How not to be Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (or Bat Mitzvah Girl)

Vanessa Bayer plays Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy on “Saturday Night Live.” Screen shot from NBC.

You probably don’t need to have seen Vanessa Bayer’s portrayal of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy on “Saturday Night Live” to get the joke.

Jacob is a commentator on the show’s Weekend Update segment, invited to speak on something Jewish (Passover, for instance). But when co-host Michael Che tries to engage in the kind of small talk most adults find natural, Jacob — curly haired, smooth faced and sporting his New York Yankees kippah — does nothing but look down and launch into his prepared speech, thanking parents, grandparents and siblings, with an inside joke about Papa John’s Pizza thrown in.

“You don’t have to make a speech, like at your bar mitzvah,” Che offers. “We can just hang out and talk, like friends.”

“The other symbolic foods include the shank bone,” Jacob responds.

It’s a comical illustration of the many challenges of the bar or bat mitzvah speech. Teenagers are not only expected to internalize and connect deeply with scripture, they’re expected to get up in a sanctuary full of people and talk about it at an age when their self-consciousness is heightened.

“The great irony is that the time when most individuals don’t want to be in front of people speaking is the time when, as a tradition, we ask our teens to be in front of a large group of people,” says Rabbi Steven Rein of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. “They’re extremely sensitive of what other people say and are thinking of them. They’re working out their own insecurities about who I am as an individual.”

There may be no amount of preparation that can help a 13-year-old overcome his or her insecurities. In most cases only age can do that, Rein says. But at congregations like Agudas Achim, pre-b’nai mitzvah students are helped to work through their fear of public speaking little by little.

Rein invites his students to lead Shabbat service in the run up to the big day. If nothing else, he says, they get comfortable with the sensation of being on the bima in front of a couple hundred people.

“They learn, ‘Yeah, I can stand in front of a few hundred people and it’s OK,’” he says.

Coaching delivery, though, poses yet another challenge. We’ve all seen or experienced it at one point; adolescent anxiety manifesting itself in hurried speech or a low mumble.

Rabbis have different techniques they try to impart on their students. Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax starts with an assumption that any boy or girl will read too quickly and not clearly enough.

He encourages his students to slow down from whatever cadence they feel is normal and simply open their mouths wider to project. And then he asks parents to record their child practicing the speech. When they listen back, they can usually pick up on what they’re doing well and what needs work.

As for the substance of their speech, Rein teaches his students to open with something a bit novel to grab the listener. It’s not unlike any other form of writing, so he brings in examples from what they’re reading in school.

“If you start with, ‘My parsha is…,’ that’s a cue for people to nod off. If you begin with some kind of hook or story, people are going to listen,” Rein says.

When helping a teen craft a speech, a parent or spiritual leader shouldn’t assume that all they can relate it to is what happened to them at school.
“They’re capable of seeing broader than, ‘this happened to me in the hallways of middle school,’” Kalender says. “You have to help them think a little bit bigger and realize that they’re plugged into the rest of the world.”

Of course, the bar or bat mitzvah is a young teenager. “When you step back and think about it, it’s absolutely wild what we ask 13-year-olds to do,” Kalender says. “You’re 13 and we now want you to sing in your second or third language. We ask you to interpret one of the best known documents in the world when it seems like everyone knows it better, and we ask you to be our teacher on that day. Sometimes they’re going to mumble and not say the most dramatic things. That’s who they are at that age.”

Making it through the entire process is an accomplishment in and of itself. Holding such a wide audience’s attention is just icing on the cake. Or, as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy might say, the Papa John’s Pizza.

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