Mars & Venus Turn 13
New year brings new b’nai mitzah drama
Rona Sue London
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then where do 13-year-old boys and girls come from? Perhaps they evolve from black holes, nebulae or alien planets. Seventh grade holds unanticipated surprises, both dreadful and delightful, and they are different for boys than for girls. It is the year our youngsters declare to the Jewish community, “Today I am an adult.” And you think, “Yeah, right, as if!”
Thirteen-year-old children hover precariously bet-ween being children and being young adults. If you are living with one, you know what I mean. Sometimes you are dealing with a mature young man or woman with startlingly brilliant insights; other times you are confronted with the incarnation of the devil.
As the 7th-grade year gets under way, the b’nai mitzvah circuit takes center stage. The production includes elaborate outfits with uncomfortable shoes, hours sitting in synagogue services, parties that rock until the wee hours of the night and the increasing drama of social expectations; it’s a pressure cooker. Boys and girls tend to react differently to these stressors. Boys seem to take it all in stride. Girls may get giddy. Everyone is breathless, bracing for the onslaught. It all begins with the preparations.
“If you get a boy to take a shower, it’s a miracle. With a girl, getting ready is an event in itself. The biggest decision Jake had to make was which of two ties he was going to wear. With Miriam, it was a weekly extravaganza, where the preparation was just as important as the affair.” Toni Greenberg is mother to Jake, 18, and Miriam, 13, an 8th-grade student at Krieger Schecter Day School. “For Jake, I bought the obligatory blue sports jacket and gray slacks. One trip and we were done. With Miriam we went on five different shopping trips in search of the perfect dresses. She had at least six different ones: the synagogue dress, the party after services dress, the daytime party dress, the fancy nighttime dress, the fancier nighttime dress and, of course, her own bat mitzvah dress. And then each week I had girls over my house spending two to three hours getting ready, giggling, trading dresses. They took over my bathroom with makeup, curling irons and hair products.”
In most families, there are emotionally charged discussions (and sometimes slammed doors) regarding what constitutes appropriate attire for shul and parties. For girls, it is the issue of short skirts and strapless dresses for a religious ceremony; for boys, dressing up and wearing an uncomfortably stiff shirt and tie are the problem. Karen Desser, mother of Aaron and Talia (college students) and Ethan, 13, who attends Pikesville Middle School, feels the fashion issue is non-negotiable. She and her husband, Morris, members of Chizuk Amuno, feel strongly that there is a proper way to dress in synagogue. Desser says, “With boys it’s easy. I think Aaron and Ethan accepted that it was the one time they had to dress in suits and ties. With girls, however, it is a challenge. Finding a dress that is conservative, not too short and with sleeves was difficult, but I was willing to let Talia get mad at me. I believe it is the time to be a mom.”
Karen Mazer is the owner of Synchronicity Boutique in Pikesville. The store carries special occasion outfits and accessories for teens and tweens. She and her husband, Millard, have three children. David, their youngest, attends a local all boys school and was recently a bar mitzvah at Oheb Shalom. Mazer and her employees work hard to navigate the difficult territory
between parents and their children. “It is an awkward time for any child as they go through puberty. Girls are often uncomfortable with their bodies and boys want to fit in.” Mazer believes that everyone has some physical quality that makes them beautiful. Whereas mothers might focus on a daughter’s figure, it is perhaps better to draw attention to beautiful eyes or lovely posture, and it is not hard to find something to compliment everyone. When fitting boys, Mazer finds that boys want to wear what their friends are wearing and she is very respectful of that. “When the kids are happy, they radiate, and that is what it is all about.”
“With girls, you have the dress, earrings, jewelry, hair, makeup, handbag and shoes. With boys, it is just the suit, tie and a shirt.” Gilbert Cohen, owner of Cohen’s Clothiers, the go-to place for bar mitzvah suits, says that working with boys is quite different than working with girls. Cohen says, “You are dealing with a young fellow and he is not interested in his appearance except for basketball shoes, mesh shorts and T-shirts. Most times he doesn’t really want to be here. But we go out of our way to try to help the family relax and look at the process in positive way.”
Creating positive feelings is important throughout the entire bar and bat mitzvah cycle. This is particularly true when the family’s own event is on the horizon. In this situation as well, gender differences are apparent. Toni Greenberg remembers that Jake only wanted to pick out his yarmulkes. Miriam wanted a hand in every decision, from the invitations to the place cards. Greenberg remarks, “Miriam was so involved, she even wanted to choose the tablecloths. Jake didn’t even know there were supposed to be tablecloths!” In the Desser family, Karen remembers, “Talia was more interested in getting involved in invitations and such.” Her son, Ethan, was a bar mitzvah in August, and Desser says, “He just didn’t care about those things.”
For those attending a Jewish day school, the year holds a particular kind of pressure. In most cases the whole class is invited to every event. This can mean that a 7th- or 8th-grade class will have been to 50 bar mitzvahs in a little over a year. Some kids handle the pressures well, but for others, it presents challenges.
There is novelty in September as a new crop of students is inaugurated into the cycle. The children are fascinated and well-behaved. As the year wears on and they become comfortable in the shul, with the services and each other, it can become more challenging. Shelley Hendler, middle school head of Krieger Schechter and mother of two daughters and a son, says, “It is a challenge for the community. When there is a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend, how can we as teachers, parents and kids make certain this unique day is appreciated, that each week is special for the family and for that child? We work hard to make that happen.” Robyn Blum, middle school assistant head of Krieger Schechter and mother of two young children, agrees. “We are constantly having conversations with each other and the students about how to make it kadosh, how to find the holiness.” They find that the teens rise to the occasion and appreciate the solemnity of the service as well as the delight of the celebration.
Whereas some kids are thrilled to party every weekend, others find as the year progresses and burnout threatens, that it is best to pick and chose which events to attend, so that children have some weekends without activity. Families handle the influx of invitations differently and the distinction here seems less gender based and more personality based. Extroverted children relish the constant energy and interaction, more introverted children less so. Karen Marino says that all the students in her 13-year-old son Ben’s Hebrew school class at Beth Israel Congregation were invited to each celebration and the same went for the Jewish kids in his boy scout troop. “Overall, he went to about 30 bar mitzvahs and it was a lot, but he was fairly energetic through it all. He was leery if his group of friends was not going, but loved it when his friends were going.”
As the prayers and parties draw to a close, the end of the evening brings its own drama. Greenberg says, “Driving boys home after an event is mellow. They are half asleep. Girls, on the other hand, are doing the gossipy thing. They are discussing who was wearing what, who was dancing with whom. It’s not heartbreaking things; it’s more silly stuff. There is no teenage angst.” When the girls suspect Toni is listening, they switch to texting each other even though they are sitting next to each other in the car.
When Karen and Ken Marino drove their daughter Melanie home from events, they would get lots of details. Marino says, “Melanie would tell me all about the centerpieces, the DJ and the room. I got tons of information from her.” When they drove their son Ben, a student at Franklin Middle School, home, Marino says the contrast was striking. “I have to pry information out of him because he could have cared less.”
The bar mitzvah circuit is not for the faint of heart. Whether they are from Mars, Venus or some other intergalactic formation, our teens are looking for us to set the tone. Everyone who has been through the process of attending or hosting agrees that it is important to keep our eyes on the big picture. With the pronouncement, “Today I am an adult,” the next generation is joining the ranks of our Jewish community, neckties, party dresses and all. L’dor va dor!