Grandpa Sam's Miserable Bar Mitzvah: A Cautionary Tale

The B-Mitzvah (R)evolution

Reb Goldie here. My dad called today, he’s 82 years old and one of my greatest sources of inspiration and wisdom. "So, Goldie. I hear you are working on a bar mitzvah revolution. Did I ever tell you about my bar mitzvah?"

Oddly, he hadn’t. In fact none of the elders in the family ever had. I bade him go on.

"I used to go to Talmud Torah, (religious instruction) between 3rd and 4th on Catherine Street in South Philadelphia. Mr Zentner was the principal of the school. It was an after school thing during Junior High.

One day stands out in particular. I was the second to arrive for class. My friend Leibl Gratz, he says, 'Sam I can't get this damn desk up in the air. I was going to hang it out the window.' So I say, 'Why do you want to do that?' He says, 'Come on Sam, you're a good friend.' So I help him hang the desk out the window. The whole time we can see the neighbor lady across the street is watching, smiling and laughing.

Mr. Zentner comes running in - I guess she called him. He took one look and all he did was point - OUT - and holler "aroys fum dannit dee banditin!" [Get out of there you bandits!]

When I inform my father a few weeks later about this incident, he says to me: 'YOU are going to learn whether you like it or not.' So they changed me over to studying at home with an elderly rabbi.

Ritual? Yes, we had a daily opening ritual. The rabbi would open the book and fall sound asleep within the first few minutes. I'd run out back to play and later come in, sit down and nudge his leg, he’d wake up, and I’d say: "Time to stop, Rabbi." One day my father caught on. So I was switched to studying with another rabbi, who lived right across the street. He knew how to a apply a ruler to one’s knuckles and got all the "bad boys".

Oh, you want to know about my bar mitzvah?

We conveniently lived next door to the tiny Otik Moliver Synagogue. We walked next door for to the ordinary morning service during the middle of the week, it was always difficult to get a minyan. I remember my cousin Harry came down, he was the only relative other than my dad present. There were eleven of us at my bar mitzvah, including me.

I said the blessings, then we went down to the musty basement meeting room, my father brought out a large marinated herring and a bottle of schnapps. All I got was congratulations, not even a shot of the liquor and then everybody pats me on the head and my daddy says: 'Now you can go out and play in the street."

I remember my dad didn't give me a tallit. I’d thought I heard that your father will give you your first tallit, then I thought, well, maybe that happens when you get married.....well it didn't.

I took my dad's tallis after he died, never really liked it. I never realized you could wash 'em......the only tallit I ever got was the one you gave me, beautiful. You brought it back from Israel along with that old joke about the Chinese laundry where the bill to launder the tallit is $200 and when asked why, the guy says - 'do you know how long it took to get out all the knots!'

Did I tell you we each had this big book on our desks in Hebrew school, a chumash [bible]. We did find a use for them - they were great for hiding comic books.

Remind me of the reason for your call, dear. Oh, my grandson doesn't want to go to Hebrew High anymore -says the teachers are boring and one of them keeps falling asleep in class? Did I ever tell you about my bar mitzvah?

Have you explored the hopes and expectations this day holds for yourself, for the student? Our Bar/Bat Mitzvah Plan will help you to make sure that critical moments aren't missed.

Don't assume the bar/bat (b'nei) mitzvahs you see happening are proving to be satisfying and meaningful. Studies show college students overwhelmingly cite their bar/bat mitzvah as a disincentive to continuing to practice Judaism, that it was too much memorization, too many boring services, and that they didn't end up with a religious community they can turn to during the challenges of the journey called life.

Does your congregation train b-mitzvah tutors in how to relate to youth? Do the teachers and tutors seem full of inspiration for working with the students? Do they understand that stepping up to the plate to teach Torah to the congregation, that moment of entering the lineage of being part of the People of the Book, is very powerful? Do they realize this is the time to teach that every Jew is a leader of the Jewish future? staff are available to teach family workshops, for telephone bar/bat mitzvah training and for staff in-service training for your community.

Copyright 2000 P'nai Yachadut-Reclaiming Judaism and Rabbi Goldie Milgram