Story-ideas-1011172

Jerusalem’s ‘barmitzvah king’ shares laughs and inspiration

  • JNS
Rabbi Jay Karzen, coined the “Jerusalem barmitzvah king” by The Jerusalem Post in 1997, has stories to make you laugh out loud or cry tears of joy.
by MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN/JNS.ORG | Jan 20, 2016

Pictured: The "Jerusalem bar mitzvah king", Rabbi Jay Karzen with a barmitzvah boy at the Western Wall.

CREDIT: COURTESY RABBI JAY KARZEN 

A South African family was among the first to book me for their barmitzvah. In the process of printing invitations for their forthcoming event in Jerusalem, they faced me with a simple question: ‘What’s the address of the Kotel?’” Karzen recalls.

He assured the family that no address was really necessary, and that “Kotel” or “Western Wall” would suffice. But the family would not accept his answer. Karzen called various government offices from Jerusalem City Hall to the Ministry of Religion, all of which enjoyed a chuckle at his expense.

Though they couldn’t give him an answer (because the Kotel indeed has no address), Karzen knew he could not get back to the family without a street number.

“So I composed an address: The Western Wall: 1 Kotel Plaza. Believe me, that is exactly what the invitation read,” he says with a laugh.

Karzen, 81, has performed thousands of bar- and batmitzvahs (an average of 100 per year) over the last 30 years. He was among the first rabbis to offer formal bar-/batmitzvah services at the Kotel for families coming from abroad to celebrate their special day.

Meeting with JNS.org in his posh Jerusalem home, Karzen says that when he made aliyah from Chicago 30 years ago, he needed a job. A then-prominent rabbi at the now-defunct Maine Township Jewish Congregation in Des Plaines, Illinois, he had performed many Jewish lifecycle celebrations and figured a barmitzvah business would be a good avenue to explore.

“Families would come and bring their groups to the Kotel and I saw the ceremonies were sometimes un-meaningful. It was chaos. I figured I could upgrade the barmitzvah experience,” says Karzen, who acknowledges that he started a trend that now has some steep competition.

Karzen’s philosophy is “to turn kids on, to inspire them”. He does this by explaining the importance of a relationship with G-d to his clients, who often do not lead a religiously observant life.

“I tell them that to be a Jew means to love G-d. To love G-d, you have to follow the Torah, which He gave us. I tell them it is fun to be a Jew,” Karzen says. “There’s a lot of singing.”

Some of the inspiration comes simply from being at the Kotel. 

“Israel is the Holy Land. Jerusalem is the Holy City. The Kotel is the holiest spot in the Holiest City in the Holy Land. It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “When you go to the Kotel and see thousands of people around you davening - Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Hassidim - all worshipping G-d, it cannot help but have an impact on the child.”

Karzen also performs bar-/batmitzvah ceremonies at Robinson’s Arch, Masada and other sites around Israel. He was once asked to perform a barmitzvah on the beach in Tel Aviv, but he turned down that request. Ultimately, he wrote a book about his experiences, “Off the Wall”, which was published in 1999.

During his recent meeting with JNS.org, Karzen shared a number of his best tales, such as the time a family asked if they could rent the entire Kotel because they were expecting several guests and wanted a private party.

Then there was the boy who came with his tzitzit snipped from his tallit because his mother “didn’t want all those extra strings hanging down”.

One family asked the rabbi if they could order tefillin in a different colour, maybe blue, because “black is so sombre”.

An American mixed-marriage family contacted Karzen for a Thanksgiving day barmitzvah. In their first correspondence, the mother proudly let the rabbi know that she had haredi family members in Israel who would be attending the ceremony. As such, they hired a top barmitzvah tutor in the US to prepare her son. 

“During my meeting with them the night before the service, I discovered that the celebrant had learned the wrong Torah portion. That Thursday was Rosh Chodesh, the new Hebrew month. There is a special monthly reading on such days... What was I to do?” says Karzen, who “told the family there would be two Torah readings that day - the regular weekly portion that the barmitzvah bochur (lad) had learned, as well as a special reading in honour of the new Hebrew month”.

He called a member of the haredi family and explained the situation, asking him to pass the message to his relatives. The barmitzvah boy never knew about the error, according to Karzen.

“Crazy things happen,” Karzen recalls. 

And even crazier e-mails. A sampling of messages that have graced Karzen’s inbox:

“Since we aren’t a very religious family, is it possible to have a ‘non-religious barmitzvah?’”

“I will be brining my son to Israel next month with an organised tour programme. We do not wish to miss anything from this comprehensive itinerary. I would like my son to have a symbolic barmitzvah. If we come very early to the Wall, can we back at the hotel to meet our tour group by 8 am? PS: My son does not know very much and cannot read Hebrew, so the service will have to be very short and simple. What do you charge for this type of abbreviated service?”

“We have many important participants coming to our son’s barmitzvah… We know that traditionally only three [aliyot to the Torah] are distributed on a weekday. We are requesting an exception to this rule… I am sure that G-d will overlook these minor variations and bless you for your understanding in accommodating us.”

But Karzen says his successes make it all worth it. One time, a grandfather made arrangements for a barmitzvah at the Kotel for his grandson, informing Karzen that while the father would be there, he was anti-religion and “hostile”. The ceremony started off with the father behaving just as described. Karzen couldn’t leave the father on the sidelines, so he tried to engage him in the ceremony.

At the end of the event, the father stood up and told attendees how when he was 13, he was supposed to celebrate his barmitzvah, but his grandfather died the night before his big day and the event was cancelled. He then learned a second Torah portion, only to have his grandmother die just before he was supposed to recite that one.

The father had figured this was G-d’s way of telling him he didn’t need to have anything to do with Judaism. Yet after witnessing his son’s ceremony, the father was in tears and had changed his mind.

“He said that after seeing his son’s barmitzvah, he realised how much he missed Judaism and how beautiful it is,” recalls Karzen. “He said he just wanted to hug me and thank me for reintroducing him to religion.” (JNS.org)

Comment

  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
       
    Toolbar's wrapper 
     
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
      
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.
       
 

Follow us on

Newsletter