The Greatest Gift
by Joe Yudin
My wife and I were trying to think of a gift for her cousin. He has reached the age of Bar Mitzvah and every member of the extended family is debating what to get the boy who has everything. I stretched my memory to when I was a Bar Mitzvah and I tried to think of my best and worst present.
At the time I had thought that the best present was a brand spanking new BMX dirt bike. At the age of 13 that is all that I had wanted. By the age of 14 I never touched it again. At the time I thought that the worst present I had received was an unabridged Webster's dictionary. The reference book weighs at least 10 lbs, is a foot long and a half a foot thick (I just measured it). It is printed on the same quality paper as dollar bills, and it contains every American English word used up until the time of its printing in 1979. Among the numerous supplements in the dictionary are the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Charter of the United Nations and a dictionary of noted names in fiction, mythology and legend. When I opened the gift wrap I was horrified to see it and I had no idea that I would ever use it, but all through high school, college, and now in my home, the dictionary always remains just within reach on my desk, lately just to the right of my mouse.
Every time I use it I strain my memory trying to remember who gave it to me so I could call them and thank them again after so many years, but I cannot fathom who the thoughtful people were. If only they had included a hand written note inside the cover. I know that whatever we would buy my wife Meirav's cousin, it should be something that would contribute to his studies and we would include a hand written note on the inside cover. Today books are a dying breed as everything is going electronic. I wonder if a thirteen-year-old boy will even bother with a book ten years from now knowing that all literature will be accessible on the Internet in probably only a few years. I, however, like the feel of an old book bound in leather, the smell of it's musty pages and the touch of the quality paper, but I do not think that this latest generation would appreciate or even use such a gift.
The thought of what a Bar Mitzvah has meant throughout history began to percolate in my mind and I decided to do a little research. The obligations of a Jewish male to fulfill all the commandments dates back to at least the second century C.E. and probably existed in practice at the time of the Second Temple. Judaism holds a boy aged 13 responsible for his vows and actions. From this age he steps out from behind his father's shadow and becomes a complete member of the Jewish community. It is a time of physical maturity where Jewish boys are taught to control their desires. However a man physically, Jewish tradition sees this age as only the beginning of a long period of study. Mentally and spiritually the youth has yet to become a man.
The rite of passage from boyhood to manhood has traditionally taken place in front of the entire community. The boy would prepare to read from the Torah and Haftarah, it would take months of training and preparation and by the time the day came the Bar Mitzvah could now do what most gentiles could not do their entire lives until the later half of the twentieth century: read and write.
Yes indeed this was and still is a great achievement, a true marker that one has passed from one stage in life to another. Throughout the ages Jews could not be adults unless they could read and write. It was not an option to be illiterate. For gentiles however the vast majority of populations during the last 2000 years have been just that: illiterate. Only after Benjamin Franklin pushed to make education free and mandatory for all Americans did the idea of literacy for all enter the psyche of the non-Jewish world. Only in the twentieth century did the literate begin to outnumber the illiterate in the western world. For the Jews however, going to primary and secondary school or learning how to read and write was never a question, the question was always 'what college should I go to?" or "what trade should I master?" The reason for this was simple: reading and writing was an ingrained part of our religion and culture. Our rite of passage into adulthood was not physical like other cultures but a mental steppingstone into the spiritual world.
This leads me to another conclusion: Anti-Semitism may very well be the result of the profound illiteracy of the gentiles during the last 2000 years. What were the great masses of Byzantine and Middle Age Europe taught? Most of the peasant population was illiterate and what they did learn was from the church every Sunday. This was not good news for the Jews. In order to convert the pagan masses both the Gospel of John and the Acts of Paul were written in a way to cast a pall over the Jews, directly blaming them for the death of the Messiah (or even God Himself). Only with the Enlightenment in Europe and a more educated European populous did the Jewish people begin a restoration of their rights as citizens of the other nations, but the damage had already been done as witnessed by countless pogroms, the Inquisition and the Holocaust.
Keeping that all in mind, I believe that the greatest gift I think I can give the young Bar Mitzvah is not a Razor scooter or a skateboard or even a dictionary, but perhaps Judaica on CD-Rom or a leather bound anthology
about the history of the modern state of Israel. He may not like it now, but if he hangs onto it long enough he just might get some use out of it.
from the August 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine