One of the best things Rabbi N, my childhood rabbi, ever did in my life was assign me the Bar Mitzvah Torah portion of Parshat Beshallach, with its famous Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea of Reeds which Moses sings after Pharaoh’s defeat by water, featuring a special trope (Yiddish, “trup”) I was required to learn. My parents hired as my tutor the Baal Koray/Torah Reader’s son, a Progressive-Orthodox (Yes, there was such a thing in the mid-1960s) sort named Irwin, to tutor me. He was a fine young man, combining a strong knowledge of Torah music and Yiddishkeit from his father, as well as the ability to play guitar—something unheard-of in our insular neighborhood of the Lower East Side, despite living in New York City, with its plethora of cultures. This was the era of Peter, Paul, and Mary, when we sang “Kumbaya,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “If I Had a Hammer” on the Educational Alliance Day Camp bus, zooming off to Staten Island every summer morning, but we had no idea we were singing anything leftist—it was just good music.
Irwin was patient and thorough—I will never forget the time he had to miss a lesson, but made up for it by standing on the “F” train subway platform and singing to me on a pay phone, with the trains roaring back-and-forth in the background.
His only small omission was in sending me off to Orthodox summer camp the season before my Big Day, giving me strict instructions to learn to chant the Song of the Sea itself, and come back in the fall with it firmly implanted in my head. On the face of it, this was a small request: all Jewish camps in those days featured a “Jewish Culture Hour” during which a zealous counselor would meet with a group of kids, to study Torah, Perek/Ethics of the Fathers, or another Jewish topic. (Camp remains the Jewel in the Crown of American Judaism—kids learn about being Jewish, only they’re having fun, so it’s painless—try it with your children or grandchildren: it works.)
The problem was that we pre-bar-mitzvah boys were considered mature enough (yeah, right) to be left as an independent, counselor-less group, and could be trusted (right again) to work by ourselves. Instead, we shot the breeze for an hour every day, our Torah and Haftorah books remained firmly shut, and we accomplished nothing related to bar mitzvah that summer.
When I returned home in the fall, Irwin called me, in a panic.
“Did you learn the Shirat HaYam?” he asked.
“Uh, no, Irwin—I’m sorry, but I—“ I was faltering in my excuse-making; I was never a good liar, which is certainly a good character trait for a rabbi.
“Thank God!” he laughed, “I forgot to teach you the special music for singing it.”
That was the only time in my life that not studying something actually paid off.
I had a black suit that I wore regularly to shul, but needed something more impressive for my Big Day. My parents took me to Howard Clothes on Delancey St., just around the corner from the legendary Orchard St. Ironically, though we lived a short walk from Orchard, we rarely shopped there. My mother preferred to go uptown, to Macy’s and Gimbel’s.
It was the heyday of polyester (a Greek word meaning “many Esthers”), and the salesman put me into a light-blue sharkskin suit. With its padded shoulders, I resembled a small Mafiosi. Seeing myself in the mirror, I pointed an imaginary .38 special at my image, and practiced saying, “Awright, Louie, drop da gun.”
The salesman had no sense of humor, and the suit passed my mother’s inspection, so the salesman led me before the three-directional mirror and directed me to stand on “The Box,” so that the store tailor, a thin, chain-smoking, long-fingered man in a vest stuck full of needles and thread, could take my measurements and shorten the pants.
“Could you take it in, a little, here--?” my mother ventured, but the tailor rolled his eyes and bellowed,
“He needs it, HERE!” smacking me on the posterior. Big backsides have always been the trademark of us Polish Jews; I believe that we used them to store fat during the long, East European winters, much as camels do. They were also useful when anti-semites pushed us over; we could just bounce back to our feet, like Weebles.
In the end, wearing my sharkskin suit, white tab collar shirt, and narrow, dark blue-and-black-stripe tie, I looked like a cross between a small gangster and Rod Serling’s younger brother, but without the eyebrows.
