Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are intergenerational, something I grasped but obliquely at my own Bar Mitzvah. My Bar Mitzvah was about me. I was the one who worked hard, who prepared, who spent countless nights with Cantor Gross toiling over musical notes and correct Hebrew pronunciations; who was put in my place by the speech teacher, Florence Spitzer, as she forcefully got me to understand the difference between speaking or mumbling, and projecting. I was the one who got nervous. It was my day.
So I thought at the time.
I did realize that my parents put in their due diligence with the caterer; I learned that my pious Uncle Dave Steinberg diverted from his normal shul in order to walk a lot farther to the shul where I would be Bar Mitzvah. Vaguely, just vaguely, I knew my other aunts and uncles and my grandmothers were paying attention to my coming big day.
At my Bar Mitzvah, my Dad Max Goldberg, of blessed memory, was sitting on the pulpit off to the side as I chanted the Haftorah. He was crying. I didn’t understand why.
My Bar Mitzvah was about me.
How much can a 13-year-old grasp?
When it came time for my own children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, many years after my own, I suffered from the opposite malady: This was all about us, the parents. This was intergenerational. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah was the parents’ effort at Jewish continuity in the abstract and the very specific results of all the parenting since birth.
At our childrens’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I also realized that they were the results of the efforts put in by the grandparents. Now that I have seen some of our own grandchildren’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I get the grandparents’ perspective all the more.
Just as I incorrectly overemphasized myself at my own Bar Mitzvah, I came to overemphasize parents and grandparents at our children’s and grandchildren’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Narrowness of generational perspective is not limited to teenagers.
Certain things, however, remain the same across the generations.
Perhaps the main one is toiling to get it right.
My cantor, Irving Gross, was a Holocaust survivor. He dropped horrifying hints of what he had gone through at our age, hints that went right over our heads. (I write “our” because he taught the Bar Mitzvah cohort as a group.) He was at once imperious, extremely exacting, a dramatic disciplinarian and the kindest man one would ever know. He was both. Sometimes he would threaten to put out his cigarette on a student’s arm to get him to focus. Sometimes he would finance students’ dinners to motivate them to practice. He was from a different time and era.
However, the required focus that I learned from him, I taught my sons.
Now I had to figure out the balance between discipline and going easy. My admiration for Cantor Irving Gross leaped over the years that separated his efforts from mine. It wasn’t so easy to teach pre-Bar Mitzvah kids, I learned.
One of the those other constants, across the generations, is planning the celebration. Now it was not my parents, but my wife and I who had to deal with the caterers, or party planners and numerous other people whom I never knew my parents dealt with at the time.
Again, the planning that went into my Bar Mitzvah, which I was grateful for, was something I basically took for granted. How much can a 13-year-old grasp?
Certain memories stick out.
Maurice Osber is a name virtually no one at the BMH-BJ today remembers. He was the executive director, soon to leave in favor of Jake Cohen, who remained 36 years (and is now in his nineties in Netanya, Israel). Mr. Osber, a somewhat brusque, businesslike, efficient person, showed a different side when he showed me the English translation of the Hebrew Bible that the sisterhood had inscribed for me. I was so honored and proud to receive it. (I still have it.) What I remember is Mr. Osber telling me that he would hold it for me so that I could pick it up from his office after Shabbos. This elderly man who regularly scolded us kids for making a racket or absconding with an extra shot of kiddush wine or two showed he could be solicitous, too.
I vividly remember the morning after my Bar Mitzvah. In a way, it became more meaningful to me than the entire Bar Mitzvah ceremony. I was at the Sunday morning minyan and it was short. They were looking around to see whether they had 10 men for a minyan. Suddenly, one of the men looked at me and said, “We can count him!” I really felt good. I made the minyan. All the talk the day before about “becoming a man” and “being responsible as a Jew” became real.
Another memory, this one about Mrs. Ollie Blum, the cateress. At the meeting with my parents to plan the celebratory meal after the Bar Mitzvah — which was the custom at the BMH at that time — they discussed all kinds of foods that didn’t speak to the teenage palette. “Adult” foods, such as chicken. Suddenly I popped up and said, “What about some real food . . . like potato salad?” I was briefly given the indulgent eye, whereupon the discussion returned to the “adult” foods typical for Bar Mitzvah menus of the day. However, many many weeks later, when the Bar Mitzvah service was over and we were sitting down to eat, Mrs. Blum suddenly showed up with a personal dish of potato salad. I was touched at least as much by the gesture as by the food.
(Don’t ask me what made potato salad “cool” as opposed to chicken. I can’t answer.)
I remember the essence of Rabbi Samuel Adelman’s Bar Mitzvah charge to me: Time is life. Use it wisely. It is G-d’s gift to you. I have tried to live up to this.
One of the mourning practices I keep in this year of mourning for my beloved mother, Miriam Goldberg, of blessed memory, is not to attend Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrations. I realize that there may be ways around this in Jewish law, but I choose to follow the letter of the law. It matches my mood. It also was my practice after my father died in 1972. I do not want to adopt any leniency in the mourning for my mother that I did not adopt for my father.
So here I am: invited to many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, but not attending any this year. They become mediated celebrations, appreciated at a distance, seen through a screen, covered with a film, so to speak. I know the joy, the simcha, of the participants in all the generations, but it is something of an intellectual knowledge. In a way, I feel right in this manner of observance of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah at this time. It is right for now.
No doubt, this will end, as the mourning period ends, and the purely celebratory character of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah returns. I look forward to it.
But it will be a deeper understanding.
Intergenerational is ultimately contingent.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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