Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Seven months and thirteen days: speechifying

And then there is the subject of speeches. Bar Mitzvah speeches. It's not just the Bar Mitzvah boy who is charged with making a speech. Sandra Bullock and I will each be delivering one as well.

The traditional Bar Mitzvah speech avoids controversy. It offers comment on the Bar Mitzvah's Torah portion, usually avoiding the more potentially controversial sections, like the part, in the Jawa's portion, that labels it "an abomination" for a woman to dress like a man.

See, the difference between Jews and another un-named religion with its roots in the Middle East is that Jews evolve. We've had almost 6,000 years to consider the stuff we wrote way back when. Frankly, some of it seems a little silly now. We'll take a Mulligan on the "cross-dressing is an abomination" thing, thanks.

My hopes for the Jawa's speech are realistic. Based on the speeches I've already heard and the work he's already done, he'll take the safe route, zeroing in on the part that tells how it is a good thing to return a man's ox to him, should you find it wandering your property. As hilarious as he thinks the part that tells you to never grab an opponents testicles during a fight is, he's no iconoclast; I don't see him putting his neck out there. He'll stick to the script.

Thirty-one years ago, my Bar Mitzvah speech had something to do with birthrights. That's all I remember, besides the swinging leg, which I wouldn't have noticed had not the cantor share it with the entire congregations. Some Torah-age guy had a daughter and a son, but the daughter was older. Nevertheless, when it came time to dish out the birthright, the daughter got nothing. She was skipped. As anyone who's received a red, yellow, blue or green "skip" card while playing UNO can tell you, getting skipped is no fun.

So I got up there and, mistaking the bima for a soapbox, gave my audience about five minutes of how this daughter got ripped off. I was following my standard game plan back then, which was to disagree with whatever the main point is so people would think I was a passionate free thinker. This fool-proof method got me through Junior High School English classes while barely breaking a sweat.

I don't expect the Jawa to go the controversial route. For one thing, he has much more of a connection to his temple than I ever had. In 1978, at Temple Beth Sholom, nobody really cared if I followed the program or not. I'd been a sporadic Hebrew School attendant for a few years and never went to services; a peripheral character at best. So he's spouting off and disagreeing with the teachings of the Torah? A pox on him, then. May he spend his adult life writing advertorial copy.

Josh K. used his speech to urge all of us to be more aware of the environment, a safe move in eco-friendly San Francisco. Of course, he could have been calling for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government for all I could make out, he was speaking so fast. That kid has a bright future as an auctioneer.

As I said earlier, the Jawa is not the only person who will be speaking at this Bar Mitzvah. His mother and I are on the hook also.

The last time we had to speak in front of a crowd as a family, I wrote something out, then had Sandra Bullock deliver it while I stood dumbly next to her. That worked out really well, as I am much better in print (or online) than in person. Sandra Bullock, with her Project Manager superpowers, has no trouble speaking but loathes the act of putting pen to paper. It is one of the many ways in which we -- who seem at first to have nothing in common -- complement each other.

This time, we will have to make multiple speeches. We will thank our guests for showing up not once, but twice. And on Bar Mitzvah day, we will stand on the Bima and speak directly to our son, hopefully looking him straight in the eyes while we shower him with our deeply heartfelt feelings. It's a potential emotional powder keg, not the sort of thing you deal with on a day-to-day basis.

By next August we will have had the luxury of seeing several parental speeches. We've already seen a half-dozen. So far, there looks to be no standard template, other than that most parents include "our wishes for you" as part of their speech.

Some parents bring prepared notes. Some read directly from a sheet of paper. Some speak for less than a minute, while others go on long enough for the temple to issue an email follow-up outlining the parameters of the parental Bar Mitzvah speech.

Most people are nervous. It's a moment very charged with emotions. I can't tell you if I'm going to hold up or not.

For me, there will be a special pressure that comes with my stated vocation. "Speeches" are written, right? I'm supposed to be some kind of "writer," aren't I? So far, the Bar Mitzvah speech feels like a much larger and more intense version of the experience I have anytime someone has a birthday, gets well or has any other reason to receive a greeting card. "Write something funny," my wife will tell me, or the always-popular and never stress-inducing, "You're a writer. Write something meaningful."

Today, I wrote 400 words on the dearth of open houses during three-day weekends. It was pretty easy. It took 20 minutes. Then again, nobody asked me to "write something funny/meaningful" about open houses. I've thought about responding to "Write something funny" by balancing a ball on my nose, but what good would it do?

It's pressure in its purest form. Ratchet it up 1,000 times and you have the looming Bar Mitzvah speech.

I've been writing it in my head for a few months now, every time we've attend a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Most fathers follow the Best Man Toast formula -- they start with something light, grab a few laughs to loosen up the audience, then ease into the heavy emotional stuff, finishing with a meaningful flourish that lets us know the gravity and scope of this event. We're watching our sons and daughters turn into men and womenm they're basically saying, after thirteen years of living with them. I'm looking at this kid in front of me. He needs a shave. Wasn't it last week that I was carrying him around in a backapck? That's pretty big.

I like the "my wishes for you" element. I think I'm going to build on that. Beyond that, I can't tell; don't want to ruin the surprise. To give myself realistic expectations, I'm going to just assume now that I'll be too nervous to hold anything in my hands, which shake uncontrollably in pressure situations. And I've started to tell myself to get used to the idea that I may be emotional in front of 200 people. Not looking forward to that one, as heart-warming as our audience might find it. But it's probably going to happen.

I'll be direct and economical. I'll put my Jawa on a figurative pedestal. I'll remind him that, over the past 13 years, we've had a few laughs. If I can write 400 words about open houses in 20 minutes, I should be able to put something three minutes long together in seven months and thirteen days.

Sandra Bullock has already told me that I'll be heavily involved in writing her speech as well. Wouldn't quid pro quo on that be that she will deliver both speeches, leaving me as puppetmaster hiding in the shadows? Unfortunately, she doesn't see it that way.

Look for me on August 21. I'll be the opening act. One performance only.


The Hammer said...

What I've learned about bar mitzvah speeches and D'var Torah at TEE: It's a "blessing," not a "speech." and it's only supposed to be a minute or so, not 3-5. (Rabbi will meet with you about those points). Don't forget the speech for Fri nite dinner. So you thought Josh K's drash was about the environment, huh? You weren't following the speed demon. I'm just happy he forbade me to help him write it.

Jean said...

"The speech" has become a big deal on these occasions -- this happened sometime between my older daughter's bat mitzvah four years ago and this year. The pressure is intense. I know it's supposed to be a short blessing, but my kid made it seem like a one-time-only public appraisal of her fine qualities as a daughter and the joys of our relationship -- and it better be good.

Libby said...

Please, please, please, could you write mine also while your at it. Maybe I could convince Sandra to hop up and deliver it for me? Kinda of like a stunt double? Forever grateful I would be.

Jean said...

When I was looking online for someone to write my speech... I mean, for inspiration, there were lots of ads for ghostwriters: "Your speech is constructed from information that you provide in our speech questionnaire which will be sent to you upon receipt of your order."