Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How Does a Bar Mitzvah Connect to Genealogy?

It's been a much longer break than anticipated but I'm finally back! During my two and a half month absence from the genealogy blogging scene, I dedicated my time almost exclusively to my youngest son's Bar Mitzvah. The event was fast approaching required my full attention to both help my son prepare, as well as pull off a successful celebration which would follow. As much as I missed blogging, my blog, is not only about the past, but also about the present and the future. This right of passage, the Bar Mitzvah, brings together the past, the present and the future. The last few months I focused on the present, making the Bar Mitzvah happen, and now—re-energized and rejuvenated—I am excited to return to blogging!

The Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah in the case of girls) milestone, connect each Jewish young person with their past. I have three sons, so this is our third and last Bar Mitzvah. Each event was completely different, reflecting the personalities of each child. Mirroring our families life, the first was held in Mexico, the second in Israel and the third here in Boston. Since my eldest son's Bar Mitzvah, I've connected this ceremony with genealogy. Thanks to his Bar Mitzvah project of researching his roots, we began an online family tree. This first family tree sparked a deep passion for genealogy in me.

Interestingly, this time around, another connection to family history emerged. Most Jewish children, read the Torah for the first time on their Bar Mitzvah. I'd like to take a pause here and explain. Some people believe that to have a Bar Mitzvah, means reading the Torah. That is actually not true. One does not have a Bar Mitzvah. One becomes a Bar Mitzvah by turning 13 (for boys) or 12 (for girls). In Jewish tradition, this means that a Bar Mitzvah is a person old enough to follow the Mitzvot (commandments). It basically means that as a Bar Mitzvah you have the same rights and responsibilities of a Jewish adult. It is the first time you can be called up to the Torah and take a turn to read from the Torah in temple. You do not have to do it, but you may have this privilege if you would like. Being called up to the Torah or reading from the Torah is always an honor. Doing so for the first time, is a cause for celebration. That is where the tradition comes from. The big parties often held today, are a relatively modern elaboration of this ancient custom.

My son was both excited and nervous about reading the Torah. He had a wonderful teacher who taught him the traditional cantillation (tropes) and helped him master the difficult task of reading without vowels (the Torah scroll has no vowels or punctuation). He studied his Torah portion and prepared a Dvar Torah, the speech which teaches the community something new about the weekly Torah portion. Before we knew which Torah portion he would have to read (it depends on the date of the Bar Mitzvah), he was nervous that he would not be able to relate to his portion and would not know what to say. But then, when he saw his portion, he was thrilled. After reading the first sentence he  exclaimed: "Mom, this portion was written for me!"
My son practicing to read from the actual Torah scroll using a "yad,"
a silver hand to help him find his place. The yad is used to avoid touching the
scroll with one's had which can damage the delicate text.

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12), is one of the most famous chapters of the Bible. it begins with the following sentence: "And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." My son, could completely relate to Abram (Abraham before God changed his name from Abram to Abraham). He too left his land (Mexico), his birthplace and the land of his father and went to a new land, the United States. It made for a great Bar Mitzvah speech!

That one sentence immediately connected my son to his past and his family history. Not only was he born in Mexico, but Mexico was the land of his forefathers for generations. Abraham's story, is the story of the Jewish people and their wanderings in pursuit of a better life and religious freedom. Glowing with pride, I listed to him make this connection to his own family history. I thought not only of our Mexican ancestors, but those from Eastern Europe to immigrated to America and to Israel in search of a better life. Much of my genealogy work is focused on their immigration paths. It was very special to see that even though he did not make a family tree as a Bar Mitzvah project like his brother, he also gained a deep understanding of how the Bar Mitzvah connects him to those who came before him. This insight strengthen his foundation and I am confident it will serve him in the future as he becomes an independent young adult.

Do you have stories to share about rights of passage and their connection to your family history? I'd love to hear them.


  1. Smadar, it's so good to see you back! While I don't have any such stories to share myself, it certainly was helpful to read your perspective on your son's Bar Mitzvah, and especially the passage he was to read from the Torah. He was so right: it did sound like a passage specially picked out just for him. What a life lesson, tying together his own experience with that of his forefathers and Patriarchs. Those are the kinds of lessons you never forget!

    1. Thanks Jacqi! It's nice to be back! There were so many meaningful moments at the Bar Mitzvah. It's nice to share a small part of it!

  2. Smadar:
    Welcome back and congratulations on your son's accomplishment. The Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah experiences that we shared with our daughter and son were amazing affirmations of the power of community in our synagogue. It seemed to both me and my non-Jewish husband that the community was incredibly supportive in ensuring that every child would succeed. It's incredibly powerful when, in the midst of a large city, one can feel the support of your shtetl. It's truly awe-inspiring what a 13-yr-old can accomplish when given the opportunity.

    1. Thanks, Emily! Very well said! It is amazing to find such a nice community. I know there are many across the country, but not everywhere. It truly is something to be cherished.


Thanks for sharing your comments!