The Bar Mitzvah Ordeal

    June 2009            
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In the Jewish Community

By Martha Mendelsohn

Even before I turned twelve people began telling me bar mitzvah horror stories. Like about my Uncle Eli, whose classmates from yeshiva sat there during the service counting his mistakes; he made seven. Or about this kid who didn't show up in synagogue and chanted his haftarah standing on his head in the playground.

Ethan, my big brother, confessed that he'd thrown up the night before his bar mitzvah. There'd been this four-course dinner, gefilte fish and a standing rib roast, the works. In his case, it had gone undigested.

"I don't remember that," my mother said. "You were sound asleep," said Ethan. "Not a care in the world besides floral arrangements and placecards."

Other than that, Ethan remembers nothing. Except for trying to scuff the soles of his new shoes on the sidewalk so that he wouldn't slip during the ceremony. "The next thing I knew," he said, "I was adding up my checks."

My Torah portion was Noah, which is also my name, both Hebrew and English, so my mother was concocting this flood theme, topiaries in animal shapes, arks on the kids' tables. Coincidentally, we were drowning.

Cantor Bloom called during the next-to-last Yankees game I would see before camp. "He says you might have to recite your portion instead of chanting it," my mother said. "He says you're tone-deaf."

"Tune-deaf, he calls it," I corrected. The first time we'd gone over the cantillations, Cantor Bloom had said he'd thought I was tune-deaf but he'd have to see. But over the weeks, I thought I'd been improving.

"I guess you didn't have trouble with your haftarah," I said once, in an effort at small talk.

"I have perfect pitch," he told me. "A gift from the Almighty."

To me perfect pitch was something Jimmy Key could throw, or even Eddie Lopez on my Little League team. It was a ball whizzing over home plate like a meteor, that the batter couldn't connect with.

We had joined the Society for Rational Judaism, where Cantor Bloom officiated, when I was seven, after spending the High Holidays synagogue-shopping. (In Los Angeles, where we'd lived before, we'd belonged to a big community center with a pool.) Rosh Hashanah was divided between Conservative and Reform. Yom Kippur was at the S.R.J., one of two Reconstructionist synagogues in the city. Rabbi Jedediah Gunther, revered as a genius, didn't view God in spiritual terms. He preached that a bunch of fellow geniuses had written the Bible, much the way the Founding Fathers had drafted the Constitution. In his sermons, he set biblical scenes in a modern context: "The manna might have tasted like lox from Zabar's," or (in the story of the Golden Calf), "the women tossed in their Tiffany rings."

At services you were loaded down with four books: the Reconstructionist prayerbook, an Orthodox siddur, and a book of quotations and poems by non-Jews like Carl Sandburg and Kahlil Gibran, or by problem Jews like Spinoza. When they were called to the Torah, some members recited the Reconstructionist version of the Blessings, which left out the bit about Jews being the chosen people, while others chanted the original version. Rabbi Gunther, who had actually broken with Reconstructionism over this issue, was now edging toward Orthodoxy. You had a choice, which way to say the Blessings, but since he did the chosen-people version, you were crazy if you didn't choose it too.

But now, months before it would be my turn to chant the Blessings, Cantor Bloom was telling my mother that I might not meet "the high standards of the S.R.J." I had been going to Hebrew School there three times a week for years. Evidently, they didn't stand behind their product.

"At camp, if a counselor could listen to him and correct him, there's a chance. Otherwise he'll just be repeating the same mistakes over and over," the cantor said.

"Tone-deaf boys have had bar mitzvahs from day one," my father yelled into the phone. "Everyone will say it was wonderful, no matter what."

At Camp Heron Lake, almost all the kids were Jewish, but most of the counselors came from remote parts of Australia and New Zealand, and didn't know a yarmulke from a baseball cap.

"Your standards are higher than God's!" my mother accused.

Cantor Bloom was apologetic. But he took his orders from the Rabbi, and the Rabbi didn't allow kids who couldn't carry a tune to sing at their bar mitzvahs. Rabbi Gunther existed, God might not--it was as simple as that.

