My Phony Real Bar Mitzvah
The Talmud sternly states that a Jewish father who denies his son (!) a religious education is worse than a thief. But my father’s having done so made total sense to me. While his father was a lovable ne’er-do-well in the mold of Zorba the Greek, his mother, the daughter of a scribe (a Torah copier, not a member of the religio-political party in the New Testament), was a zealously Orthodox Jewish woman who literally beat religion into her three sons. Once Dad was out of the house and on his own, he vowed never to inflict religion on his children. The results were that most of my religious upbringing, thanks to our “colored maid” Florine and four years at a Protestant boarding school, was Christian, and I am a Christian (Episcopalian) today.
Nevertheless, I was Bar Mitzvah’ed, at least in a manner of speaking. Here’s how it happened. Grandma Ida, Dad’s mother then in her late 80s, allowed to him that if the boy (me) were not Bar Mitzvah’ed, she would die and curse him from her deathbed. Now Dad was not religious, but he was superstitious. So, he went to the rabbi of Grandma’s Orthodox Upper Westside Manhattan Shul [synagogue] and arranged in exchange for a sufficient financial gift to enable his thoroughly unprepared son to become a Son of the Commandments, the literal meaning of the Hebrew term. Now for those of you unfamiliar with what goes into this rite of passage, it generally requires years of study of Biblical Hebrew, the Torah (first five books of Hebrew Scriptures, or the Pentateuch), and the Talmud, or sanctioned rabbinical commentaries on the Torah. I think of our granddaughter Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah. [Bat in Hebrew means “daughter.”] At 13 she was basically half a rabbi. She could chant, not just read, her assigned daily Torah portion from a scroll with no vowel markings; then give an exegesis and sermon based on it. (Now you know a major reason why Jews in general do so well in school!)
So, on or about my 13th birthday I dutifully went to Temple Shaare Zadek. The morning all-male minyan (congregation) was duly gathered in the sanctuary where they were, each at his own speed, swaying to and fro and reciting the Hebrew prayers at what struck me as 100 mph. When it came time for the prayers before and after the Torah, I was on—solo—a feat I performed by intoning transliterated texts. The rabbi chanted my Torah portion and did the sermon for me. The men looked at me with expressions that seemed to say, “Here we are seeing the downfall of our religion and people!” Meanwhile, inside my head I heard a voice that said, “We don’t care if you’re religious or not. But if you do decide to be, never ever make a mockery of religion.” So, in a funny way, I did become a religious adult that day, not in the traditional Jewish way but in a way that led me to strong and enduring Christian observance and faith. That day I did in fact become a man.
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