Beliefs follow action; lessons from a pig farm bar mitzvah

I studied rustic weddings for a year and realized that all the rustic wedding stuff feels like a parody on a working farm. So we had a very simple bar mitzvah lunch: harvest tables and flowers from the garden. I made all the food myself, from our farm and the farms of our Amish neighbors.

I told everyone to wear the nicest clothes they could imagine wearing with boots made for walking through pig pens. This is what it looked like when people were arriving.

I loved watching people traipse through the farm.

And watching my son in action was just breathtaking. I felt, for a moment, that I have the life I’ve always wanted.

To be clear, my son did not want a bar mitzvah. He chanted Torah beautifully and then in his speech he explained how he was only doing it for me.

He also said, in his speech, that he doesn’t believe in God.

Earlier, when he told me he might say that, he had a sort of twinkle in his eye. “Is that okay?” he asked.

I tried to be casual, like he wasn’t bothering me at all: “Sure. Lots of bar mitzvah kids say that in their speech. You don’t need to believe in God to be Jewish. Fifty percent of practicing Jews don’t believe in God.”

I didn’t check that number. But the general sentiment seems right.

He said, “What do you need to do to be Jewish?”

“Nothing. You just are. You decide what you want to do. But while you’re in my house you get a bar mitzvah.”

“And don’t eat pork.”


“And say prayers. And keep track of meat and milk dishes. And do all the holidays.”

“Right. Yeah. All of that. You can make your own rules when you move out.”

The theory here is that belief follows action. It’s a big tenet of Judaism, but increasingly new research is providing us with scientific evidence of the power of action to change our beliefs.

For example, if you walk with a more upright gait you feel happier. And if you put a pen between your teeth it forces you to smile and then you actually become happier.

The Harvard Business Review reports that our body posture can dramatically influence our ability to succeed in life. American social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains in her exceptional TED talk on body language that when we assume a “power posture” for just two minutes—like hands high in a V position and our chin slightly up—we increase our testosterone (the dominance hormone) and reduce our cortisol (the stress hormone). And, we are more likely to take a risk, succeed in a job interview, or get a promotion.

To me that’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it moment.

Our ability to learn through doing is remarkable. It’s why play is so important in school, and it’s why MIT has an action learning program. First we change our actions, then we change our beliefs.

At the beginning of my career, I assumed I’d be a writer. Before I got any sort of grown up job, I had stories published in literary journals. I thought of work as something I did just to support myself. I was increasingly embarrassed about my promotions as I marched up the corporate ladder. No one could believe I was corporate.

And I assured them I wasn’t. Until I was. I became a person who loves the game of business. I would have never believed I would become this person, but after going through the motions of going to work and being part of the business world for a few years, there was nothing left of my resistance to the business world. I was part of it.

I imagine that will happen with my son and Judaism. I don’t actually care if he believes in God. I just want him to come home to my house on Passover and Rosh Hashannah. I’m pretty certain, though, that if you grow up going through the motions of Judaism, it starts rubbing off on you.

Actions speak louder than words.

At work it means you can fake it with actions until you feel confident with your words. At a bar mitzvah it means that no matter what you speech might say, your mom is just happy you made one.


26 replies
  1. Elizabeth in VT
    Elizabeth in VT says:

    Congratulations/Mazel Tov on this auspicious occasion. The fact that it’s more auspicious for you doesn’t change a thing!

  2. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I find this to be one of your truest and most lovely posts ever. Yes, belief often follows action, and is a far easier course than trying to make your actions follow a belief. And when our sons give a speech, especially one they don’t want to give, for us. Hearts everywhere, even sparkly ones.

    Also, best possible clothes that work with pig boots is one of the better dress codes.

    • ellisbell
      ellisbell says:

      “best possible clothes that work with pig boots is one of the better dress codes.”

      Hear, hear !

      I vote for this to replace Business Casual Friday dress code ….

      • Vickie
        Vickie says:

        Love this. I once suggested the following as a dress code:
        Don’t look like you’re about to go mow the lawn.

        It didn’t go over too well.

  3. galeforcewind
    galeforcewind says:


    What a great party. I’m happy you’re getting to enjoy the life that you’ve been working so hard to build and take the time to recognize those moments where it shines.

  4. Dana
    Dana says:

    Penelope, whether you know it or not, you’re sounding more and more like a Christian. Not the religious kind, but the read the bible and practice what they learn kind.
    You constantly reiterate, rephrase common knowledge and lessons from the bible.
    Just go straight to the source and really illuminate your mind and ours with all the wonderful things God is waiting to expose to you.


    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      Jewish people invented the bible. Maybe what you are seeing is that Christians can act similar to Jews?

  5. Meg
    Meg says:

    I don’t buy that action changes belief… I think it changes associations and emotion, which seems closer to the research you cite.

    I was raised in a very happy Christian household. I’m now an atheist. I still love the cultural celebration of Christmas because of the wonderful traditions of food, gifts, and family established in my childhood. The actions of my childhood certainly build associations and happy feelings, but didn’t reinforce any beliefs.

    This might be plenty for you anyway – if your son enjoys the tradition of Judaism he may well continue to come home to celebrate Passover, without any belief at all. I just think it’s an important distinction between emotion and belief.

  6. Dale
    Dale says:

    Congratulations on your son’s milestone. I respect your insistence on adherence to tradition.

    Wow. A lot of meat here in a few paragraphs. One reason I like to read your posts is you have a perspective impossible for me to see, a mothers.

