Monday, December 12, 2016

BAR MITZVAH

Today, a different kind of torture--the kind parents inflict upon their children when it comes to matters of religion. For me, it was Christianity. And it wasn't exactly torture, more a long, slow process of required attendance at chapel for a variety of services--twice a day, at my boarding school, and three times on Sunday--at a time of increasing disbelief in the God I was supposed to be worshipping. I was bored. I relieved the boredom--forgive me!--by wearing a hole in my trousers pockets in order to attend to something that interested me a great deal more than the scriptures.

Marc Zeitschik describes the ordeal of a Jewish boy required by his parents to be initiated into the mysteries of their faith. As it happened, they remained pretty much a mystery--as they do, one suspects from the tone of his story, pretty much to this day. Like myself, Marc is a former academic; his field was sociology and anthropology. After a second career in the field of publishing, he is now actively engaged in contemporary art scene in New York and travels widely in Europe and South East Asia.


MY BAR MITZVAH
by Marc Zeitschik


At the age of ten and a half I began studying at what is referred to in English as Hebrew School but what is called in Hebrew “Talmud Torah.” The point of this “school” is to prepare one for his Bar Mitzvah, that ancient ritual in which, by reading from the Torah, he now becomes officially an adult member of the Tribe. This takes place sometime around his 13th birthday, the actual date decided by something having to do with the Jewish calendar. The calendar determined that I would be a bar mitzvah (or, as we put it, bar mitzvah'ed) on February 6, 1960. So two years before that very important date, in the Fall of 1957, I was enrolled and began making the trek, three times a week, after school, from home to Talmud Torah Beth Yehuda, a shabby, makeshift “house of study” composed of two rooms in the basement of a three-story apartment house, not unlike the building I lived in three blocks away. Each of the dark, damp, often chilly, bare rooms had a large blackboard, an old metal teacher’s desk and several rows of movable school chairs, occupied on most days by about twenty unruly, unhappy, Jews-in-name-only pre-adolescent boys, all of whom were there for one reason only—their parents made them go. Dominating this space, black hatted, in a black vested suit with a white shirt buttoned to the neck, full black beard and with long curling side-locks was Rabbi Pultman; and, assisting him and learning the trade, his young acolyte, Rabbi Weill, dressed the same but fair-haired and with only the slightest and least threatening of beards. What Rabbi Weill lacked in fierceness of gaze he tried to make up for in the loudness of his voice.

This was the fifties, a not-yet-enlightened period in American history, and certainly not in the history of second-generation working-class Jews in Brooklyn. Back then it was normal, acceptable even, for a teacher to berate you, to be smacked on the hand with a ruler, to be given various forms of punishment for your lack of knowledge or respect. The behavior of the rabbis then would be intolerable now and no parents of today would suffer the despots who so obviously neither liked nor understood children.  I was a good kid and still got my share of punishments. My life was fine--at home, in school, on the streets--everywhere but in Hebrew School, where I was subjected to the whims, the physical punishments and the sounds and smells of the two rabbis. It was there that I felt degraded and there that I experienced fear. And for what end? Some time ago I found my books from Hebrew school and noticed numbers written in pencil at the ends of lines of text. I remembered what they were for. They showed the cumulative number of words I had read out loud within the one-minute time tests we were given every session. The goal was to be able to “daven”—to read scripture quickly during services. Not to understand but to be able to keep up.

Before the start of my third year I rebelled and refused to attend Talmud Torah any longer. I was putting my entire future on the line. Find me another teacher or forget the Bar Mitzvah.  Having invested so much already, having hired the caterer and the catering hall, having engaged the band, my mother having worked for several years in my uncle’s fruit store saving up to pay for this affair, what choice did they have? A Bar Mitzvah, a big Bar Mitzvah, a massive celebration involving every member of the family and all of my parents’ friends could not be jeopardized by my not appearing in the synagogue the day before this celebratory bash and reciting the words I never was taught to understand.

A private tutor was found. Several times a week a kind, elderly gentleman whose primary credentials were that he could read Hebrew and seemed to like kids sat with me in the kitchen of his apartment and taught me the portion of the Torah I would need to recite so as to fulfill my duties as a bar mitzvah, which I did. I appeared in my grandfather’s shul on the appointed day and sat with my father and my grandfather in the men’s section. We all wore prayer shawls over our suits and, in my case, sport coat...


At some point someone tapped me on my shoulder and directed me to the bimah in the center of the synagogue and someone else pointed to the place in the Torah from which I was to read and I read aloud the portion and everyone shouted “mazel tov” and threw candy at me and then, the next day, we had this really terrific party.

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