I don’t know you (unless I do), but, statistically, I’m pretty sure you don’t like public speaking. Unfortunately, though, you probably have to make a bar mitzvah at some point, nebach, and you have to speak, even though you’re not the one becoming bar mitzvah. This might stress you out, seeing as you haven’t spoken since your own bar mitzvah, and you didn’t even fully understand what you said at the time. All you know is that it was too long, your parents were claiming it wasn’t too long, and you have no idea if anyone was listening because you read it from the paper. People told you beforehand that you should look up at your audience from time to time, but when you did that, there were long, silent gaps, and then you lost the place. But the only people listening, as far as you could tell, were your rebbeim, your parents, and whoever it was who wrote the speech.
But now you need to write the speech. And what do you even speak about? At your son’s bris, you got to talk about his name, but what now? Everyone already heard the name speech.
Not only that, but you have to provide your son with a speech too, plus your son’s rebbe is going to speak, so you might have to write him something. You should probably ask. Though chances are the rebbe will just say what he said last year. A good junior-high rebbe has 52 timeless bar mitzvah speeches ready to go. It’s in his contract.
I think at some point, when your father was a kid, the bar mitzvah boy was supposed to write his own pshetl. But the only pshetls I was writing as a kid were super-convoluted gematrios. You know how every gematria adds words together to equal other words? Well, the way mine worked, if I had a target number in mind that I was trying to get to, I wouldn’t just add the numbers together. I would do subtraction, long division, square roots—whatever it took. My audience would have voted to keep me a katan.
So these days, if you don’t feel that you can write a dvar Torah, you could always hire a talmid chacham. Though if you do, you’re still going to have to write the thank-you’s, unless this is a talmid chacham who knows all your family politics.
For example, you have to write into the speech that your son thanks you for making him a bar mitzvah. You have to do this even though everyone’s aware that he didn’t write the speech and that you wrote a thank-you for him to say to you, in public, but you still have to write it so your family doesn’t think that you have the type of kid who doesn’t thank his own parents. Or so they don’t think that you’re the type of parent who doesn’t write thank-you notes to himself. Whatever. No one thinks about it too hard.
He also has to thank whoever bought him his tefillin, though he shouldn’t just say, “whoever bought me my tefillin.” He should insert an actual name. It’s more meaningful. And of course he has to thank whichever grandparents sometimes babysit him during the summer.
You also want to mention any relatives who unfortunately couldn’t make it to the bar mitzvah, but you know that they’re there in spirit, except for the ones who are still alive.
And even once he starts his vort, your job isn’t done. You have to sit where he can see you so you can make gestures in case you want him to speak louder (hand motion upward) or to, for goodness sake, slow down (hand motion downward). And you also want to have him memorize what your hand motions mean beforehand, so that he doesn’t think that downward means talk quieter and upward means speed up. Being more animated about the motions on the spot will not get him to suddenly realize what you mean, though it will make for a more exciting simcha video.
And then you have to speak. (Sure, you might want to speak first so you can introduce the bar mitzvah boy, but, arguably, anyone who needs to be introduced to the bar mitzvah boy doesn’t need to be at your simcha.) And unfortunately, when the father is speaking, no one breaks into song to get him out of it. He has to power through.
Firstly, you have to thank everyone for coming in. It doesn’t matter if you have relatives schlepping in from around the world or just down the block. It’s more about the energy that it takes to go out to someone’s simcha and be social when they might not really feel like it, and what if they’re asked to speak?
And you’re saying, “I’m not asking them to speak.”
But they don’t know that you’re not asking them; they just know that you haven’t asked them yet. For all they know, you’re going to ask them on the spot, even though you had 13 years to call them. This isn’t a surprise bar mitzvah.
As part of this thank-you, of course, you have to list all the towns that people came in from, and you’re inevitably going to forget one, at which point someone in the audience will helpfully yell it out. And it will be some inconsequential town that was really included in what you said. Like you’ll say, “People who came from as far away as Boro Park and Flatbush,” and someone will yell, “and Midwood!” and then he’ll grin at the guys at his table like he just saved your entire speech, while you make a mental note to ask him to give the next speech. In fact, you’re going to introduce him immediately at the very end of your speech.
“And all the way from Midwood, apparently …”
You also have to make a joke about “poschim b’chvod achsanya” — the achsanya being your wife — and everyone will chuckle nervously, like they stepped in the middle of a shalom bayis thing. Or, at the end of your thank-yous, you can say something like, “And of course I’d like to thank my wife for taking care of planning this bar mitzvah from start to finish.” Every husband says something to this effect, and if you just listened to the speeches, you would get the impression that the wives do absolutely everything, while the husbands just bumble around waiting for their turn to speak.
“Don’t worry; you can speak at the bar mitzvah.”
The truth is that the husbands do plenty, and if the wives gave speeches, you’d hear about how much the husbands do. Not only does everything that the husband does go unsung, he has to speak, too. So that’s fair.
But in reality, the husband has to thank his wife, because even a husband who does the best job that a husband can possibly do is still going to come up short in the planning department. Even the most helpful husband, left to his own devices, will blow the entire bar mitzvah budget on food. And don’t get me wrong; it will be amazing food. And all you husbands out there are like, “Well, what else is there? Oh, you mean photography?”
But I mean other things, too. Decorative things, for example. Like centerpieces. Women say, “Yeah, we need something in the middle of the table so people don’t have to stare at each other while they eat.” So this way, you could be sitting across from someone the entire time and not even know. And also so when the photographer comes around and takes a class picture of everyone at your table, you have something that you have to move out of the way if you want to see whoever’s sitting in the middle. Or they could Photoshop the guy back in over the flowers. Point is, though, it would never occur to a husband that there should be centerpieces. He would sit people down so they could see the people across from them and try to have conversations across the table, over the music.
Another thing the wives think of is tablecloths. Husbands don’t want to spend money on tablecloths. If not for his wife, he’d just say, “This is a wedding hall. People only ever eat fleishigs on these tables.”
Point is, though, it will not occur to a husband that his simcha is missing these things until he gets there an hour before the guests and says, “This feels a little off. Are we missing something? Ketchup!”
Ketchup is the male centerpiece.
Basically, a husband has learned that most of the men there, like him, won’t notice the things his wife did unless he points them out in his speech. He’ll say, “She arranged everything, from the flowers …” and the other guys will look around and go, “Oh yeah! There are flowers!”
Meanwhile, all the women present have already asked his wife if they could take the flowers on the way out for a sheva berachos they’re making tomorrow.
Though I guess it’s not really true that boys don’t notice centerpieces. When I was younger, a lot of simchas had candles in the middle of the table, so the boys had something to play with during the speeches. And for my son’s bar mitzvah, my wife ran out and got balloons for each table, and the boys spent the whole bar mitzvah ripping them open and huffing the helium and squeaking, which they pretty much do anyway at this age. At least my son didn’t do it right before his speech. Though then everyone would have listened.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of six books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.