Our Secret Language

Recently Adam Sandler and Howard Stern bonded over their ability to chant the Torah blessing so many years after they had their bar mitzvah ceremonies. They laughed and revealed they never understood what they were saying and still don’t. They couldn’t believe the time they had spent learning these words and these tunes. They called them a Jewish secret language.

The conversation was not only funny. It also begs the deeper question of why we are putting our children through the same regiment of reading words that they don’t understand so that they can perform them at a ceremony. As a rabbi married to a rabbi with a sixth grade daughter, I am right in the throes of this conundrum. I also feel the tension of this question in my current role as a fellow in the Open Dor Project program. My organization, CoHere, is based on bringing Jewish Education to unaffiliated families. I officiate at a dozen bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies a year and spend hours a week guiding tweens through the process of learning the same blessings our comedians were showing off.

Why are we still wanting our children to learn these words and tunes?

For observant Jews, these questions have little importance. We learn the blessings because those are the blessings. But most Reform Jews do not attend Shabbat morning services regularly. In fact, religious school directors have to create incentives for our families to attend at least a few services before their child’s bar/bat mitzvah so that they are at least familiar with the way the service will go down. Some synagogues have service requirements because if they didn’t force/urge/encourage families to come to services, they would not come. Yet, we hold these coming of age ceremonies during Shabbat morning services, which our families don’t regularly attend. Perhaps we need to change the Shabbat morning service experience. It has to be shorter. There has to be more English. There has to be more participation from the people who matter to this young person. It has to be less a performance and more a celebration of this child becoming a teenager and entering a new phase of her life.

The music also has to be really great. It has to feel authentic and familiar and natural. There have to be explanations of what the prayers are and what we can be feeling and thinking about. It has to be an hour when we feel powerful love, affirmation, support, hope, and joy. The prayer leader can articulate that we are using Jewish words and prayers, ways and rituals to mark this holy moment of transitioning to becoming a teenager and this next chapter of life.

But there’s another problem. We don’t understand the actual Hebrew words.

Now sometimes it’s okay not to understand what the words means. It’s important for our
children to memorize our main prayers (Shema, V’ahavta, Torah blessings, Kaddish to name my top ones) because they are our words. Their meaning transcends literal translation. Shema means, I am Jewish. V’ahavta means, I can chant a prayer that’s in the Torah. It means we love God and we do Jewish things because we are the next link in the chain of traditions. Kaddish means we miss our loved ones who have died and we carry on their memory.

So we need to reframe the reason we learn the blessings. When Adam Sandler and Howard Stern say that they don’t understand the words, one could think that there is no feeling when they are saying them. They could be saying blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. But, I don’t believe this is true. They felt proud when realizing they both knew the same words and the same tune. They felt bonded together. They felt Jewish identity. They have an important piece of Jewish literacy. That’s what the words mean. They just had never seen this perspective. We can teach our students that the Torah blessings mean, “We still read from this ancient scroll because this ritual grounds us and connects us. These narratives still inspire us and interest us.”

In other words, we are teaching the wrong things.

As human beings, we create rituals and traditions, rites and ceremonies to mark our time with meaning. Judaism has been doing this in an exquisite way for thousands of years. When we occasionally leave the mundane, often monotonous, boring, stressful, rhythm of our days and step into a moment infused with Hebrew and rituals, we allow ourselves to feel things and sense the intimacy of those we can count on. We feel thankful and joyful. And an hour later, we re-enter of regular lives and maybe carry the sweetness of that ritual moment with us a little bit. That’s the gift of this Jewish civilization and the secret language we call our own.