A few weeks ago, I received a large black envelope in the mail. I immediately knew what it was, and I giddily tore it open to find my sister’s name written inside in large red letters, perfectly replicating the Stranger Things font. It was the invitation to my sister’s Stranger Things-themed bat mitzvah.
When it comes to family events, I don’t get excited for much. But when there’s a bar/bat mitzvah, I roll up to the function HYPED for what is about to occur.
If you didn’t have a bar mitzvah, you missed out.
For those who may not know, a bar mitzvah (the prefix “bar” is used for boys, and “bat” for girls, but I’ll be using “bar” for gender-neutral referral) is a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. It involves taking the rabbi’s usual place and leading Saturday services for the congregation, including reading a portion of the Torah, the Jewish holy text. You also give a “D’var Torah,” basically the Jewish equivalent of a sermon, where you analyze your Torah portion and say what it means to you. You also plan a dream party that you invite all your friends and family to. Once you complete that tradition, you are officially an “adult” in the eyes of God. Most honorees spend two years carefully studying for the occasion, and it all occurs when they turn 13 years old.
Because the events are spearheaded by 13-year-olds, the party themes can get really funky. Some greatest hits from recent memory are “The Babylonian Empire,” “Dubstep,” and “Board Games & Anime.” Regardless of how silly these events may seem, everyone fully accepts both the service and the party; this day is filled with excitement and participation all around. Great aunts and estranged brothers-in-law alike eat mini hamburger sliders and gummy worm sundaes while listening to Skrillex chosen by little Joseph himself with delight, all out of love for the “mensch” he’s become.
But why would we give such a young person the title of “adulthood”? In this context, “adulthood” is not defined by total independence, it’s defined at the moment someone starts to have an opinion. A bar mitzvah serves to let them know they deserve to speak to it. When you’re on the bima, nervous about letting the world know something you think about the most important text in Judaism (and your party taste), it’s intensely gratifying to be met with the smiling faces of your loved ones thanking you for doing it. The bar mitzvah is an opportunity to begin a life of questioning, analysis, and conversation with tradition. That is what brings a person to maturity.
This semester, I was lucky enough to have a column (read: soapbox) in which I talk about stuff on my mind twice a month. I’ve been very fortunate to have had such a positive response to my work, and I feel so happy to have helped other people feel heard through this column. I’ve been given the opportunity to speak, and have been met with praise, respect, and constructive feedback. It’s built my confidence in ways I can’t describe. In many ways, this experience reminded me of my bat mitzvah, and the love I felt radiating back at me when I shakily described why a piece from Deuteronomy made me believe in the power of free will. But at Columbia, we’re not always giving each other the celebratory passageways into adulthood that we should.
Because of the school we go to and the world we live in, I think we all need some version of a bar mitzvah. The fundamental core of the thing is to understand that in light of all the power that words wield, we must learn to speak up. There is an understanding that the world of opinions is a difficult one—and one must learn to speak wisely. When I ask friends with interesting thoughts to apply for a column position next semester or to submit an op-ed, many of them fear they won’t be able to articulate their thoughts correctly or will be booed out of print. Others will muster the courage to write something and this fate actually befalls them.
Some people say 13 is one of the worst ages to be. It’s formative. At 20 years old, I’d say I’m still in a formative place. Now more than ever, I want an opportunity to test out my voice and understand what it is that I want to say to the world. Maybe other people on this campus feel like that too.
At this point in our lives, we need to understand that our words have weight and value and use them as such. This can’t be done without receiving novice thoughts earnestly and supportively, especially if their voice hasn’t had an opportunity to be heard as much as yours. Writing this column was hard. I’m so grateful for the positive reception from you all, and I ask you to extend the kindness that you gave me to all who try out their voices at this school. For me, a bar mitzvah is arguably the first time you’re ever really listened to. And all forms of using your voice fulfill a fundamental human need: to be heard.
Emma looked like a bumblebee on the day of her bat mitzvah. Who was the first person to have a chocolate fountain at theirs? Answer her question at firstname.lastname@example.org. Food, Fear, and Filth ran alternate Thursdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.