    I respect all people’s beliefs. I believe Jesus is who he says he is in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

  7. Ellen Pitts
    Ellen Pitts says:

    I love where you’re going in life. I’m married to a Christian and we have a lot of Christian friends. I’ve noticed an interesting trend in that community that is so different from my own Jewish culture. They try whatever means they can to get their children to believe the right thing. For me, it’s more important that my kids ask good questions. I don’t care what they believe. It takes time and life experience to really believe anything. If they’re asking good questions and they are curious, they’ll end up in a good place. And, yes, definitely come home for Passover and bring me some grandchildren. :-)

  8. harris497
    harris497 says:

    I just got a new job and am scared sh-tless as I have no clue how I’m going to do it. Any advice???

  9. Marada
    Marada says:

    I can agree that belief follows action, like in cognitive behavioral therapy, but I also wonder about this when a person is not interested in changing. I’m sure with a lot of repetition, they can’t help but change, but is the change always for the better?

    I notice that many creative types I know shut down or rebelled when people tried to mold them to their beliefs. I have a friend with twin girls, and one is like the rest of the family where she loves academics, is task oriented, and excels in competitive circumstances. The other girl is like my daughter, if put in a competitive or rigorous situation, she slows down and daydreams. Ask her to do an unpleasant task with no support, and she blocks it from memory and becomes totally passive. I empathize because I was like this as a kid, to some extent also.

    There is probably a very blurry line between trying to instill values and trying to let a kid see what is right for him or herself. I do, however, remember deeply resenting being molded as hard as I was, especially because those doing the molding often didn’t acknowledge my differences as valid, or were completely unaware of my differences. I imagine that you are also doing a lot of listening to what your son believes and why he feels differently than you. I think with religious beliefs especially it is so important to respect the other person’s way of being, because if you don’t, what good is your spirituality?

  10. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Penelope, you are the best. I’m not usually a comment-poster…but today I have to say: As a mother, a Jewish woman, a writer, a person who wound up working in corporate environments, I relate. I always treasure your truth-telling. Thanks for putting it all out there.

  11. Laura
    Laura says:

    Believing you would pass an interview by changing your posture and believing in God by adhering to family traditions are two different things all together. Because these are two type of beliefs: one is dealing with self knowledge (“I believe in myself”) and the other one with the knowledge of the world and how we build our reference/value system (“I believe in God”). “Fake it till you make it” works very well in the first case, and not at all in the second. In my situation, I am an atheist in love with Christmas- and no matter how many lovely Christmas dinners I attend to or give/receive gifts- that won’t make me believe I celebrate JC’s birthday :).

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Nice post and photos. I especially like the garden photos. I think if you’re spending a great deal of time, energy, and money on the garden, the garden deserves more photos on the blog.
    “To be clear, my son did not want a bar mitzvah. He chanted Torah beautifully and then in his speech he explained how he was only doing it for me.” It seems to me if he’s doing this for you, he’ll be making the effort to be back home to your house on Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
    “I made all the food myself, from our farm and the farms of our Amish neighbors.” Seeing that God has made an appearance in this post on your son’s Bar Mitzvah, I think it would be more appropriate to say – “I planted and prepared some of the food myself on our farm. The other food prepared by myself was from the farms of our Amish neighbors.” or something to that effect. The food does look delicious. I’m snacking on peanuts as I type this comment.

  13. Lauren Bishop
    Lauren Bishop says:


    I love this sentence: “And watching my son in action was just breathtaking. I felt, for a moment, that I have the life I’ve always wanted.”

    These moments of transcendence are worth it all.

    I hate the word congratulations. It feels so hallow. I always wanted to be Jewish so I could say “mazel tov” and have it be a part of my heritage.

    So, mazel!

  14. MWN
    MWN says:

    I grew up in a pretty rigid Orthodox (Jewish) household. By the time my bat mitsvah came around, I was firmly atheist and did everything I could reject the religion. I insisted on reading from the Torah (we had a women’s minyan, after my dad’s rabbi finally OKed it). I didn’t do it for my parents, I did it because I’m a feminist, and if I’m going to have a bat mitsvah, then I’m going to do the same thing the boys do! The next day, I stopped going to synagogue.

    As I became exposed to other sects of Judiasm, I realized I didn’t have to be Orthodox but could still be Jewish. It’s a strong part of my identity (hard not to be, just due to the anti-Semitism that abounds in Europe), and while I’m not sure that God actually exists in any form, I really like being part of the community and doing cultural events like Shabbat dinner and Purim. I think if you want your son to have any sort of Jewish identity, then show him that there are lots of ways to be a participating Jew, not just in synagogue. And show him that even if he doesn’t care about being Jewish, other people will care, no matter how little he associates as a Jew, he still can’t escape it. :-(

    • v
      v says:

      “he still can’t escape it. :-(” he doesn’t need to escape it in america. and if he really wanted to, if people thought he was jewish based on looks, he could say he was italian and change his last name if it is jewish sounding.

  15. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Sounds like a lovely memorable day. I’m glad your son went along with it but made sure he stayed true to himself.

    My husband did the whole bar-mitzvah thing and his mother and grandparents were very happy. Then (unconnected) he moved to another country, where he continued to not believe in god and eat plenty of pork. He married someone who had never really met a jewish person before. But he still made an attempt to call his mom at Jewish holidays and make like he was honoring them with menoras, etc. He eventually gave up all pretense of that after he had kids and had found a new way to give delight to his mother.

  16. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    Beautiful produce! I love the casual vibe of the bar mitzvah. And yes when you go through the motions of religion as a child, no matter how much you rebel against it, it rubs off on you. You turn 25 and realize that those ARE your beliefs and then you cling to them.

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