At my annual check-up the pediatrician gave me a routine auditory test. My hearing was perfect, Dr. Kramer said. "But he may not always listen," he added, winking at my mother. She winced. The problem wasn't my hearing, only my "ear."

I was still "on my curve," said Dr. Kramer. I hadn't hit my growth spurt yet. Asking my mother to sit out of earshot in the waiting room, he warned me that some guys at camp might have pubic hair.

Actually, I was obsessed with hair, the kind that grew on my head, springing cowlicks at night. To hide it, I wore my Yankees hat all the time. I was wearing it instead of a yarmulke when we went to meet Rabbi Judah Schnitzer at Beth Jacob Synagogue, which was Orthodox. We were looking into other bar mitzvah venues. My mother said that an Orthodox synagogue would feel I was entitled to a normal bar mitzvah, that God welcomed all voices.

So two days before camp, instead of watching the Yankees clobber the Red Sox, we waited for Rabbi Schnitzer in a hot, stuffy library. The leather-bound volumes on the shelves didn't contain a word of English and you could tell that hairy-eared old men usually stooped over the sloping, velvet-draped pulpit, praying.

"He'll be late," my mother predicted, "because I'm a woman." But Rabbi Schnitzer showed up, almost on time, wearing a hat hat and a frizzy goatee. He removed the hat, exposing a gray suede yarmulke stabilized with a bobby pin. On the way over, my mother had described the phone conversation. "So who says you have to be a Pavarotti?" he'd told her. But now he shoved an open volume at me. "Sing the brochah," he barked. "Now read your portion--just reading, no singing." I stumbled over a word or two, mixed up some shins and sins.

"His Hebrew isn't too terrible," Rabbi Schnitzer said. "Could he try a simple melody? Adon Olam maybe? Yigdal? Ein Keloheinu?

Ordinarily I might have managed a few verses of Ein Keloheinu.

"Can he sing anything?" the rabbi asked, patting his yarmulke.

I tried "The Star-Spangled Banner." Right away I knew I was on the wrong track. By the time I reached the twilight's last gleaming, I was completely off-base.

"He has a nice voice, an alto," said the rabbi. "Only his pitch is way off. Of course I'm not a voice teacher."

"Can he or can he not have his bar mitzvah here?" my mother asked.

"With a lot of practice I wouldn't say it's impossible. I tell you, they repeat it so often, it sinks in. They do it by rote, these kids. Repeating--that's the secret. He could be ready--with a little luck. No Richard Tucker, to be sure, but it's possible he could do it," the rabbi said, repositioning his yarmulke slightly off-center.

"And if he's not 'ready?' What happens then?"

"Well, then he comes to shul on a Monday or a Thursday when the Torah is read. Not so terrible. He does the Blessings before and after, and, lo and behold, he's bar mitzvah!"

"But that's what kids with learning disabilities do!" My mother objected.

"His problem--it's like a bissel disability," Rabbi Schnitzer said, slapping his hat back over his yarmulke.

I told my mother that a weekday bar mitzvah was out of the question, that I was going to chant my portion the usual way, no matter what. Maybe some kids I knew wouldn't bother to sing or even read any Hebrew, but I didn't want to be one of them.

In the rabbi's study at Columbus Temple, the reform temple around the corner from us, Rabbi Sherwood and Cantor Whitestone, wearing chinos and tennis shirts, were enthusiastic about my Hebrew. "But why is it so important that you sing?" the cantor asked me. "Many of our bar and bat mitzvah candidates would just as soon not."

"Because I want to," I told them. Chanting my portion had become a matter of principle with me, like getting to pitch at least one Little League game even though I didn't exactly throw fire.

"Well, here at CT, that's your decision," the cantor said. But the truth was, no one wanted me to sing.

My mother said we would have to clear Columbus Temple with my grandfather. It took me years to get Grandpa Leo to test me on Yankee stats instead of my Hebrew. Second to religion, my grandfather enjoyed baseball. He watched Saturday afternoon games, if the maid was there to turn on the TV.

