August 12, 2004
A Day on the Bimah Changes Everything
My bar mitzvah took place in Queens, New York, in 1970. It was an unexpected and odd occasion, and I hadn't thought about it in years. But now, 34 years later, I was once again in New York, and the subject of my bar mitzvah came up, as the ceremony itself first had, unexpectedly.
My new bride and I sat in a booth across from Charlotte, one of my oldest friends, in the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea. We'd driven to town to introduce my wife to those who couldn't make it our traditional Jewish wedding in Louisville, Ky.
Abruptly, Charlotte asked point-blank, as New Yorkers tend to do, what had prompted me to become observant. Throughout high school, college and our early careers, we two friends had been secular Jews, intellectually but not spiritually interested to our heritage. During the intervening years, our paths diverged. Eventually I began attending synagogue, and Charlotte remained secular.
She wanted to know, "Was it because you moved from New York, where you're surrounded by Jewishness, to someplace you felt more isolated?"
Though there is some truth to her point -- isolation in Nashville, and in Louisville later on, had definitely been part of the impulse to connect to my "roots" -- I had to smile at the thought that one had to leave New York in order to discover Judaism.
As my wife and I toured the city, we passed synagogues, yeshivas and seminaries. Visiting my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway, we were in the midst of a large Chasidic neighborhood. It was the eve of Tisha B'Av. Cafe signs proclaimed: "Have a good fast. We open 9 p.m. tomorrow." Even Murray's Bagels, my favorite Chelsea breakfast spot, was certified kosher.
Seeing these many signs of Jewish observance made me recall the storefront synagogues in my own Rego Park neighborhood, and how, while I ran to class at Queens College one day during Sukkot, the Mitzvah Mobile had pulled up, music blaring like some bizarre Orthodox ice cream truck. A black-hatted Lubavitcher emerged, pressed a Lulav into my startled hands and walked me through the Sukkot mitzvah.
No, you didn't have to leave New York to discover Jewish observance, but something had to plant the desire. In my case, it was my bar mitzvah.
"That's the big secret that none of my family or my old friends knows, or would understand," I told her.
In 1969, as I approached bar mitzvah age, the ceremony wasn't even a blip on my parents' radar. Not only were they recently divorced and not getting along, but they were both uninterested in Jewish observance; perhaps they were even somewhat antagonistic toward it. Therefore, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. The eldest among my cousins, I had never been to a bar mitzvah, so I hadn't even acquired "reception-envy," with which to pressure my folks into complying with tradition.
Upon hearing that my parents did not intend to make any Jewish coming-of-age plans for me, my maternal grandparents decreed that despite all my family's mishegas, I was having a bar mitzvah. And that was that.
But the path from decree to Torah wasn't that simple. What followed was an embarrassing time for a preteen, as I was taken first to the local Reform, then to the Conservative synagogue, only to be rejected by their rabbis because it was "too late" to train me.
If it was hard for my secular parents to swallow the idea of a bar mitzvah, I'm sure it was even harder for them to make an appointment at their last option -- the Orthodox Rego Park Jewish Center. But they did, and Rabbi Gewirtz told them, "He's a Jew, of course we'll take him."
Thus began a strange period in my family's history. Each Wednesday, the day designated by the New York City public school system for RI, or religious instruction, the secular Jackmans' kid left school an hour early (Yes!), put on his tzitzit under his street clothes, and headed to an Orthodox shul to learn Hebrew writing and stumble through the Rashi reader.
On Sundays, I attended morning minyan and more classes, including accelerated haftarah chanting lessons held with a group of other late-starters.
I must confess I remember very little of this learning. However, what stuck with me all these years is the passion for Judaism that the men and women of the shul communicated to me. During Sunday prayers, the bearded men davened in what seemed to be holy rapture. One morning, a mortified congregant scolded me for trying to pronounce the ineffable name of God. I may not have known better at the time, but I didn't have to be told twice.
And that passion is why, the day the Jackmans' kid stood at the bimah to recite haftarah Bo in a beautiful piping soprano full of errors, with his female relatives separated from the men, and heartily congratulated anyway by the somewhat forbidding but tolerant men of the synagogue, he was heading inevitably toward Jewish observance.
The inevitable decision would not be made for many years, until I overcame ambivalences, inhibitions and other mental obstacles. But the impulse was created during that short half-year when I prepped for and achieved my bar mitzvah.
Reprinted courtesy of in the Jewish Federation of Louisville.