Sunday, February 6, 2022

60 Years After My Bar Mitzvah

Standing in temple Saturday for the first time in months because of the Omicron virus, I was suddenly transported back in time, 60 years to be exact, for it was on this Sabbath in 1962, according to the Jewish cycle of Torah portion reading, that I was officially recognized as an adult male. I had attained bar mitzvah status. 


It snowed the night before that auspicious morning, leaving three to six inches of powder for me to walk through to the synagogue on Ocean Avenue three and a half blocks from our home. 


Back then a bar mitzvah rite was little more than an addendum to the regular ritual. Few guests sitting in the pews amid congregants. Friends and extended family would show up for the gala party that evening. Morning services were for the devoted. 


Despite sending my siblings and me to Jewish day schools, and membership in an Orthodox synagogue, ours was not a deeply observant family. We ate kosher, in our home. We used electricity and travelled on the Sabbath. Most Saturdays our father would attend synagogue, leaving home after he was reasonably certain he had awakened me and my brother, usually under the threat of dousing us with water in our beds, so that we would not show up too late. 


Once there, during the weekly Torah reading and subsequent sermon by the rabbi, my friends Stanley, Jerry, Marty and I would exit the sanctuary to find an unlocked classroom where we would play slapball using paper wadded into a ball held together by rubber bands. 


After running around some forty minutes we’d return to the sanctuary. My father would always wonder why I’d come back sweaty. Of course, he, too, had taken time off from services to join his cohorts at a meeting of the “bottle club” usually held in the office of the temple president. 


My mother and sister rarely attended services. For mom an infrequent appearance usually included a grand walk down the center aisle, what I labeled her “Queen of the Nile” entrance. 


For my bar mitzvah I learned to recite a haftorah, a reading from a book of the Bible that followed the Five Books of Moses. My haftorah came from Kings I. It described how King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem, an apt complement to the Torah portion of the day, Terumah, which chronicled how the tabernacle was constructed in the desert following the exodus from Egypt. 


Unlike most bar mitzvah boys, I chose not to learn how to read from the Torah. Though a top student in my class, I doubted my ability. Stage fright. My father didn’t mind. Instead, he had the cantor teach me to lead the musaf portion of the service. At home I recorded the musaf which Dad turned into vinyl records to be proudly sent to friends and relatives in Israel. 


Several times over the ensuing 60 years I have commemorated my bar mitzvah anniversary by reading the haftorah and leading musaf services. This year, to be honest, I was surprised by the timing of my bar mitzvah anniversary. Chalk it up as another Covid casualty.


Pre-pandemic, Gilda and I would attend Sabbath morning services about 75% of the time. We didn’t spend a lot of time praying. Mostly it was soft conversations with friends sitting nearby, joining in communal singing, silent meditations, listening to sermons (in my case, more often than not, sleeping through them), and then enjoying food and socializing with other worshippers at the after-services kiddish in the social hall. 


All in all, we reveled in community, our faith-based community. Just as we celebrated our children’s and our friends’ children’s bar- and bat mitzvahs decades ago, we were delighted to witness subsequent generations reach adulthood, witness a young couple prepare for their wedding, enjoy a baby naming, or express condolences to the bereaved. 


The last two Covid years robbed us all of many such experiences, not the least of which have been attendance at life cycle events. Bar and bat mitzvahs. Weddings. Funerals. 


With the belief that Omicron is not as dangerous to the vaccinated, a debate has started about online religious services. The Rev. Tish Harrison Warren advocated going back to in-person services (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/church-online-services-covid.html?smid=em-share). Not everyone agreed (two links: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/06/opinion/letters/online-religion-services.html?smid=em-share and https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/06/opinion/online-church-services-readers.html?smid=em-share).


As much as religion has historically been a communal process, it is a personal experience. Only you can decide your preference. 

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