroom before the service starts.
He also has strategies for parents: Don’t sit in on the lesson. Don’t nag your children to practice. Don’t tell them to slow down. (“Give it up, mom and dad. It’s just not going to happen.”)
After giving the same advice year after year to kids and their parents over his 20-year tenure at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, Axelrod decided to codify his oral Torah of the rite in a new book, Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide, published this year by Jason Aronson. Think of it as Pirkei Axelrod.
Sitting in his office on a rainy hol hamo’ed Sukkot morning, he said, “The book deals with the stuff 13-year-old kids are really concerned with: They have to get up, sing in another language for two hours without mistakes in front of all their relatives and friends. And they are inundated with practice, their parents are driving them crazy, everyone is fighting, everyone is stressed. They say, ‘Why should I do this? It’s hypocritical.’”
These are the things, he said, that “are really going through the kids’ and the parents’ minds.”
He pointed out that while there are plenty of bar and bat mitzva books out there focusing on making the day spiritual, or finding the right mitzva project, few deal with the “tachlis,” or practical bottom line, of the preparation.
Acknowledging the stress that precedes a bar or bat mitzva in the chapter entitled “Help! My Parents are Driving Me Crazy,” he writes that there’s nothing like a bar or bat mitzva “to throw your entire lives into utter chaos. It’s not like you have anything substantial to worry about, right? You attend a couple lessons, your parents order some food, everyone gets dressed up, and the rest just takes care of itself.
His response? A strategy to take the pressure off: Everyone is assigned specific roles and instructed to worry just about their own stuff. Kids must take charge of “everything having to do with practicing and preparation,” he writes. Grownups worry about the details of the celebration and handing out the honors at the service.
Axelrod believes today’s kids have two challenges that his generation didn’t face: time management and religious choice.
“Kids have way more on their plates than we did at their age,” he said. “There are a lot of demands on their time, and we are giving them more homework. That can make it hard for kids to get it done in a timely manner,” he said.
As for religious choice, he said, “In our generation, if you were Jewish, you were Jewish. That just isn’t so anymore. Today, people are more apt to question, and to go shopping for ideas. So people are a little more focused on meaning and connecting to the text, and trying to find more connection to the whole experience.”
The book caters to families of sixth-graders in liberal denominations at the very beginning of their journey into bar or bat mitzva preparation.
Axelrod defines all of the terms that come up — everything from Shaharit, Musaf, and Torah to haftara, trope, minyan, and aliya.
There are also some basic strategies on managing the performance anxiety that many b’nei mitzva may feel. “One facet of bar mitzva preparation that drives my students crazy is when I insist they learn how to make a mistake. But it’s a skill that’s really important and will also serve you well in lots of other areas,” he writes.
But there is a right way and wrong way to think about mistakes, as he warns parents: “[P]lease, please stop telling your kid that it’s ok to make a mistake because no one knows what he’s singing anyway,” writes Axelrod. “Instead, tell him it’s ok to make a mistake because he’s 13 years old, and no one in the world would ever expect him to be perfect.”
If readers take one thing from his book, Axelrod said, he hopes it will be his approach to the day: that the ceremony marks the first time a person takes on a leadership role in a religious service — not the last time.
The bar or bat mitzva, he said, “is not the end of it all. It’s not, ‘This is it, you’ve done it, you graduated.’ Instead, this is a set of tools and a day when you can try them out,” he said. “If you view it as the end, the pressure is on. If you’ve screwed up, there’s no going back. But if it’s just your first step, if you mess up on a word, it’s just a minor gaffe. You can say, ‘Okay, so it’s just this service. Next time I come up, everything will be fine.’”