November 16, 2006
B’nai Mitzvah: War, politics, bonds enliven a basement rite-of-passage
Among the elements common to today's celebrations, it did not include: a bird molded from chopped chicken liver, a "theme" (no Darth Vader masks or Titanic imagery) or a waterfall of liquid chocolate for dipping. There was no bar, no five-course meal and no klezmer band.
It did include gifts from the sisterhood and the men's club, a modest post-bar mitzvah luncheon, handfuls of hard candies, a number of relatives, a few special guests, some interesting political overtones and a very nervous bar mitzvah boy. I know he was nervous, because the only thing I remember about the event was my certainty that I would forget all of the Hebrew I had memorized in the preceding months.
And it all took place in the basement of a Conservative synagogue, for which there were no funds to construct the rest of the building.
The year, 1940, was a very difficult one for Jews. Hitler conquered France and other Western European countries, Mussolini entered the war and this country was divided into those who favored aiding the Allies and those who said that Europe's wars were none of our business.
Forest Hills, Queens, where my parents had bought a home the previous year, had not yet become Tel Aviv West, and its Jews were a small and unloved minority. Jews were not admitted to membership in the Forest Hills Lawn Tennis Association, home of championship tennis matches, nor could they purchase homes in much of the surrounding neighborhood.
My parents were secular Jews whose involvement in the Jewish community deepened as Germany spread out across much of Europe. My father was a businessman and my mother an attorney (family legend claims that she was the first woman in America to be a labor lawyer), and that led to the political overtones at the ceremony.
At various times, she represented the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (David Dubinsky, president) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (Sidney Hillman, president). Both men attended the bar mitzvah of their attorney's oldest son and carefully sat on opposite sides of the room, glowering at each other throughout the morning.
Judging by their politics, Dubinsky probably sat on the right, Hillman on the left. After the synagogue president announced the coming events (one practice that hasn't changed over the years) they both departed, taking care to exit by different doors.
My father, born and reared in Poland, once told me of his bar mitzvah. It involved reading from the Torah, a d'var Torah and a small celebratory luncheon afterward. It was, in his estimation, no big deal, and in practical terms, all it meant was that he was now eligible to be counted in the minyan, an honor he declined throughout all the years that I knew him.
I came away from my moment of glory with some economic gains. In 1940, if your family supported the Allies, it was almost a certainty that instead of cash, you were given U.S. Defense Bonds (later War Bonds), bought for $18.75, redeemable in 10 years for $25.
By 1950, I was a resident of Jerusalem and had forgotten all about my treasure trove. Twenty years later, when she moved into an apartment in Manhattan, my mother discovered them in a trunk. By then, I was living in Los Angeles with a wife and three children, all of whom required food and clothing on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the $500 the bonds were now worth bore no relation to their value 20 years previous, so I kept my day job and gave up all hope of early retirement.
The synagogue, I should add, survived my bar mitzvah and many others. Today, in a different location and no longer confined to a basement, the Forest Hills Jewish Center is one of New York's bastions of Conservative Jewry and, for all I know, is probably hosting bar and bat mitzvahs for which $500 would not pay the bar bills.
In a few years, I will reach the age when it is customary to have a second bar mitzvah. I only hope that we will not be living then in a time when War Bonds will again become fashionable gifts.
Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.