Big-Mouth Bar Mitzvah
In the months leading up to the bar mitzvah of our eldest child—a cisgender, so-far heterosexual, prank-loving son of two feminist queer moms, one a rabbi and one a professor of Rabbinic Literature—we did things a lot of parents do. We stressed about the guest list, figured out environmentally friendly giveaways, negotiated plans for family needs. I tutored our son on his Torah and haftarah readings. My partner helped him with his speech. We were both proud when one of the first questions he raised in looking at parshat Tazria’s opening verses was “Is God sexist?” He simply could not accept the different rules for a mother of a baby presumed to be a boy and one presumed to be a girl.
But another thing we did during that period, though we didn’t necessarily name it as b’nai mitzvah prep, was watch “Big Mouth,” the animated show about middle schoolers and sex. When he asked if he could watch it, I initially suggested we watch it together starting after finishing the next few verses of Haftarah practice. But then I learned that he had already watched the first episodes on the school bus with a friend and that there was no way he was going to sit with me to watch more. Awkward.
So we came up with a compromise. We would watch the episodes on our own, sometimes at the same time in different rooms, and then would talk about it.
I started with what was funny in our favorite lines and scenes. Then we each shared a question raised for us by the episode. I took the opportunity to emphasize scenes like the party scene where two characters stuck in a closet witness a disturbing nonconsensual “head push” and made sure he caught the focus on female pleasure in another episode.
An episode in which one of the main characters got pulled into his computer and had to be rescued from Porn World was another opportunity for the small talks I have come to understand as much more effective than the proverbial idea of “The Talk.” We did some of this debriefing by text, some at the dinner table. They were generally short exchanges.
Step by step, we started to build comfort, trust and a shared vocabulary and canon. If we recognize the period of the b’nai mitzvah as a transition not just for the teenager but for the whole family, it’s clear to me that watching Big Mouth “together” was part of our family’s ritual experience.
It wasn’t easy to say yes to letting my not yet fully teenager watch this very raunchy show, but I’m glad I did. It is funny (key for him), feminist, sex positive and not at all violent. What I like less about it is that it is a little too insistent on the assumption that thinking about sex all the time is the definition of normative teen sexuality and the sole result of hormones. I don’t deny hormones their power but our culture, in fact, is often the force whispering in our ears and pushing us to act.
At Moving Traditions, one of my mentors in the work I do on bringing a comprehensive sexuality lens into Jewish teen spaces is Al Vernacchio, the author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values and Health, a great guide for parents. He defines healthy sexuality as having a healthy and accurate sense of self, a healthy and accurate view of others—and the ability to act in the world based on those understandings. Vernacchio is a gay Quaker who believes that sexuality is a gift from God and one of the best things about being human.
As a Jewish teen, I think I yearned for a way to make sense of my own growing awareness and confusion about sexuality as part of my experience of the sacred. I was not offered those tools in Jewish day school or youth group. As an adult, a parent, and a rabbi, I want things to be different for Jewish teens today.
I know, and I want my son and his peers to know that respectful expressions of sexuality and fully consensual romantic and sexual connection don’t come easily in our culture. I want him to take the space to reflect on what he wants and to learn what any potential partner may or may not want before anything happens, in the midst of anything happening and, and also after.
When mistakes happen, I want all our kids to have the skills and support they need to learn from them.
The Talmud speaks of five obligations of a father to a son. It moves quickly from the religious obligations of infancy (circumcision, redemption) to teaching Torah. The next obligation is finding a wife and teaching a trade and some say teaching the child to swim. No, this text clearly does not speak of a mother’s obligation to her children or about children of all genders.
I do, however, feel the obligation to help my child have the tools he needs to form mutually honoring and respectful relationships. This for me is actually part of teaching Torah in its widest definition, an obligation I’ve chosen to embrace.