When Mike Lex turned 13 he did not celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah. He grew up in a remote part of Wyoming, a place where he says as a Jew he was in a tiny minority and because his parents did not practice, his 13th birthday came and went. Still, it was something he always wanted to do. Finally, last Nov. 21, on his 65th birthday, Lex made a declaration.
“Today I am a man,” he said. “A very old man.”
Lex was not the only celebrant past the age of 13 called to the Torah last year at Congregation Chaverim. There was Ellie Maas, 26; Fanny Bangoura, 39; Cynthia Busby, 52; Barbara Holtzman, 78; and Bill Kugelman, 91.
When Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, leader of Congregation Chaverim, realized she had someone of each multiple of 13 to be called to the Torah, she knew it would be a special year. She respectfully called them the Thirteeners.
“I have always been intrigued by the Jewish tradition that every 13 years we read our portion again,” Aaron says. “I think it’s a way of keeping Torah alive as we go throughout our years. When I became aware that we could symbolically do this journey in our congregation I became excited. I was able to find people of every age. It’s significant. It’s equally significant that they were able to take part in this journey that as a congregation we were taking.”
Even without the ceremony, when a person turns 13, he or she is considered a bar or bat mitzvah. The ceremony is not just for the young, however. Bar and bat mitzvah celebrations can also be for adults of any age who did not celebrate at 13 and who are ready to declare that, like Lex, they are sons and daughters of the commandments. It’s also for those who are doing it again in honor of the anniversary of their first time being called to the Torah. Many celebrate a second time at age 83, having lived a life span of 70 years since they first made this rite of passage.
“Rabbinically, it’s another path into Torah for people,” Aaron says. “It’s an incredible amount of work but that work leads you into so much insight into yourself as a Jewish individual. In our tradition, we say the Torah is the tree of life. The more that we interact with the Torah as human beings, the more the Torah is the tree of life for each of us and the more that we are on the path of peace.”
Lex says he undertook the project of making his bar mitzvah when he retired and had time to study. It was always something in his mind but the tipping point came when a dear friend who is ultra-Conservative kept inviting him to Shabbat. Lex felt he could not accept because he had not made his bar mitzvah.
“It always bugged me,” he says. “Now I can say I will participate. … This was just a chance to integrate with a community that I wasn’t able to when I was a kid.” Lex, a retired judge, began preparing for his bar mitzvah eight months prior by learning to chant Hebrew aloud. Although he had taken Hebrew classes in college, he knew he would be starting from scratch and didn’t want to be in class “with a bunch of 13-year-olds,” he says. “The kids could pick up Hebrew a lot faster than the rest of us.”
When it was time for his reading, the Torah was passed from Aaron to Lex’s youngest son to his oldest son to his wife and finally to him. After the ceremony, he says, he didn’t have Coke or Pepsi at his party but “a nice friend of mine brought me over a bottle of champagne.”
As with Lex, Barbara Holtzman, 78, had never celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, although “it was always in the back of my mind,” she says. It took a year of study, Holtzman says, because she had never really studied Hebrew, though she had lived in Israel for a time. It was the chant melody that really challenged her.
“I’m kind of tone deaf,” she admitted. Still, the day of the service, Holtzman was comfortable. “I really felt prepared,” she says. Plus, her family was by her side. “Our whole service was run by my kids,” Holtzman says. Some read, some sang and one of her nine grandchildren, Ellie Maas, celebrated her bat mitzvah again.
Maas, 26, says everyone “should rediscover what it is to come into the Jewish community” by making their bar or bat mitzvah again. She also wanted to celebrate alongside her grandmother, with whom she has always been close.
“It seemed natural to me … something really great that I could share with my grandmother,” Maas says. “It was just really a cool and unique experience.”