"Anything's better than that atheist place," Grandpa told my mother over the phone. Apparently, he found Restructionism more offensive than any other deviation from Orthodoxy. "But how bad can he be?" he asked about my singing. "Put him on--let him chant the Blessings, at least."

I complied. Just the Blessings before and after the Torah reading and haftarah, like I'd done for everyone else.

"Well, make sure they don't play an organ or light any candles during the service, or do anything else to violate Shabbos," Grandpa Leo sighed to my mother, when I was done.

Later, my parents said they were surprised that Grandpa hadn't suggested moving my bar mitzvah to his Orthodox shul on the East Side.

But I wasn't at all surprised. Grandpa Leo set great store by appearances. At Yankee Stadium he wouldn't even get me a soda from the Sabrett vendor on the off-chance that someone he knew would think he was buying a non-kosher hotdog.

He had listened to me sing. He didn't want me embarrassing him in front of his cronies.

That night, while I was deciding which baseball cards to take to camp, I heard my mother on the phone with her sister. "The place around the corner has the date free."

My Aunt Judy was the last to care. I'd heard about how she'd shocked guests at Ethan's bar mitzvah by announcing that she wasn't Jewish. "I was born a Jew, but I don't practice Judaism," she'd offered in explanation. Her daughter was being encouraged to select her own religion when she grew up. According to Ethan, her daughter, my cousin Deirdre, had asked her mother, "Are we Jewish?" and Aunt Judy had said, "You'll pick a religion when you're old enough."

Early on, I could tell that my family was full of all kinds of Jews--and it was more complicated than just Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Atheist.

Grandma Claire, Grandpa Leo's wife, rarely went to synagogue. Occasionally, she kept Grandpa company for an hour on Yom Kippur, gossiping behind the curtain with the rest of the women.

Uncle Eli, the former yeshiva boy, had turned into a religious phony, who drove on Saturday only for life-and-death "business emergencies."

My father stopped believing in God when he ate a Fig Newton one Passover and nothing happened to him. He'd been twelve, almost ready for his bar mitzvah. Personally, I'd be afraid to dismiss God, because he overlooked one cookie. You wouldn't say Jim Abbott was washed up because he'd walked somebody.

The way I saw it, God was a lot like the Commissioner of Baseball. He set up the rules, but then he let the players make their own decisions. Every now and then he stepped in, interfering with this or that, but mostly he left them on their own.

Though my father didn't believe in God, he believed in Jewish traditions. "It pleases me to know that I am part of a community of Jews, reciting the same prayers my great-great-grandparents in Lithuania and Hungary did," he intoned last Yom Kippur when he pretended to break the fast. He had designed a cartoon-like family tree that stemmed from a Russian chazzan nicknamed "the Nightingale of Odessa," not only for his beautiful voice but because of his reputation for "flitting from flower to flower." So far, I had inherited none of Cantor Razumny's genes.

There was a whole Swedish branch, and one spring a distant cousin from Malmo showed up with her Finnish, formerly Protestant boyfriend just in time for our seder. Kaarlo had converted to Judaism because it made more sense to him than Christianity, even though there were millions of Christmas trees but only one rabbi in all of Finland.

Whenever I looked at the family tree, I zeroed in on the branch with its limbs lopped off, and a list of names in extra-bold black. These were the Polish and Czech relatives who had been killed in concentration camps. Leafy branches full of names rose right above it.

My cousin, who changed her name from Marcia to Mascha, taught a course called "Yiddishkyte" at the New School. Her younger brother Marshall had been sent to a Torah institute in Jerusalem to recover from substance addictions. Renamed Mordechai, he now had five children and his own personal moshgiach.

My father's older brother, Uncle Barry, married a Presbyterian who converted. Aunt Connie wouldn't touch any food that wasn't strictly kosher. She wanted to make sure my mother used a separate food-processor to make the haroseth for our seders. My mother lied.

