2014-08-24 – Fifty years ago this week I became a bar mitzvah. I stood before my community, led the prayers, read from the scroll of the Torah, and spoke to the congregation about what I had learned. I got lots of presents. And all my well-wishers said, “Today, you are a man!” (Except for my father who said, “Today, you are a fountain pen,” and gave me my first typewriter. Little did he know, at the time, what he was starting.)
I did not become a man on that day. It was nothing but potential at the time. I barely had peach-fuzz on my lip. I had to stand on a platform to be tall enough to see the Torah on the lectern, much less the congregation in the seats. I wasn’t even in high school yet.
But what I did was hard. It took years of studying a foreign language and learning the prayers and months of specific preparation to learn how to chant my portion in the Torah and in the Prophets. When the day came, I got recognition for what I did.
The other day I took part in an online discussion (on Facebook, based on a story co-written by my cousin and AP reporter Raphael Satter). The discussion was about whether the media should have broadcast or withheld the video of the beheading of the reporter James Foley by ISIS. There were two main points. One was that there is no purpose served by exposing the gruesome details. The other was that doing so gives ISIS the recognition it wants.
I’m not going to debate the gruesomeness. The point about recognition is another story.
The institution of the bar mitzvah reflects, in some way, a primal need for young people to be recognized by their communities for achievements that are stepping-stones to full adult status. Jews are not the only people who have this type of ceremony. Individual participation in the ceremony is a meaningful rite of passage.
I knew that I was not a man that day 50 years ago. But I knew that I did something difficult and was appreciated for it. As an individual. Outside of a few “archaic” rituals, however, people today have little opportunity to be recognized.
Except in the media.
And a quick way to be recognized is through violence. We see it in terror groups. We see it in urban gangs. We see it in the lone shooters who go into malls or theaters. It is not sectarian (though the perpetrators may claim a sectarian banner). It is universal.
Getting your name splashed in the news is today’s rite of passage. Today you are a man.
The media (and their readers and advertisers) have made this so by honoring violence above all other deeds. “If it bleeds, then it leads” is the motto.
Now, I’m not saying that the media needs to stop covering these events. There are important reasons to do so. But there are many people in the world, many people who do courageous thing, who never make the news. Could it be that the media could open a nonviolent path to community recognition by finding ways to report these stories?
Sensation sells. But isn’t it all in how you tell the story?
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The Torah portion for my bar mitzvah was Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10 – 25:19). I still have the book I studied it from with a ribbon marking the place. It’s not an exciting story. It’s a hodge-podge of laws. Some are horrifying. But many command us to be kind to the widows and orphans, to working people and the poor, to enemies and to criminals and even to animals. You can dwell on the horrifying parts or focus on the laws of kindness. Lefty, my dog, likes the part about kindness to animals. (Deut. 22:10 tells us: “Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.” We learned early on that it was not a good idea to walk Lefty at the same time we walked our little dogs.)