On my Big Day, Jan. 16, 1965, it snowed, but that did not deter us Orthodox, who were used to walking to shul in all sorts of weather. My aunt, uncle, and two cousins from Far Rockaway drove in, but parked around the corner, so everyone assumed that they had walked, as well; superhuman feats by Jews are taken as routine.
It was the heyday of James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Cold War was very much a reality. Nikita Khrushchev had only recently visited the United Nations, where he and Ambassador Kosygin entertained the General Assembly by taking off their shoes and banging them on their desks, so Russian Chic was very much in fashion. My winter hat was a flat, black, furry affair that I wore rakishly tilted to one side. My coat was a dark-grey herringbone affair with a fake-fur collar that matched the hat. Together, I looked like a character from a John Le Carre juvenile novel. We slogged off to shul in the snow, as if to a prisoner exchange between East and West Berlin.
The shul was packed, hot, and humid. Orthodox b’nai mitzvah get to face the Holy Ark, not the congregation, and so have no one to make them nervous. I read prayers, chanted Torah, and made my speech, shook hands like a politician running for office, heard dozens of wellwishers saying “Mazel Tov!” and was gifted with some hefty books: some good, some dull.
At the Kiddush following the service, in the Social Hall beneath the “Big Shul”—I did not learn it was called the Main Sanctuary until years later, in other synagogues—the old men (though they were, probably, in their forties and fifties) urged me to chug about an inch of Canadian Club or Four Feathers, after crunching a “kichel,” sort of a Jewish hardtack made without sugar, whose only purpose was to absorb the schnapps/whiskey. They pounded the table and sang zemiros/tunes without words; after a few more drinks drunk from wax-paper cups, they sang with more abandon.
Then, Rabbi N, who had had a few manly drinks himself, got up and made a longish d’var Torah in Yiddish, the greater part of which I missed, but caught some allusions to my Torah portion, as well as praise given to my parents and me. I could not catch any connection between my family and the Splitting of the Red Sea, but, in my whiskey-addled thirteen-year-old mind, somehow imagined the four of us, my sister Pearl included, standing on the brink of the Sea of Reeds, waving our wax-paper cups (my Mom and Pearl’s held Sabra, the more-sophisticated Israeli liqueur), and cheering while Moses, waving his shepherd’s staff, went mano a mano with a Pharaoh exhausted from a surfeit of plagues. Then, the triumphant Israelites processed into a brilliant sunset, worthy of Cecil B. DeMille’s Special Effects Dept., circa 1956….
We had lunch following the service, but played no music—my father was still in the Year of Mourning for Bubbie, a’h. My party was certainly nothing like the bacchanaliae that occur today: I mostly remember running up and down the stairs after my friends. I also got a Roget’s Thesaurus—two copies, in fact, one of which I gave away—a Book of American Humor, and a tape recorder, which I adored. Oh, and Rabbi N gave me a spice box, which I still have.
Most importantly, I kept going to shul—mostly because Dad required it. Every Shabbos morning (there was no Shabbat then), he would tenderly (brusquely, really) shake me awake, with a “David! It’s 9 am. I’m going to shul now. Don’t get there any later than 9:30!” And I knew, when I breezed in at a leisurely Gentleman’s Hour of 9:30, that Rabbi N would scowl at me and tap his watch. Ah, memories….
Nonetheless, during my years in that shul, I learned the davening in the best way possible—by hearing it read and sung—and, every year, when my piece of the Torah rolled around, I did the Torah laining/chanting. That is, you see, the most important aspect of bar/t mitzvah: earning and keeping Your Own Piece of the Torah. Bar/t Mitzvah isn’t an inoculation; it doesn’t protect you from assimilation. It’s an introduction to the beauty of this Glorious Adventure we call Judaism—too precious a possession to be left only to Rabbis, Cantors, and Education Directors. It belongs, not only to our children, but to every Jew. Come to shul and see!