Perfection is overrated.
I’ve probably prepared well over 1,000 kids for their b’nei mitzvah, and by far, the number one fear any of them have expressed is that when they’re standing on the bimah, chanting their haftorah or a part of the service, they’ll make a mistake.
Well-meaning parents and other adults feed into this by assuring their kids that if they do happen to make an error, “no one will even notice,” or “it’ll be OK because people don’t know what you’re saying anyway.”
I, on the other hand, love mistakes. They bring variety and personality into the service. I have had kids lose their place in the text and look back at me in a panic. After I quietly feed them the next word, they go right on. Kids will start the tune for Hatzi Kaddish instead of Kaddish Shalem. Usually, they’ll realize their error about halfway through the text, and then I enjoy seeing that little glance over at me with “oops” on their face.
During one service, I was holding the Siddur for the bar mitzvah kid so he could hold the Torah and sing his part. I got distracted and moved the Siddur away before he was done with the page, causing him to fumble on the now hidden text. He looked up at me with an expression only a 13 year old can give to an adult–to which I muttered, “Oh, sorry.” That had to be over 20 years ago and I still remember it.
One of my favorite sights is when we begin marching around with the Torah–usually a stately procession around the sanctuary–but the nervous kid takes off like a drag racer down the middle aisle, causing a frenzy of lunging congregants falling over themselves trying to kiss the Torah before it rushes by.
Who needs another cookie-cutter, perfectly executed, robotic rendition of the text? When a kid makes a mistake, mangles a word, starts a wrong tune, inadvertently skips a page, has a voice crack, forgets to come in…then he or she has owned the service. It means they haven’t simply memorized a bunch of lines, but rather are reading and singing in real time, out of the Siddur, along with the congregation. The service becomes real and organic.
And to finally put that tired advice to rest–yes, the congregation noticed your mistake. But no one cared. It made them more connected to the service, more interested in how much effort you’ve put in, and given them an understanding that it’s really hard for any kid or adult to get up in front of people and make a presentation.
Terrific column, Matt!
I am nearly 70-years-old as I write this note, so my bar mitzvah took place many years ago. Back then, I had a severe stutter. Interestingly, stutters don’t stutter when they sing; somehow the stutter disappears in the flowing music. As part of my bar mitzvah, however, I was asked to recite the Ten Commandments in front of the congregation. Because I did not sing the Ten Commandments, my stutter was on full display. As I remember, it took me ten minutes to recite the Ten Commandments, much to my mortification and embarrassment, to me and the congregation. As I look back now on that occasion, I wish my father had come up onto the bima to rescue me, to put his arm around me and say to me that I didn’t have to finish reciting the Ten Commandments, that I had done enough. So, mistakes are, indeed, made by the young bar or bat mitzvah, whether through his or her fault, or through the fault of a distracted cantor. But sometimes those mistakes can leave a long-lasting mark. I now realize I didn’t do anything wrong so many years ago with my recitation of the Ten Commandments at my bar mitzvah; I was a stutterer, and I did what stutterers do. I don’t write this note as criticism of your wonderfully written essay, but just to emphasize the wide and wonderful range of the human condition.