On November 30th, 1963 I became a man. There are so many different scenarios that go through one’s mind reading that simple sentence, so many possibilities of life-changing events that might be responsible for ushering in this new phase of a life. Was it reaching a certain age where things became legal and illegal, getting a driver’s license, losing one’s virginity, getting a first job, becoming responsible for one’s self and others? While any of these are certainly worthy of special consideration and remembrance, I became a man the day I walked down an aisle, listening to the hushed whispers of the assembled audience of relatives, friends and strangers, stepped up onto the bema (the raised platform at the head of the synagogue/temple), faced the audience and began singing in a foreign language! I had prepared for this for a year, practicing and memorizing what was now coming out of my mouth. The day of my Bar Mitzvah had finally arrived, and I was now a Man! Or, at least that is what I thought. Why did I think this, you may ask? It’s simple. For an entire year leading up to this ritualistic rite-of-passage, I was told by countless family members, my Bar Mitzvah tutor, people in the community, and people I didn’t even know that, at the ripe old age of 13, I was soon to become a man. What a scam!
What all these people, the kvelling family members, the well-meaning community, the strangers from the tribe, neglected to tell me was that I was now a man according to Jewish custom which, if I were living a hundred years ago in some small European shtetl, would have some meaning but, in 1963, in a major North American city, it meant squat. While I may have some rights in the eyes of Jewish custom as a new Bar Mitzvah, in the eyes of just about everyone else I was still a pimply, soon-to-be high school freshman, with no job, no girlfriend, no legal rights, no driver’s license, no responsibility except to clean my room (a responsibility that I can now freely admit I did not take too seriously), and equipped with a voice that alternated between Tiny Tim and Lorne Greene. Imagine my disappointment!
While disappointment is not usually a feeling associated with this kind of an event, the “double” bar mitzvah – when two young men are called to the bema on the same day – has the potential to evoke this kind of emotion. I remember being told several months ahead of the momentous day that I would be sharing the stage with another boy. I did not know this kid, but I couldn’t help wondering at the time if he was going through the same angst as I was. It was only many years after the fact that I thought about how strange it must have been for him, as it was for me, to be sharing this important rite of passage. Besides being something that one normally did solo so that all the attention was centered on you, and you alone, you were now being put in a position to “compete,” as if there were not already enough pressure to deal with. What if his tutor was better than mine? What if he had this amazing voice and as soon as he opened his mouth the whole audience, including my own family, are sitting with their mouths wide open in absolute awe, mesmerized by the lilting sounds coming from his throat – the same throat that I now want to wrap my hands around and…but I digress. What if he was a “ringer,” speaking fluent Hebrew and Yiddish and enunciating his Torah portion in a way that was making the Rabbi uncomfortable? What if none of the above were true and instead he was awful? How would I react to that scenario? I was thinking this very thought while sitting on the uncomfortable bench waiting my turn, alongside the other boy. We had both asked if we had to decide beforehand who would go first, settling on a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide that fate, but were told that our particular Torah portions decided the order, which meant that I was to go first.
There are, of course, decided advantages to going first, just as there are advantages to going last. I had decided, mainly because I did not have any choice in the matter, that going first was a blessing. I would get it over with and then I could sit there in absolute judgment, as my co-conspirator was called to the Bema for his turn. These thoughts did not last very long; before I knew it the Rabbi had stopped talking and was now fixating his steely gaze my way beckoning me with a gnarled finger. In my mind he was saying: “Your turn boychick, try not to screw this up and bring shame on your family, friends, and Jews around the world!” Now there’s the kind of moral support I was looking for. I distinctly remember thinking that my legs were frozen, and I couldn’t move, that I had somehow lost my voice, and that everyone’s eyes were on me (which they were). I rose slowly and timidly made my way up to the podium and the now opened Torah. The Rabbi had this rather strange implement in his hand, which I soon realized was some kind of pointer that he would use to help me keep track of the words I was about to sing, words that I could not read or understand. I froze. I’m 13, can I take a raincheck on this whole becoming a man thing? Really, I just became a teenager two weeks ago, can’t I at least enjoy these next six years as a rebellious youth instead of instant adulthood?
I looked around the room, especially all the “real” men staring at me, and I instantly knew what they were thinking: “There’s no backing out now buddy, and if you’re wondering why you have to do this, it’s because we all did, so suck it up and start singing.” And I did. I sang foreign words to an assembled group of people, many of whom didn’t have a clue what I was singing either and, then it was over. It felt like I was up there for hours, but it was only 15 minutes! I had no idea how I did but judging from the looks on the faces of family and friends on the right side of the synagogue, I had knocked it out of the park. As for the left side where the other kid’s entourage were sitting, well let’s just say, their look was saying: “Nice try, now you’re going to hear what it should have sounded like you, poor excuse for a Jew.” Unfortunately, for this young man, this was not the case. Well, to be honest, this is what my family told me, because my memory of how the other kid fared was a bit “fuzzy” at the time. However, according to my parents and assorted relatives I was Pavarotti, and he was Tiny Tim!
Before I could process what had just transpired, I was being mobbed by well-wishers, adoring family and friends. Showered with praise and wet, red lipstick kisses from maiden aunts with halitosis, while the Rabbi was making some blessing over bread and wine. My friends, all of whom had either gone through this earlier in the year, or were about to in the coming months, were patting me on the back telling me how great I was. Liars, all of them. The only thing at this point that was going through my mind was a sense of relief on a scale that I had never experienced before. I was done. No more after school lessons, no more memorizing foreign words, no more dreading the approaching day. The only thing left was the luncheon!
As if the ordeal of being on display and having to perform in front of a room full of people, many of them strangers (some family members included in this last group) was not enough, now I had to be center stage yet again sitting in the middle of the “head table” perched atop a raised platform – You know, signaling that we the chosen few are special – eating rubber chicken and vegetables cooked to within an inch of their life. Wait, there’s more. After the main course was done (if you can call it that), and while desert was being served, I had to get up and give a speech. I spent a great deal of time writing and rewriting what I would say, only to have a waiter spill the remains of my lunch all over the piece of paper with my speech! Of course, everyone at the head table, my parents included, thought this was hilarious . . .I did not. So, I stood up with the piece of paper dripping with chicken grease and thanked everyone for coming and for the wonderful gifts, which included – I kid you not – 14 fountain pens. Apparently, in 1963 at least, this was the in gift. How could I have been so fortunate!
Now, not all Bar Mitzvahs are followed by a luncheon. Those families with, shall we say, more disposable income at their hands tend to forgo the luncheon and have an evening event with live music, dancing, lots and lots of alcohol, and many, many more opportunities to be embarrassed all over again. So, on that front I guess I was lucky, although it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. The differences between many of these events are mind-boggling. I attended way too many of these things in my youth, everything from a scaled down one that made mine seem like an extravagance, a party at a popular bowling alley (owned by the kid’s father), to one of my friend’s evening soiree that had around 1,500 people including the Mayor of Montreal, a 12-piece orchestra, and a comedian. And that was just for the adults. In a separate room was the kids’ party with just as much hoopla if not more. Imagine having to go through that before your quaint luncheon with the only entertainment being your drunk aunt pinching your cheek while singing Havah Nagilah off key!
It is said that “time heals all wounds,” and while I wouldn’t exactly classify the above as being wounded, it did take me 57 years to write about this! But now I have clarity on my side, and this has given me a brand, new perspective of that day so many years ago. What I now know is that I certainly did not become a man that day; I became a fountain pen!
Los Angeles, May 2021.