Friday, January 29, 2010

Seven months and twenty-four days: fleeting memories

There is no Bar Mitzvah this week. Our entire schedule has been completely derailed. What will we do with the extra day?

This gives us an excellent chance to ruminate on Torah portions, the meat-and-potatoes of his Bar Mitzvah. Ask me what my Torah Portion was about, on July 29, 1978. I remember very little. It had something to do with birthrights, and included the line (transliterated poorly) ka malechem avodah; lo tasur.

That's about it.

Why do I remember so little about my Torah portion? It was 31 years ago, and until this year I had no reason to care much if I remembered it or not. It wasn't until I heard that people were trying to line their kids up with the same Torah portion they'd read for their own B'nai Mitzvot that it occurred to me that I had lost something by forgetting.

On a larger scale, of course, the lack of regard I gave to my Torah portion -- the central aspect, the most important element of this enormous rite of passage -- is an indicator of the tenuous grip faith has on my life. But we won't go into that, because I don't want people to feel they need to chime in on the tragedy/supposed liberation of my personal relationship (or lack thereof) with the man upstairs.

Lets focus instead on how the contrast between how I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah and the Jawa is preparing for his will result in different memories that will last for a lifetime.

What I remember about my Bar Mitzvah: a few fleeting images. Uncle Paul, the shoe salesman from Florida, who once described an outfit he'd worn with utter and total reverence ("White shoes, white socks, white shorts, white shirt," while slowly moving his arm across the horizon), coming up to me as we were entering Temple Beth Sholom and saying, "Nikes? To your Bar Mitzvah you're wearing Nikes?" which in no way tempered the absolute joy I felt upon convincing my mom to let me wear them over uncomfortable dress shoes. Such a revelation they were that at least two of my guests chose to emulate me.

I remember that there seemed to be a split-second between gathering in the staging area -- the temple green room, as it were -- and suddenly walking out onto the altar. There was no time to get nervous. One minute we were back there talking to the cantor (that's it. Rabbi Stern, for whatever reason, was not available. Unlike Temple Emanu-El with its deep roster of rabbis, Temple Beth Sholom, in Santa Ana, California, had only one. No Rabbit Stern, no rabbi. And I can't even remember the cantor's name.

I remember the first check. Until Grandma Sadie gave me that first envelope, I had wondered if people would be giving me money as gifts. My only prior experience with Bar Mitzvahs had been the year before, when my cousin David was called to the Torah. I knew that David had cleared close to $3,000, a truly staggering sum to my pre-teen mind. But I also knew that David lived in Great Neck, New York, where they take Bar Mitzvahs much more seriously than they do in Orange County, California.

David's Bar Mitzvah had been almost exactly like a wedding, except that there was only one guest of honor, a thirteen-year-old boy. The reception was held at Leonard's of Great Neck, where, I'm reasonably certain, all the Joneses had their receptions. I spent almost the entire party standing outside the ballroom, talking to my second or third cousin Richard Brenin, who was only allowed to watch television for one hour per week. For that hour, he chose to watch "Star Trek." Richard, I'd been told, was genius.

Inside the ballroom, a live band was entertaining the guests. At one point, the band stopped playing and gave David's family, which included my mom's brother, Uncle Jules, his then-wife and David's three sisters, the kind of introduction I imagined Henny Youngman, my dad's favorite comedian, received when he headlined shows in the Catskills. Very Borscht Belt, in other words.

Earlier that day, David and I had taken their dog for a walk. We were already wearing our suits. I asked him if he was nervous, and he said, "No." I mulled this over, but mostly I was trying to think up ways to get my parents to buy me a set of cool glow-in-the-dark solar system decals like the ones David had on the ceiling of his bedroom.

Later, I came back into the ballroom. David and his friends were running around as if possessed, sneakily drinking the dregs of the adults' cocktails. "I'm totally stoned," I remember one of them inaccurately saying.