My mother called herself "traditional." Our home was mostly kosher, but we had one set of dishes that was used for "meat" and "dairy," depending. Grandpa Leo and cousin Mordechai were never served on those dishes.

The day before camp Ethan took me for a final pizza at Big Nick's. What passed for pizza at Heron Lake were soggy, misshapen blobs.

"Did you practice at camp, the summer before your bar mitzvah?" I asked him.

"I remember doing the Blessings--sitting under a tree. While the assholes in my bunk played basketball," he said. "You're lucky you don't go to an all-boys' camp." Ethan had this theory that I was having it much better than he did, that our parents had him to practice on and were getting things right with me. This included the decision to send me to a coed camp.

"Sometimes we'd be out on the lake in canoes and we'd pass a boatload of girls from Pine Crest," he said biting into an extra-cheese slice. "Our counselor would yell, 'Give 'em the Red Eye!' "We'd have to pull down our trunks, part our buns..." He paused. "And expose our rectums."

"You actually did this?" I asked. It was hard to imagine my brother, who was getting his Ph.D. in English, "giving the Red Eye."

"Sheep that I was, yes. Naturally, I was worried about running into one of the girls at the miserable socials we went to every week. But it never happened."

The waiter brought out Cokes. "Did you have a girlfriend?"

"Are you serious? Look, compared to Red Eye expeditions and Pine Crest socials, bar mitzvah practice was a relief."

"So you practiced a lot?"

"No more than five or six times the whole summer," He hummed the last few lines of the long post-haftarah blessing, which I thought I'd mastered until the call from Cantor Bloom. "When you get to that last verse you'll be one happy camper," he said, grabbing another slice of pizza. "I promise you, your bar mitzvah's the most nervous you'll ever be." He smacked me a high-five. "Everything's a breeze after that."

I left for camp with tapes from both cantors in a Ziploc bag. The windows were the kind you couldn't see through from the outside, but I saw my parents, waving like semaphores. The luggage hatches slammed shut, sealing my fate.

Summers at Camp Heron Lake were so predictable, you could pre-write your letters home. There were no surprises, unless you counted the ways Color War was broken. My first summer the head counselor parachuted out of a helicopter, scattering team lists. The next year the waterfront director swam across the lake with the lists in a bottle.

The camp season was divided into the part before Visiting Day, and the part after. The highlights of Part One were daily mail call, the trip to the amusement park, raids on the girls' side, illegal firecrackers on the Fourth, your counselor from Auckland or Melbourne warning you not to tell about his cigarette stash--and Visiting Day.

Even Visiting Day came in two parts. There was the morning (before the lunch with "home-baked pastries" served on that day and that day only), when your parents emptied bags of comics and leaky plums, and seemed so thrilled to see you, you thought you might get to go home with them.

There was the afternoon part, where you wasted your breath trying to convince them you didn't need to stay for the second month (you'd already passed Advanced Swimmers' and weren't learning anything, you lied). You begged them to take you home, but they said you owed it to yourself to stay. You resorted to futile tears at the far end of the parking lot.

Inevitably, there was Part Two: daily mail call, the trip to the roller rink, raids on the girls' side, illegal firecrackers, your counselor promising all kinds of perks for not telling on his beer stash--and Color War, which some kids got ridiculously worked up about.

Actually, there was some excitement the summer before my bar mitzvah. A counselor from Perth turned out to be a fugitive from the law, a convicted felon. Camp was the perfect cover, until the authorities caught up with him.

That summer my major accomplishment was learning to swallow an Advil. I had a headache and was too embarrassed to ask the nurse to mash up the pill in a spoonful of jam.

I managed to practice the Blessings and the first lines of my portion a few times a week. I listened to the tapes over and over, but I knew I was still off-key. I tried to get my voice to fit the cantors' (either one of them), to land on their notes-- whiny or upbeat, as the case might be--but it was like trying to cut along a straight line or coloring without going past the edges. My voice kept veering off on its own, out of control, like a crayon in a baby's hands.

