Friday, February 10, 2017

Celebrating a Bar Mitzvah 55 Years Ago Today

Fifty-five years ago today I became a man, at least according to Jewish tradition. I celebrated my bar mitzvah on February 10, 1962.

Like today there was snow on the ground, between three and six inches. It crunched as I walked the three and a half blocks to our Orthodox shul where I was to share the morning’s glory with Mark Fortgang, another 13-year-old I casually knew from the playground of Public School 254 on Avenue Y in Brooklyn. 

Unlike Mark, I attended a Hebrew day school, Yeshiva Rambam. But being a timid fellow, I deferred, as he did, reading from the Torah (the first time I finally read Torah was at our son Dan’s bar mitzvah 29 years later). We split reciting the haftorah while I complemented my transition to adulthood by leading the musaf service, having spent months preparing with our synagogue’s cantor, Willy Cohen, who lived two doors down our block of attached row houses on Avenue W.

My father was so enthralled with my prayer recital that he 
had me audio tape it for friends in Israel. He borrowed a reel-to-reel tape recorder for me to chant into. The tape was converted into records. But when we played the discs before sending them overseas we heard a disturbing background noise. It was the voice of our neighbor Charlie talking on his ham radio set. His transmissions apparently came through our contiguous row house electrical lines. We had previously experienced interference from Charlie on our television set, but this was beyond the pale. There was, however, nothing we could do about it.

Even though it was the dead of winter, the bar mitzvah party began at 9 pm at the Aperion Manor on Kings Highway, the same catering hall where my brother celebrated his bar mitzvah four years earlier. After hors d’Ouvres guests feasted on an appetizer of Sweetbreads Regence with rice followed by roast prime ribs of beef, stringbeans amandine, Idaho souffle and derma Farci (you don’t find stuffed derma, or kishka as it is known in the Yiddish vernacular, on too many bar mitzvah party menus these days). In case you’re wondering how I recall the food selections, it took me a couple of hours but I finally located a copy of the menu inside a box of old photographs.

For the party I wore a rented tuxedo sports jacket, burgundy with black stripes. Very chic. I liked the way I looked. My ears didn’t stick out too far that night. I think I had a good time. Hard to say from the commemorative album, though in all honesty, I and most of my peers were really awkward looking. To the music of the Perry Colen Orchestra, I partnered with Adina Berzon for the first dance, a twist, if I’m interpreting the picture in the album correctly. Upon further review, my ears did stick out. Ah, well …

The Aperion Manor is long shuttered, and so is Yeshiva Rambam elementary school, but the neighborhood I grew up in has mostly stayed the same. The houses are well kept. I have no way of knowing if the residents are predominantly Jewish as they were back in the 1950s and 1960s. My parents’ home was purchased by their next door neighbor, a Greek family. 

A few years ago Gilda and I drove by my parents’ home on our way to Coney Island. As we stopped to survey the street, we were recognized and invited to see how the neighbor had changed the inside of the house. She had modernized the kitchen, the first floor bathroom, and the basement where my brother and I slept as teenagers and where my mother transformed the open layout into a party spot for our sister’s sweet 16. 

Now that Ellie and her family moved from Brooklyn to Omaha more than a year ago, no one from our immediate family lives in Brooklyn. Only memories, almost all good, reside there for me.