Coming of Age, Houston-Style

Inside a Houston Bar Mitzvah

This Jewish tradition is also a helluva party.

By Morgan Kinney May 29, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Marco Torres

It’d be natural, even expected, for 13-year-old Ari Strauss to look nervous as he takes the stage at Houston’s Congregation Beth Yeshurun and becomes a bar mitzvah—especially since his father, Rabbi Brian Strauss, serves on the synagogue clergy—but the seventh-grader’s dimpled smile is as bright as his orange tie.

It’s a recent Saturday morning, and he and his lifelong friend, Willa Berry, are about to become full-fledged members of the community, observing the Torah’s commandments and participating in religious ceremonies. After studying Jewish laws and traditions every day for six months, they’re ready. The time has come.

Weekly Shabbat services often incorporate a bar or bat mitzvah (b’nai mitzvah for plural) and last for hours. This time around, Strauss and Berry take turns standing at the lectern singing Hebrew prayers accented by the occasional voice crack. When the time comes for speeches, Berry, 12, thanks the scores of congregants who’ve helped her family since a 2011 car wreck killed her parents and left her two brothers paralyzed.

“The glow and warmth of your love will forever shine bright in my heart and continue to comfort me and guide me,” she says, addressing her late parents and the crowd with unflappable poise. (Berry’s become a passionate advocate for the Texas texting-while-driving ban—she and her brothers have even addressed the state legislature—so the audience doesn’t seem to faze her.)

Image: Marco Torres

For his part, Strauss draws on his own family history, delivering a moving d’var Torah responding to the day’s sermon by speaking of the Amalekites’ persecution of the Jews and honoring his three Holocaust-survivor great-grandparents (one of whom is in the sanctuary). Heads—many crowned by the special tangerine and sky-blue skullcaps distributed for the occasion—nod in solemn recognition.

Later, at the St. Regis Hotel (where Berry’s parents were married), the after-party is decidedly less holy. “Clean” versions of “Fergalicious” and “Bodak Yellow” thunder across the dance floor, where Strauss and a herd of sweaty kids with untucked shirts mouth the obscenities. Adults sip champagne and scrape silver chafing dishes of hummus. Berry, so solemn at the ceremony, relaxes and starts grooving.

Then an unmistakable clarinet shriek signals the start of the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila,” and the entire party begins to dance the horah. “Circle to the right, circle to the right,” instructs the DJ as siblings, grandmothers, and former little league teammates grab hands, dancing around in concentric circles. The music crescendos and accelerates, and Strauss and Berry grip their chair seats as the throng hoists them up.

Versions of this scene have occurred for centuries, albeit probably with fewer glow sticks and party favors, but Brian Strauss, Ari’s father, offers his definitive rabbinical assessment of the evening’s festivities: “There’s nothing wrong with celebrating life.”

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