Laura Yuen
See more of the story

A centuries-old tradition finally arrived for a 13-year-old boy bedecked in a royal blue suit and a pair of Nike high tops.

His still-boyish voice, clear and sweet, filled the airy sanctuary of his south Minneapolis synagogue. He chanted from a Torah scroll and led his community in prayer. For nearly five years, he had been studying Hebrew and attending religious school in preparation for this moment.

He was becoming a bar mitzvah in 2023.

In the week leading up to Ian's rite of passage, I asked his mother — my good friend Jenny — how she was holding up. The weightiness of the day was not lost on her.

"It's a moment in time, but years in the making," she said, going back to when she and her husband, who grew up Lutheran, agreed they would raise their children in her Jewish faith. "John and I had conversations about it before we got married about how important it was for our kids to have a bar or bat mitzvah."

I am not Jewish, but Jenny's sons and mine attended the same Jewish preschool. Our boys ate apple slices dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah and dressed in costume for the Purim parades. When my brother got married, I watched him circle his bride three times under a chuppah. But until Ian's bar mitzvah, I had never attended this ceremony marking the transition when a kid becomes a Jewish adult.

What I found was a full day steeped in Jewish tradition, connection and identity — all the while offering a relevant message about adolescence and faith that transcended religion or culture.

I can't tell you how excited I was for our family to be invited to our first bar mitzvah. To prepare, I debriefed my friend Molly, who told me what to wear ("slightly nice, similar to what you'd wear to church") and what to bring. Cash or checks in multiples of 18 "is a very Jewish thing to do," Molly advised. That's because in Judaism, the number 18 symbolizes "chai," Hebrew for "life." A gift in the amount of $36, $54, $72 and so on is blessing the child with a long and fulfilling life.

Years of preparation went into Ian’s bar mitzvah, held May 6, 2023, at the Shir Tikvah synagogue in Minneapolis.
Years of preparation went into Ian’s bar mitzvah, held May 6, 2023, at the Shir Tikvah synagogue in Minneapolis.

Katie Koranda

I also turned to Avi Olitzky, a former rabbi at Beth El Synagogue whose twins celebrated their b'nai mitzvah (plural of bar/bat mitzvah) last October. Our conversation spanned from the religious obligations of a Jewish adult to the challenge of embracing Jewish identity in an era of rising anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Avi teared up when I asked him what it was like to witness his son and daughter read from an ancient text in a modern world before their family and friends.

"When I saw my children become b'nai mitzvah, I was refracting every page of Jewish history through that moment to help them author the next page," he said. "It became such a powerful and humbling moment for me, that I can't wait, God willing, to stand there at my grandchildren's, as well."

It's not easy to raise your kid in any religion today, let alone a minority one. Americans are of dwindling faith, and COVID disrupted many of the pathways for kids to be in community.

"You have to be intentional if you want to carry it through another generation," Jenny said. "The parents have to take the lead and make it happen."

So when we arrived at Shir Tikvah, a progressive synagogue near Minnehaha Creek, I remembered Jenny's words. I knew to bring tissues because the journey to that Saturday in May was long. The young rabbi, Joey Glick, welcomed all of us to sing — off key, on key, whether we knew the words or not.

He explained that Ian would be reading from Leviticus, a book known for its ancient rules and rituals.

"What I love about this book is its emphasis on preparation over completion, process over product," Rabbi Joey said. "Leviticus is telling us holiness does not lie in ritual as much as the road it takes to get to the ritual."

How could my eyes not water when Jenny told Ian that he was born on the last night of Hanukkah, and his Hebrew name means "life" and his middle name means "light." Or when John recalled how Ian would hole himself up for hours mastering the three guitar chords he learned for the first time.

When Ian skillfully played the guitar for us, I was moved, because it seemed like just yesterday he was reading "Dog Man" comic books. Still, 13 is a precious age, as we were reminded when he thanked his dog Willie for offering emotional support, and simply "because she's cute."

Multiple generations of well-wishers circled the bar mitzvah family, dancing the hora.
Multiple generations of well-wishers circled the bar mitzvah family, dancing the hora.

Katie Koranda

What surprised me the most was when Rabbi Joey shared with us a question Ian had posed to him: How do you know God exists? The rabbi explained that throughout his life, he ping-ponged from belief to atheism, often questioning how there could be a God when the world seemed so broken. But before he can write off God entirely, he finds himself praying ... to God.

It moved me to hear a faith leader wrestle so openly with doubt. Rabbi Joey wished Ian would find his own beliefs, his disbeliefs, his "convictions and heresies, your own melody to sing out to the universe."

Before long, kids tossed candy onto the bimah (the stage) to wish Ian a sweet transition into adulthood.

The party that night, of course, was epic. A day that started with sacred rites ended with the hora and the Wobble, a stew of tears, pride, modern adaptations, and the gravity of marking life's journey. The rituals were momentous, but the road to them is worth celebrating, too.