Friday, October 30, 2015
Yours Truly at age thirteen, posing next to the sign announcing my impending Bar Mitzvah. (And yes, it’s that Amityville.)
Today is a minor anniversary of sorts, it being fifty years ago that I became a Bar Mitzvah - literally “Son of the Commandment” - an adult in the eyes of the Red Sea Pedestrian community, at least in the religious sense. You could call it our version of passing the Bar Exam.
Popular opinion notwithstanding, it’s easy to become a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah, if you’re female), provided you’re Jewish. All you have to do is turn thirteen - twelve in the case of females. All of the foofarah - the ceremonies, the parties, and the accompanying narrischkeit - is just gilding on the lily. But it’s a significant enough occasion that - in our tradition - one is called to recite the blessings over the Torah for the first time. If you’re a minimalist, that’s pretty much all you have to do.
Most b’nai mitzvah will, additionally, chant the final Torah reading and will then read the appropriate complementary selection from the Prophets (the haftarah), this last a tradition that arose some 1,850 years ago when the Roman occupiers of Judea prohibited the study of Torah under penalty of death. (“Honest, Officer Centurion - we weren’t reading the Torah - just a different part of our scriptures!”) And in some congregations, the young man or lady will lead part or all of the day’s services... a task I was not expected to perform back in the day.
[It’s a testament to our parents’ belief in their Jewish identity - a belief that far outweighed their belief in Judaism as a religion per se - that my brother and I received the Hebrew education that allowed us to get through the ceremonial aspects of our respective b’nai mitzvah. Speaking for myself, I had a reasonable aptitude for chanting both Torah and haftarah, but Hebrew school bored me to tears. The spring after my Bar Mitzvah, I declared that I was dropping out, and thenceforth my religious activity was minimal for the next two decades. The moral of which is, there’s hope for all of us.]
After a full half-century, my memories of the Big Event are necessarily vague. I remember reciting Kiddush - the blessing over the wine - Friday evening, after which I proceeded to drain the goblet. (Halfway through, the cantor quietly told me, “You don’t have to drink the whole thing!”) I remember standing at the reader’s table Saturday morning as I began my Torah reading, feeling my knees knocking together and watching the silver pointer bouncing up and down on the scroll like a seismograph needle as I held it. (Whether my voice betrayed my nervousness, I can only guess.) I remember reading the second half of the haftarah, the first half having been read by the other young fellow who shared my Bar Mitzvah date. And I remember the reception my parents hosted afterwards, complete with sit-down luncheon, live band (Dad and his old musician friends sat in for a few numbers), and the requisite cake shaped like an open book.
We still have the photo album from that occasion, and it’s fun to take it out once in a while to see who is still alive. Alas, all too many are not. Rabbi Spielman now sleeps in his Forever Home, just a few feet away from where my mother rests... and even Beth Sholom Center is no more, having been superseded by some sort of Science of Spirituality Meditation Center. Ave atque vale.
Fifty years later, nephew William reads the same passage (Genesis 9:29-32): “And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and father of Iscah. And Sarai was barren; she had borne no child. And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot, the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai, his son Abram’s wife; and along with them they left Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan, and they came into Charan and dwelt there. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Charan.” [Click to embiggenate.]
Meanwhile, fifty years later, we celebrated the occasion in the best way possible - by joining our family in Texas as our nephew William became a Bar Mitzvah. By the Gregorian calendar, his was a few weeks earlier than mine, but he read the same Torah portion I had read all those years ago, the conclusion of the famous story of Noah. As he chanted, I silently mouthed the words - there are some things you remember even after fifty years - and I smiled, tasting the sweetness of new memories being made.