August 8, 2002
Passing The Bar… Again
Some things are just better the second time around. For some, it's marriage. For others, it's childbirth or career. For Mel Guthman, a member of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, this was the case with his bar mitzvah -- and well worth the 70-year wait.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do this a second time is because my first bar mitzvah was very sad," Guthman, 83, says. "My father had cancer of the esophagus, and he died four months later and nobody was in the mood to celebrate at all. I remember that the mood was very dreary."
Most people associate bar mitzvahs with boys turning 13. However, since the Torah gives a man's life span as 70 years, living 13 years beyond that age has been considered, in Jewish tradition, something of a renaissance.
Guthman remembers his initial reaction when, as he approached his May 29 birthday, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben and other Kehillat Israel leaders talked to him about staging a second bar mitzvah.
"I thought they were out of their mind," Guthman says.
But upon further reflection, Guthman pursued the idea. The reasons were personal, but also philosophical.
"Being Jewish has been really rough since Sept. 11 and I took real pride in being Jewish up on that bimah," Guthman says.
At first, Guthman wasn't very comfortable with his Hebrew or his oratory skills. But with the help of Cantor Chaim Frankel and friend Jack Hirsh, he was ready within three months.
"He studied his bar mitzvah diligently," Frankel says. "He was one of my best students and the only student at that age. More importantly it wasn't the studies -- it's the man who he is. This wasn't just words for Mel Guthman, these were actions. This was a rite of passage for his commitment to continue his acts of kindness for the Jewish community."
"I was so confident with my Hebrew and these were all friends and I was really relaxed," Guthman says of bar mitzvah No. 2.
Bar mitzvah No. 1 occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, from where Guthman, now retired from the mobile home industry, originally came to Los Angeles 57 years ago. Within a year, he met his wife, Laura. Since growing roots in Los Angeles, the Guthmans have been very philanthropically involved with the local Jewish community. They have been big supporters of Jewish Home for the Aging for more than two decades. They have also made substantial donations to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Jews in Crisis fund and participated in The Federation's 1997 mission to Cuba.
"We've been travelers since we were married," Guthman says. "We've been around the world three times. In school, my best subjects were geography and history. In traveling, you get both of those."
On June 15, 116 relatives and friends came from around the country to celebrate Guthman's big day, including his daughter, Julie Guthman, and 8-year-old granddaughter, Sierra, from Berkeley; his son, attorney and property manager Mitchell Guthman, and his sister, Ruthe Pearlman, who turned 89 this year and received her honorary doctorate last week from the Cincinnati Art Academy. They all watched as Guthman read from Parshat Behar-Behukotai.
"One of the highlights was when they asked me [and my family] to come up and they opened the ark," Laura Guthman says. "But during the time Mel was doing the Hebrew, I was a little tense."
"My wife arranged everything," says Guthman proudly. "She did a lot of work, including the guest list. She was very relieved when it was over," he says with a laugh.
"In all honesty, it exceeded my expectations very, very much," says Guthman's wife. "It turned out to be one of the nicest bar mitzvahs despite the age of the bar mitzvah boy. I originally wasn't too enthusiastic about the whole thing, but it turned out to be sensational."
So for Guthman, was the entire experience better the second time around?
"I was walking on air," he says.