Passing the girls' bunks one rest hour, I heard the first line of my haftarah. Sung in a high voice, on-key. I ducked behind a clothesline when I saw Andrea Rosenthal exit in her bathing suit, a towel over her arm, her headphones still in her ears. And a few days later our group went on a coed hare and hound, and this red stain the size of a quarter appeared on the back of Andrea's white shorts. Her friends hustled her into the woods, taking the toilet paper we were using to leave trails with. There was no way I was going to ask her for help with my singing.

Finally, it was the end of August, and I was on the bus again, with my five-year varsity sweatshirt stuffed into my duffle, pretending to be sad we were leaving. The sweatshirt meant I would never have to go back to Heron Lake--my parents had promised me five years would be it. But I dreaded going home. In the supermarket they'd be removing cans from the "special" shelves to make way for composition books and binders, a dreary sight under the best of circumstances.

My bar mitzvah haul would end up being enough to pay for half a year of college. I was given checks in every conceivable multiple of the magic number chai below $1,800. Aunt Judy's $54 check bounced.

Aunt Connie gave me a 12-volume set of the Scriptures; Uncle Eli gave me a two-year subscription to "Playboy." Grandpa Leo and Cousin Mordechai gave me tefillin.

I became the proud owner of three sets of binoculars, an electronic diary, a talking calculator, and a fishing rod. Also, three cameras, five Nintendo games, two watches, seven gift certificates to record stores and many bonds due to mature in the year 2,000. No fountain pens, no cuff links. My favorite present was a near-mint-condition Mickey Mantle rookie card.

At the service, the rabbi handed me a silver-plate kiddush cup and welcomed me into the Jewish community.

There were 13-year-olds in both seventh and eighth grades at my school, so the bar mitzvah circuit took nearly two years to run its course. If there were future opera stars in the bunch, it passed me by completely.

For almost two years I spent Saturday nights at clubs and discotheques and hotel ballrooms, and Saturday mornings at what seemed like every synagogue and temple in the tri-state area.

The very first invitation I got was dry-mounted like a poster; it came with five stamps. The envelope flap was sealed with an "S" (for Schwartz), like one of those hot wax gadgets kings used to stamp royal edicts with. Only this one was just a sticker. If you peeled it back and looked underneath, you read "Calligraphy by Caitlin."

Brian Klebanoff's Hebrew initials in gold (his Hebrew name was Baruch Feivel) got smeared all over his invitations. Jenya Schiffman's mother wrote all her thank-you notes for her; she didn't even try to imitate Jenya's handwriting.

My friend Justin chanted his portion in a twilight service aboard the "Glatt Yacht." The boat circled Manhattan while we won play-money at roulette and 21. Other parties had themes like "Hawaiian Luau" or "Mardi Gras" or "World Series." One girl had a sleepover at the Waldorf. Another had her party at the United Nations--they threw in an optional tour.

I must have shimmied under a hundred limbo poles, tripped in a hundred hora circles and conga lines. I never ate the chicken cutlets.

Sometimes there were rival bar mitzvahs, double-headers--one in the morning and another at night. Some kids escaped to Israel for the religious ceremony, but still had their party in New York so they wouldn't miss out on the gifts.

Even the affairs that weren't overkill had balloon arches and see-through robots and record-your-own-tape booths. We learned how to make tiny punctures in the balloons, to inhale the helium and get high.

I could picture archaeologists epochs from then, digging under Tavern on the Green, shrieking "eureka!" over abandoned memory candles and sign-in plaques.

Only a week after my own bar mitzvah, Mrs. Gribetz from the sixth floor of my building called to ask if anyone was available to be the tenth for a minyan to say Kaddish for her daughter. (I vaguely remembered the deceased from the elevator--a busty redhead about my mother's age.) No one was home, I told her. "How old are you?" she asked. "You count!" she bellowed when I told her. When I got there, everyone was crying, so I started to cry, too, but I didn't take it lightly that my first job as a man was to weep over a woman I hardly knew.

