More ‘mitzvah,’ less ‘bar’: A lesson in silver linings

Amy Fenster Brown with her son, Leo, at his bar mitzvah earlier this month. 

By Amy Fenster Brown

Raise your hand if you’re tired of the phrase “the new normal.” Keep your hand up if you realize you’re actually adapting to the new normal, even though the term annoys you. I see lots of hands.  

The world has changed plans with regard to work, school and grocery shopping. We’ve worked remotely, done virtual school, ordered grocery delivery. We’re changing again as the reins are loosened. When it comes to big events and simchas we’re stuck with disappointing postponements and cancellations.

Those of us in the heavy throes of b’nai mitzvah prep and execution had the rug pulled out from under us in March. My younger son, Leo, was all set and ready to go when his bar mitzvah came to a screeching halt just two weeks before its original date. He impressively rolled with the punches and handled the postponement like a champ and a true mensch.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were able to celebrate him in a way that fit these unprecedented times. Man, oh man, do I miss precedented times.  

Back in the old normal days, we would have had 200 people in the synagogue watching Leo read his Torah portion, followed by a lovely kiddush in a room decorated to the hilt in his baseball theme. There would have been be lots of delicious food, and family and friends hugging and kissing and touching and sitting less than 6 feet apart. 


In those good old days, we would have spent the evening at a festive and fun party with family and friends hugging and kissing and touching and sitting less than 6 feet apart, with a photo booth and music and party favors and more delicious food and an open bar. 

Now is the time for less “bar” and more “mitzvah.” We don’t have a choice. Yet we can find a silver lining within the disappointment.

I’d like to think most of us have our priorities straight without a global pandemic dictating our lives. Chaos and distraction in the form of social commitments, commuting to work and school, the parent taxicab service taking kids to activities and shopping trips that are based more “want” than “need” have been lessened, and practically eliminated, in many cases. 

Our focus then shifts to what we do have, where we can go and who we can see. Strip away the extras, and you are left with the basics. The basics are what we all say matters most anyway: time with our families, simple activities such as cooking, doing home-based projects and enjoying downtime. Add in the wonders of technology and you can FaceTime the people you miss, have meetings and virtual happy hours on Zoom and watch Shabbat services on your synagogue’s website.

Big parties are being temporarily replaced with car parades of well-wishers honking their horns instead of dancing the hora. Celebratory dinners consist of restaurant carry-out meals enjoyed on the patio. 

Everyone looks forward to a big celebration. The b’nai mitzvah weekend has become more like a wedding weekend, with a Friday night dinner, Saturday service and big party and a Sunday brunch. The party itself takes tons of planning and attention to detail and is such a wonderful treat for the child, now adult, who has worked so incredibly hard. 

We all know, however, that often the party becomes the focus rather than the service, the ritual of reading Torah and standing before the congregation discussing what it means to reach this milestone as a young Jewish adult. More “mitzvah,” less “bar.”

In finding that silver lining, seeing the positive in this mess of disappointment, it’s that the actual meaning of this Jewish rite of passage is brought back into focus, the simplicity of the ritual without the chaos of everything that goes along with it. The lesson learned is one we can all use as a reminder for years to come.  

Life’s surprises, big or little, show up when they want to show up, and it’s almost always out of our control. Our measure of success is how we deal with it.  

Leo’s actual bar mitzvah service was in our synagogue with our wonderful rabbis and a handful of people. In an odd twist of fate, his Torah portion was all about sacrifice. That’s rich, isn’t it? Guests were invited to watch online. Friends and family from all over texted us selfies they took with Leo’s service on a computer screen behind them. He knows they took part, just not in person. He will get to have a big party at some point, as soon as it’s safe and people are comfortable. 

Again, we will likely find ourselves shifting and adapting to yet another “new normal” then, whenever then is.  

Monthly columnist Amy Fenster Brown is married to Jeff and has two teenage sons, Davis and Leo. She volunteers for several Jewish not-for-profit groups. Fenster Brown is an Emmy Award-winning TV news writer and counts time with family and friends, talking and eating peanut butter among her hobbies. Email Amy at [email protected].