This blog appeared, re-punctuated to its detriment, as “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” on line, in the January 29, 2010, Broadstreet Review. I have edited it to better fit the stream I have underway here.
In 1953, when I was in fourth grade at Friends’ Central, my father, partly because the contacts might help his law practice, and partly because three doses of Hebrew School a week might immunize me against the identity eroding effects of the Gentiles, who, for the first time, would form a majority of my associates, had our family join Beth Zion.
I thought this a terrible idea. I do not know when I learned the word “hypocrisy,” but once I did, I knew it applied. If religion was important, my pre-adolescent mind reasoned, why hadn’t we always belonged to a synagogue? If we were going to belong, why didn’t we attend services every weekend? Then there was the fact that, at nine or ten, I wanted to fit in with my new friends. I wanted to stay after school and play baseball. (My development seemed to cry louder for an ability to hit the curve than the mastery of any Four Questions.) I did not want to trek by Red Arrow and D bus, from the suburbs into Center City.
I also did not feature, once I arrived, facing the glistening novelty of finding myself stupid. I was placed with children who had already studied Hebrew for a year. I did fine learning about Abraham and Isaac and Judah Maccabee in our history text, which, sensibly, like all good things, was in English; but when it came to reading or writing or speaking those cryptic squiggles, I would have stood more chance wrestling, one-armed, Mr. Moto. (From four years attendance, I retain that “baruch” means “blessed” and “yelda” “girl” – unless it means “boy.”) The highlights of my matriculation were (a) Carol E., a classmate of great sophistication, explaining menstruation; (b) a take-no-crap teacher, recently emigrated from eastern Europe, hypnotizing Max Garden and setting him clucking like a chicken; and (c) cutting class one rainy afternoon, spotting Stan Musial and Red Schoendist in the lobby of a downtown movie theater, and having them autograph my lesson book. I was, otherwise, lost.
The Minotaur lurking at the end of this labyrinth was my bar mitzvah, an experience destined to limn Goya-esq depth into the term “travesty.” Once lessons began, my voice proved as incapable of carrying a tune as Richard Nixon an ADA-friendly precinct. Cantor Mandleblatt, a friendly and decent man, offered the dispensation that I might read my haftorah portion. But my reading was so strained and imbecilic, he was forced to reduce it by three quarters. I mean, I could sound out the letters, but I had no clue whether I was producing noun or verb or preposition. Emphasis? intonation? rhythm? I was at sea on a raft of squawks. The only portion of the experience that provided pleasure was reading “Battle Cry” in the back seat of my father’s Lincoln as we cruised toward the synagogue on my performance day – distracting myself with the adventures of “Andy,” “Danny” and “Ski” as the blue-and-white chromed tumbil headed toward the guillotine. I suppose I understood that the pass:fail ratio I faced was more propitious than, say, that of those aspirants-for-manhood sent by their tribes into the wilderness, armed only with a dagger, and told to retrieve the heart of a grizzly. But if, as we crossed the South Street Bridge, I had been offered a penknife, Center City, and Weimaraner as an option, I am not sure how I would have jumped.
Of the event, I recall mercifully little. No cabbages were thrown by the assembled Levins and Levines. No guffaws issued from the Rothmans and Rosenbaums. Neither Kelner nor Kelmer nor Kessler nor Katz demanded the re-attachment of my foreskin. This was a time before circus tests were required for post-ceremony festivities or acrobatic troupes deemed necessary to entertain the assembled, so everyone marched upstairs for a modest luncheon. I was released to a table with neighborhood friends, who, their own days of reckoning looming, regarded me as if I was departing Guadalcanal as they were wading ashore, and a few from FCS, who had come to experience another sect’s rituals like Margaret Meade to Pago Pago. I worked the room, and Buick dealers and GE distributors, car wash owners and cold cuts magnates thrust envelopes into my hand or pocket.
Even from the perspective five decades has provided, my passage seems to have had little to do with who I was – or was slated to become. Some things I found painful, like inoculations, or demeaning, like having to wait an extra year for my driver’s license, I am now fully – or in the latter case, mostly – able to credit to my parents acting in my best interests. But my bar mitzvah still seems mandated solely by my father’s need to shape me in his image. A part of him scorned his friends who’d discharged their sons from this obligation. It seemed to taint them with a weakness he would not allow others to perceive in him.
My father had come out of 10th & Baimbridge at a time when ethnicity drafted one into bloodier wars than it would me after we’d reached 46th & Pine. It had denied him jobs and barred him from clubs and taught him that, when our family stopped for the night on automobile trips, to send my mother into the motel to ask for a room because her eyes were blue. He took pride in how he had established himself in the face of these blows and constrictions, and he would not have his son drawn further from whom he perceived himself to be than seemed absolutely necessary. “Jewish boys don’t hunt,” he told me, when I came back from FCS one evening, asking for a .22 rifle like certain privileged classmates. “Jewish boys don’t play football,” he told me in fifth grade, when that option became available as a fall sport. By eighth grade, he’d changed his mind there; but my bar mitzvah had been non-negotiable, occasioned no second thoughts, stood a banner planted in the sand.
It does not surprise me now to think, given the cloak of infallibility within which my father presented himself in all matters, from the worth of Adlai Stevenson to the uselessness of Del Ennis in clutch situations, that despite my protestations, I may have adopted a portion of his belief as to the significance of the ceremony in question. For I also recall that when, following its conclusion, my family having flown to Coral Gables, on my first day in the Atlantic, a Portugese Man o’ War lanced me squarely on the tuchis, the pain nearly convinced me that there was a God, that a recording of my performance had just reached him, and this had been his fitting, critical judgment.