The spring of seventh grade turned out to be my last season playing West Side Little League. My team, the Hispanic Labor Committee Toros, was 10 and 5, and my fielding and hitting and even the one inning I pitched contributed, so you might say I decided to rest on my laurels.

The Mickey Mantle card was now in a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet, with all the other cards I planned to sell someday.

That fall I was back at Barney's with my "shadow-stripe" bar mitzvah suit for my "complimentary alteration." The year before, the pants legs had puddled around my ankles, and now my socks were showing. (There were girls I was taller than, now.) "At least let him see what he can do," my mother argued, but there was no way the tailor could make the suit fit. The changes the doctor had alluded to were happening, too. You started out thinking you were special, unique, a true individual, and then pretty much the same things happened to you that happened to everyone else.

The week before I'd entered seventh grade, Ethan had taken me to school to get my books. Book-buying day was a rite, he'd said, just as important as my bar mitzvah. I would find out who was in my classes, who had "frees" when I did, and where my locker was. But we got the time wrong--we were supposed to have come in the morning--so no one from my grade was there.

At my school, a private school with required entrance exams, you didn't start first grade unless you were six by the end of September. (Since my birthday was in October, I turned 13 at the beginning of seventh grade.) As a result, every grade appeared a little larger and more mature than you'd expect it to be. In my opinion, this was to make the graduates seem like geniuses.

The seventh and eighth grades were in the same building as the upper grades, and as soon as you walked into Pforzmann Hall you noticed rows of orange lockers with the same huge Master Locks swinging from all of them. The hallway was so typically "high school," it had been used for gum and mouthwash commercials.

You'd think the insignia wear in the bookstore window would have the school's name on it, instead of the names of Ivy League colleges. "This shows you the true goal of your education," Ethan sneered.

Milling around, looking like they'd know their way blindfolded, were wall-to-wall teenagers, all with the same ragged jeans and loosely laced sneakers, a variety of messages on their T-shirts, and that arrogant, in-charge strut.

"Have you forgotten the power of the almighty penis?" I heard a junior or senior casually ask a girl, handing her a textbook. Neither of them looked the least bit embarrassed. In the men's room, I read "For a good time, call Nicki," scrawled above the urinal.

And there I was—5'0" with a voice as high a 10-year-old's, with barely a pubic hair to my name. Yet, as of next week, my birthday, I would be one of them.

A guy in a J.V. wrestling jacket smirked when I showed him my list. "Seventh and eighth grade was this morning. We're doing upperclassmen now," he said, cracking his gum like castanets.

"Just give him his books," Ethan ordered.

"We read Great Expectations," he said, examining the flyleaf of a paperback with an aborigine boy on the cover. "You think you have it bad--this kid had to do something called a 'walkabout': find his way in the Outback, or perish."

He picked up Health and Hygiene, a thick volume with laughing teenagers on the cover. "Lucky you. We didn't have X-rated stuff until ninth grade."

But out of the whole pile, only Human Evolution, a book with two apes on the jacket, interested me. One of them looked pregnant, with swollen, hairy breasts drooping past her pot belly. With each chapter, the apes turned more human--shedding hair and tails, standing up, evolving into Homo Sapiens.

If evolution had meant the loss of body hair, how come modern man got hairier as he grew up? I asked myself.

Ethan grabbed the book. "So many features which we recognize as being uniquely human are behavioral and do not fossilize, e.g. our long period of infant dependence and care," he read from the preface.

On closer inspection you couldn't lump all the high school kids together. There were the bubbly ones, and the sullen ones, and who knew which category I would fit into?

Before camp, Ethan had told me my bar mitzvah would be the scariest thing I'd do. But now I knew it would be a snap, compared to everything else. I hummed the Blessings as I lugged my books to the seventh grade lockers. I figured I'd do an O.K. job with my haftarah, and guess what? I did. Or so my relatives and parents' friends told me. Of course, they probably lied too.


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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