Bar Mitzvahs Are for Remembering
Wed, 02/17/2010
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On the Thursday night before my Shabbat bar mitzvah all those years ago in Annapolis, Md., it snowed, heavily and unexpectedly. More than 20 inches by the next morning.

As a result, almost all of the out-of-town guests, including close relatives, couldn’t get there; my parents had to pay for dozens of guests who never made it to the luncheon at a local hotel; and an elderly congregant attempting to walk to shul for the occasion fell and broke her leg — a fact she reminded me of for years, every time I saw her.

Talk about guilt. Woody Allen would have been proud of me, a skinny kid in glasses and braces worrying about how much the caterer would charge for the no-shows.

I guess it’s the combination of the winter weather we’ve been having of late, the calendar — this Shabbat is Terumah, my bar mitzvah portion — and the fact that this year marks a special anniversary, that has had me thinking back on the occasion in recent days.

As any veteran of a bar or bat mitzvah can attest, what is remarkable, and little mentioned, is that the ritual may very well mark the most intense pressure to perform of any public event in one’s lifetime — and at such a tender age. When else are we in the spotlight for so long, with so much expected of us?

Leading the synagogue service, reading from the Torah portion, chanting the Haftorah, and/or giving a speech in front of a large crowd of adults can be overwhelming. It’s a wonder so many youngsters handle the potentially traumatic experience as well as they do.

In my case, in addition to the traditional speech I offered up in shul that Shabbat morning, tying in the theme of the Torah portion with my new responsibilities as an “adult” (at least technically, in the eyes of Jewish law) and offering gratitude to my parents, big brother and family, I recited a pretty lengthy pilpul (Talmudic discourse) in Yiddish, as a nod to my Yiddish-speaking maternal grandfather, a distinguished rabbi in Baltimore who only managed to make it to Annapolis for the weekend by riding in the caterer’s truck alongside his beefy staff that Friday afternoon — a memorable sight.

(The other vision etched in my memory of that Friday was of my Uncle Marty and Aunt Clara pulling up to our house in a big boat of a car, cousins in tow, just before Shabbat. They had defied the traffic predictions and driven down from Riverdale, the only New York relatives to make the trek, for which I was always grateful.)

That Shabbat morning, standing on a box at the lectern (my growth spurt came later, when I was 16) and having memorized the Yiddish words I was only fuzzily familiar with, I spoke about whether or not one is permitted to sleep while wearing tefillin.

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate, given that the large majority of the audience had no idea what I was talking about, to have discussed whether it is permissible to sleep in shul while hearing a Yiddish pilpul.

(I later learned that mine was one of two standard Yiddish bar mitzvah pilpuls given out by the Baltimore yeshiva I attended to boys who chose, or were encouraged, to speak in “mama lashon” — the mother tongue. I found out when a classmate told me he delivered “the other one.”)

In any event, my primary audience for the talk was my bubbe and zeyde, and they seemed to appreciate the effort.

I managed to get through the day intact, but still recall some other memorable bar mitzvahs from my childhood, like the one where a future mayor of Annapolis, highly nervous, stopped cold in the middle of his Haftorah and demanded a glass of water.

As the rabbi’s son, about 8 or 9 at the time, I was dispatched to the kitchen, a flight down from the crowded main sanctuary, to bring him the water. It was one of the longest two minutes of my life, and no doubt of his as well.

And there was the time a youngster began chanting the Haftorah he had spent the last year mastering and memorizing, only to discover it was the wrong one. Wisely, he was allowed to continue, following which the cantor quickly chanted the appropriate Haftorah, with few in the congregation the wiser.

Everyone who has had a bar or bat mitzvah has a story, whether it’s one of raw fear, pride of accomplishment or familial warmth — or more likely, a combination of the three.

My Torah portion, Terumah, describes at great length the requirements for building the holy ark. While we’re familiar with the expression “the devil is in the details,” Terumah suggests the opposite — that holiness is in the particulars and fine points, fashioned with care and devotion. Similarly, the Haftorah describes King Solomon’s efforts to build “the house of the Lord,” the holy Temple, where, God promises, if the Jewish people keep His laws, “I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake My people Israel.”

That’s an inspiring message and one I hope to chant on Shabbat morning. I hope it doesn’t snow.

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