My Bar Mitzvah wasn't like that. It was a California Bar Mitzvah, far more casual. Maybe I set the tone with my brown Nikes. I don't remember.

I remember a few things about the service itself: during the run-up, I'd insisted that there was no way I was going to chant my Torah and Haftarah portions. The idea of singing in front of all these people? No way.

But they tricked me. When I received my cassette tape, already made legendary as the sum total of my Bar Mitzah training, it was of the cantor -- chanting my Torah portion. I had no choice but to chant. Thirty-one years later, I'm still thankful that my voice had not yet begun to change. It was a pure Tony DiFranco tenor; not a hint of Peter Brady cracking.

Thinking back, I do remember the moment before I started chanting, looking out at everyone in the synagogue, holding an elaborate pointer in one hand and thinking it was kind of funny. Did anyone in that room actually think I would be reading from the Torah, using this pointer to keep my place? It had no vowels!

Right before I started reading, Chris Drape came into the room on crutches. A great athlete (and now a high school principal in Seattle), Chris Drape was cursed with brittle bones. He was always hurt. This time he was on crutches. Very squeaky crutches. The entire room turned and looked at him as he hobbled in. Fortunately, Chris Drape also had a winning smile and a very polite personality. His squeaky entrance broke the tension, allowing me to charge into my (chanted) Torah portion with something approaching enthusiasm.

Never before or since have I been so aware of my voice, alone in a large room, hanging out there for everyone to hear. And remember, since then I've delivered 45-minute lectures about Beowulf before classrooms full of bored teenagers.

I remember the cantor following my performance and mentioning that I'd been swinging my leg back and forth the entire time I was "reading" from the Torah. As for my haftarah, I forgot it completely. Not a word. It wasn't until afterwards, as my parents and I accepted congratulations from our guests, that my Uncle Steve, a former rabbinical student, told me, "You forgot your haftarah."

After the ceremony, the entire party moved immediately into a room adjacent to the sanctuary. This was where Richard Colodny -- the forgotten Bar Mitzvah guest and only Temple Beth Sholom Hebrew school classmate to rate an invite to my party -- had his Bar Mitzvah party. He had a simple luncheon.

We met there to complete the traditional cutting of the challah. Each Bar Mitzvah boy (and Bat Mitzvah girl) slices into a challah that weighs the exact amount he or she weighed upon birth. Mine, if I remember right, weighed eight pounds and two ounces.

Then we went home, where caterers had set up tables in our backyard. It was a very nice daytime party, and I've already talked about it here. The swimming next door. The subtle competition between Chris Drape and Dave Krueger to see who could successfully lip-synch more lines from Steve Martin's "Lets Get Small" while the rest of us sat around in our bathing trunks, wrapped in towels and laughing our 13-year-old heads off. I mean, really, really small.

No one stole the adults' drinks, as far as I know. Richard Colodny was, sadly, forgotten. I carry that with me to this day. Someone took a picture of my cousin Deborah holding our dog in front of the Yucca tree that poked my dad in the head so often that he finally began calling it "The Hat-Grabber." The adults, I think, had a good time. Bob Finny, our next-door neighbor, showed up in shorts. I always felt bad about that. Weirdly, as it turns out, Roger A. Hunt was not there.

I can't imagine that the Jawa will have such fleeting memories of his Bar Mitzvah, unless there was a sustained nine-month run-up to mine that no one ever told me about or I've forgotten. Of course, it helps that 99% of his classmates are having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as well. Two years of classes at Temple Emanu-El will probably leave him more invested in the nuts and bolts of the actual ceremony. He got more than a tape.

I think that the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah -- and the entire 2009-2010 Bar/Bat Mitzvah season -- will figure prominently in the memories of his early teen years. Good for him. We couldn't do Leonard's of Great Neck, but it'll be a good party anyway. Memorable.

1 comment:

Noodle's Mom said...

With deepest apologies- I don't remember one single second of that day. I was there, wasn't I?