TEL AVIV NOTES – Insider Travel blog for Tel Aviv
Naomi’s Insights

What does Bar Mitzvah really mean?

bar mitzva

You know how it is when you feverishly look forward to an event for weeks on end and then – poof – it’s all over. That’s how it was with Ron’s Bar Mitzvah. For three whole months, his teacher had prepared him for the ceremony and the leading of the weekly prayer segment. It’s the transition from childhood to religious accountability whereby one, at the age of thirteen, is now responsible for observing the Jewish commandments.

Admission to the religious community

It’s basically coming of age in Judaism. Laying Teffilin and reading from the Torah in the synagogue form part of this. With the calling to the Torah, the Bar Mitzvah boy is formally received into the community. There is something very moving about the ritual. To make it clear from the start: I’m not religious, we live secularly. Don’t eat kosher, listen to music on Shabbat and don’t pray.

Just around the corner from us is Meir Lau’s, the former chief rabbi’s, synagogue. I like the synagogue as it’s simple and not pompous. What I really don’t like is that as a woman I have to sit on the top floor behind a crochet curtain. That’s how it is in orthodox houses of prayer: men pray below and women above. It was also like that during my childhood in the Frankfurt synagogue, which I visited twice a year: on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

Secular ties with the traditions

Since I’ve lived in Israel, even these two visits have fallen away. Despite my secular lifestyle, I feel strongly connected to the Jewish tradition. The songs, chants and psalms. When my son’s clear voice echoes in the synagogue and those praying respond with song, I understand that it’s precisely these rites that have held the Jewish people together for thousands of years.


I see how the overly large tallit slips off Ron’s shoulder and my friend affectionately straightens the prayer shawl before taking the Torah out of the prayer cabinet. Ready to enter the adult community. I pushed the crochet curtain aside quite a while ago. Looking upon the heads of those in prayer, I am amazed at how reverently they bow before God. I see my elder son Ben close to Ron. Behind him, his uncle, cousins, male friends. In the gallery above, I sit beside my mother, family and female friends. These are profound moments that I will carry within me for a lifetime. On that Saturday, my heart grew a little bigger.

translation: Catherine Bradshaw


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