In the Coen Brother’s movie “A Serious Man,” we see young Danny practicing for his bar mitzvah by listening to the cantor’s rendition of it on his record player. That scene was undoubtedly sentimental for Jewish men of a certain age who prepared for their bar mitzvah by keying up the phonograph in their parents’ living room.
Bar Mitzvah preparation has come a long way since the days of the turntable. In the 1980s and early 1990s cantors and bar/bat mitzvah tutors recorded their voices onto audiocassette tapes so their twelve-year-old students could walk around the house listening to the chanting on a Sony Walkman.
In fact, I remember many nights falling asleep with my black foamy headphones on while I listened to the late Cantor Larry Vieder of Adat Shalom Synagogue repeating the Torah and haftorah trope (notes) for my bar mitzvah. The mid-1990s saw the transition from the audiotapes to music CDs when bar mitzvah tutors began hooking up microphones to the computer and recording the bar mitzvah portion onto blank CD-ROMs.
In recent years we’ve seen bar and bat mitzvah students receiving the audio version of the haftorah and blessings they need to learn via email, a concept that anyone over the age of thirty finds amazing.
The way Jewish teens prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah has changed drastically thanks to technological innovation. Not only has the audio format changed over the years, but so too has the way in which these young men and women are being tutored.
Consider Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers, which provides in-home, one-on-one personalized bar and bat mitzvah instruction. Many of his students are matched with local tutors in the Los Angeles area, but he has also found that he can help Jewish teens around the country through Skype and other video conferencing applications. Even local tutors who frequently meet with their students in person are using Skype, Apple’s Facetime or Google’s hangouts to conduct reviews with their students before the big day.
Mobile apps have also changed the way tech-savvy Jewish twelve-year-olds train for their bar or bat mitzvah. Rusty Brick’s “Tikun Korim” lets teens use their iPhone, iPad who Android device to learn to read their bar or bat mitzvah portion. The mobile app is an interactive text of the Torah and haftorah with the appropriate musical notes. The layout of the Tikun is specially designed to fit an iPad, iPhone or Droid and is about half the height of a normal Tikun (the book used for aiding in Torah reading). The app works in both landscape and portrait mode. While in landscape (horizontal) mode, it shows the Torah view on the left and the ta’amim (cantorial notes) on the right, and portrait (vertical) mode shows only one view at a time with a quick toggle switch to flip between the two.
The Tikun Korim has a bookmark feature for quick access to specific Torah portions, as well as the capability to record and email a recording to the tutor. It also includes a chart of the notes with each note’s sound provided by a professional bar mitzvah teacher so that the student can learn to chant the Torah reading on his own. Tikun Korim sells for $19.99 in the iTunes store and in Google Play.
Another popular app for bar mitzvah training is Kinnor Software’s TropeTrainer Mobile, which sells for $24.99 in the iTunes Store (no Android version is available). TropeTrainer also boasts the ability to jump directly to any aliyah, or chapter, and it offers side-by-side English translations, which highlight the translation to follow the Hebrew text. Students can adjust the chanting speed, pitch, accent and vocal range so they won’t struggle to try and match a pre-recorded voice. TropeTrainer also has a built-in calendar to take the complexity out of finding the appropriate reading for that Shabbat or holiday.
Bar and bat mitzvah training has no doubt advanced as technology has advanced. While I’ll always remember the hours spent each day back in 1989 with my Walkman and the cassette tape of my haftorah, my children will likely be practicing for their bar mitzvah on their wristwatch synced with their Samsung Galaxy Note or looking directly into the Torah scroll while their Google Glass provides the trope marks. Now that’s what I call tradition and change.
Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, technologist and blogger. He is the president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.