Executive director, Cleveland Hillel Foundation
Jared Isaacson’s bar mitzvah memories go back months before the actual ceremonial day in October 1982. His lessons started around April of that year, and while many kids probably would have taken a short time off during the summer, at least while at Jewish summer camp, that did not happen for Isaacson, per his father’s wishes.
“My father lovingly managed for me to meet with the cantor, who happened to be on staff at the summer camp, to give me additional bar mitzvah lessons over the course of the summer so that I wouldn’t lose traction,” says Isaacson, who is now executive director of Cleveland Hillel Foundation. “Which was in hindsight a lovely, great thing to do, but as a kid in summer camp, the last thing I wanted was to have bar mitzvah lessons.”
Finally, after months more of diligent preparation at Congregation Beth-El, his Conservative synagogue in Montreal, the Monday before his Saturday bar mitzvah, Isaacson finally went to the main sanctuary with his parents and the cantor and he stood at the bimah to get a feel for it. Although doing so was likely intended to ease nerves, Isaacson mostly remembers that he passed out.
“I fainted,” he says. “I went to the doctor and it turns out I had some sort of flu virus. So I was actually home in bed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the week of my bar mitzvah, hoping that I’d be OK by the weekend.”
By Saturday, Isaacson was finally somewhat well and returned to the bimah paradoxically with the sense of calm and confidence the traumatic earlier visit was meant to induce.
“It was actually a very peaceful feeling for the whole morning, feeling very calm, somewhat confident and at home,” he says, also remembering that he wore his first fitted suit.
Moreover, he not only read his Torah portion, but also led a large part of the service – also thanks to his father.
“I can still probably sing the first couple of opening lines to my haftorah,” he says.
After the service, Isaacson remembers several other details, including that his friends threw hard candy literally at him immediately after his haftorah, that he had a DJ in his recently refurbished basement during the party, and the movie – “Escape from New York” – he and his friends watched on a rented projector after the adults decided they wanted some time on the basement dance floor away from the kids.
“I would say, looking back, it was probably not the most appropriate movie for a bunch of 12 and 13 year olds,” he says, citing violence.
As one of the oldest in his grade at a Jewish day school, Isaacson says he was one of the first to have a bar mitzvah, which had its benefits.
“It was a good starting point because I really didn’t have to worry about living up to anything else yet,” he said, adding that it also let him get away with a lower-key party, citing little competition that far into the year.
However, on a more serious note, Isaacson says that his bar mitzvah did impart a sense of adulthood. Moreover, since it took place at the same synagogue his parents were married in, with the same rabbi, it conveyed a connection to family and past generations.
“Whether or not you actually become a man on your bar mitzvah, you certainly feel a sense of growing up or becoming a grown up to some extent,” he says. “My perspective especially, because I didn’t just do the bare minimum of what one might do for a bar mitzvah – my father pushed me to do more. In hindsight, I felt good about that.”
This article appeared in the Spring / Summer 2017 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.