Monday, December 19, 2016


Just a couple of days ago I posted a bar mitzvah story, along with some thoughts about how the expectations of parents and the experience of required compliance as an adolescent can ruin a person's attitude toward religion for the rest of one's life. Here's another, strikingly similar bar mitzvah story by a very old friend of mine, a decades-long neighbor who is a confirmed skeptic in matters of religion. He prefers to remain anonymous.


I was born September 18, 1931 the third child of Jewish parents, Sal and Muriel.  We lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in the east side of Chicago, near my father’s tire shop.  Although we were not strict adherents of the dogma of our religion, we enjoyed participating in many of the rituals and ceremonies common among our peers.  So it was expected of me to be Bar Mitzvah as my two brothers were before me.   Since Hebrew, which was unfamiliar to me, is the language of the ritual, I was to be tutored privately by a rabbi. My mother made the arrangements and at the age of twelve, I began the journey to manhood.

The designated tutor lived outside of our neighborhood a half-hour bus ride away.  Each day, Monday thru Friday, after regular school, I made the journey to his home to spend the hour learning to become a better Jew. I carried a velvet bag that contained the vestments of the rite: a skull cap, a prayer shawl, and the wrapping of the arms.  They belonged to my much older brothers, my mother told me. Be respectful, they are very old, she added.

I was a twelve year old, beginning a yearlong journey, alone and apprehensive. Would I live up to their expectations, I wondered as I knocked on the door to my tutor's residence?   When the door opened, I came face to face with an elderly man, with a long, white, un-kept beard, a shabby stained coat, and a body odor of musk and sweat.  I remember his face, pocked and heavily scared, his deep, dark eyes, and the dirty white hair that cascaded over his ears.  It was his voice that I remember the most. You must repeat what I tell you, exactly what I tell you, he said, in a voice that was harsh and almost guttural. But it was his admonitions that scared me the most.  My parents told me that I must respect such a learned rabbi who had graciously agreed to tutor me.  But each day's journey became more painful and each session more difficult.  A year seemed like an eternity and I counted the days to the very end.

I did complete the rite of passage.  My tutor told me that I did well and my parents and brothers were pleased.  I have since met gracious and inspiring rabbis, but the vision of my tutor, forever etched in my psyche, can never go away and I will never forget the trauma of that experience.  Although I am a child of Jewish parents, I find no comfort or solace participating in the religious dogma.  I remain to this day a quasi-Jew.

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