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Singing in Hebrew during a bar mitzvah

Song sung blues

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

If I give honors out to my family members, do they have to sing? Do we have to sing, too? What if we don’t sound good? I don’t even know Hebrew. I thought my son, the bar mitzvah boy, would be the only one singing. Help!

— I Sound More like Roseanne than Streisand

Dear Roseanne,

Yup, some of you guys are going to have to sing in front of everyone. Sorry about that. At least it won’t be “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Not all of the honors involve singing, however. If you invite people up to open the ark or hold a Torah, those are non-speaking roles. But if you’re assigning someone an aliyah, then that will involve singing some Hebrew words.

An aliyah, (literally: “going up”) is a special kind of honor because we consider the Torah the holiest object in the room. We imagine that anyone called to the Torah is actually ascending — either going up on the bimah, or at least increasing in holiness.

When you receive an aliyah, you’re usually called up by your Hebrew name — not like “Hey, Shlomo, get over here!” — but nicely. Then, when you get to the Torah, you should touch a certain spot in the Torah (someone will show you where), either with the corner of your tallit, or with the cloth binder that will be up there. You touch the Torah, give the tallit or binder a kiss, and then…time to sing!

There are two blessings that are recited — one before the Torah reading, and then one after. The good news is that these blessings are usually very familiar. You’ve most likely already heard them a bunch of times. Plus — in every synagogue I’ve ever seen — the text is right there in big print, in both Hebrew and the sounded-out English.

Please don’t butcher the blessings! With just a little bit of preparation, you can familiarize yourself with the words. Any cantor or rabbi will be happy to make you a recording. Many shuls have a link to the recorded blessings on their websites. Your son could even teach you! Also, here’s an extra tip: if you and your spouse are planning on singing the blessings at the same time, run through it at home together. I have seen a husband-and-wife team — each who knew the blessings very well — get all messed up and start giggling when they sang together.

Look at it from your son’s point of view: he’s been toiling away, month after month, week after week, and preparing a huge amount of material. He has pages of Hebrew prayers, Torah, and maybe haftarah as well that he will have to sing in front of everyone. One of the benefits that he has earned is the right to watch everyone around him stress out over two or three lines of Hebrew that they have to learn and sing.

How often does a 13-year-old kid get to sit back and feel like a maven in front of all his family and friends?

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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