Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax. You’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!
Convergence is a funny thing. A note, a book, a bit of familial small talk and a glance at the calendar have converged at a place that has me dwelling on the fact that it was thirty years ago today that I became a man.
Or at least managed a convincing impression of a small adult.
January 24, 1976 — known in some circles as Shevat 22, 5736 — was my Bar Mitzvah. Actually, January 24 was the service and January 25 was the reception. Don’t be misled into thinking this was a two-day gala. It was very, very nice, but it was no extravaganza.
I imagine it’s different these days. Actually it was probably different back then. Bar Mitzvahs, the Jewish ceremonies in which 13-year-old boys complete their childhood religious studies and reach manhood (at least on parchment), have long been excuses in this country for affairs in the wedding sense of the word. The solemnity inside the synagogue is generally overshadowed by the excesses of the catering hall. The modern Bar Mitzvah straddles the sacred and the secular, the secular eventually being what everybody remembers.
A friend of FAFIF is producing one of these affairs right now. She e-mailed me last week to tell me with equal parts pride and distress how she’s up to her eyeballs in planning her eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. She’s trying to keep it from being too nuts but did mention that her younger son, the real baseball fan among her offspring, will make his entrance to a recording of “Meet the Mets”.
Just as it is written in the Torah, no doubt.
Bar Mitzvahs (and their sister Bat Mitzvahs, no relation to a bat mitzvah, which would be a good deed carried out with runners on base) have had themes for years. Mine didn’t. It didn’t occur to me I could have a theme let alone theme music. If it did, you can bet I would’ve lobbied strenuously for a Kranepool kiddush, a Boisclair brucha over the challah, a Craig Swan chiseled from ice. If my parents had declined, I might have held off until I was old enough to throw one for myself. If it had been last year, I would’ve themed it The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Mike Jacobs.
Ah, maybe not. The last Bar Mitzvah I attended, 15 years ago this summer, was indeed baseball-themed and I can’t say it was all that appealing. Each table was named for a different team. We were seated at the Dodger table but were then asked to move to the Twins table because there were some very senior citizens who couldn’t handle the Twins table. The Twins table, you see, was situated an inch from the bandstand. Stephanie and I must have seemed young enough to handle it. We weren’t, so we walked out long before dinner was served but not until the elaborate candlelighting was complete.
The Bar Mitzvah boy, a Long Island cousin of mine I’m sure I haven’t seen since, was, to his credit, a Mets fan. To the credit of no one, he called each of his honored guests up to his or her respective candle by reading a bit of painfully composed verse. When some relative who lived in California was summoned, it went something like this:
Aunt Yenta and Uncle Schmendrick
I love you like I love science
I can’t wait for my trip to San Francisco
To see my Mets beat your Giants
A month or so later, the Giants swept the Mets out of Candlestick. I wasn’t sorry.
There is an excellent primer on religious rituals gone wild, the newly published Bar Mitzvah Disco. Some guys and gals who are now old enough to look back in a state of reduced cringedom had the brilliant idea of gathering stories and photos (oh those photos) from the golden age of decadent Bar Mitzvahs, primarily the 1980s. It’s all marvelously embarrassing. The foreword was written by the Village People. And on the fortuitously chosen page 86, there’s a picture of a 1995 Bar Mitzvah that was held at Shea Stadium, presumably inside the Diamond Club. Pictured: A Harry M. Stevens beer vendor, who I’m guessing didn’t work a lot of Bar Mitzvahs, furnishing a cold one to a purple-clad lady, who I’m guessing emptied three cans of hairspray that morning. Not pictured: Dallas Green pointing fingers at the cantor for failing to hit the high notes.
Shea was as far away as next year in Jerusalem that bitterly freezing January morning when I got my yarmulke on. My Bar Mitzvah prep took place in the Hebrew school of Congregation Beth Sholom in Long Beach, a building I learned only this weekend no longer exists. My sister mentioned she was driving through the old hometown and discovered it had been torn down to make room for new houses. While the temple itself, just across the street, soldiers on, word is there weren’t enough kids being raised in Conservative-Jewish homes in the neighborhood to sustain the Hebrew school.
Pity. I had already estranged myself from organized religion about two years before being Bar Mitzvahed — I had irrevocably directed the entirety of my Belief for all eternity toward the Mets the previous autumn — but the school was an institution that one assumed would endure long beyond my usefulness to it. I was a big fan of Rabbi Amos Miller (no truth to the rumor that we had two Rabbi Millers and that Casey Stengel couldn’t tell them apart). Rabbi Miller spoke a little like Hubert Humphrey and was once the clergyman du jour on Call to Prayer, the few moments of spirituality Channel 5 used to provide before airing the National Anthem and signing off for the night. I had told I’d seen him there.
“My,” he said. “What kind of hours do you keep?”
Rabbi Miller officiated at my Bar Mitzvah. My assigned haftorah was Yitro. Don’t ask me to elaborate. That’s all I remember about the religion portion of the weekend. I have more tangible memories of the next day when we moved the party to Valley Stream’s Temple Gates of Zion. Logistics (a law prohibiting dancing on the shabbos) dictated we hold the reception after sundown Saturday and it was somehow decided in the highest councils of rabbinical wisdom (my mother) that Sunday afternoon would work better than Saturday night.
Though my Bar Mitzvah was comparatively stately to those recalled in Bar Mitzvah Disco, never mind my friend Todd’s (he had a clown who entered the ballroom to wicked strobe lights while he sang a parody of “The Candy Man,” the first lyrics of which were “Who can make your teeth rot?”), it was definitely of its type and its time.
• The photographer’s first act was to pose our family by the exit for the mandatory Wave Goodbye shot, oblivious to the fact that a) the noontime sun was clearly in evidence; b) we weren’t wearing our coats; c) there was snow on the ground.
• The band had not one but both K.C. & The Sunshine Band hits down cold.
• The food was served in copious amounts. We dined on cocktail-hour buffet leftovers well into February.
• The fashion was straight out of Why We Were Scared of the ’70s. I wore a baby-blue Pierre Cardin three-piece suit. It didn’t look any better on me than anything looked on anybody else. My Bar Mitzvah album is buried in a box somewhere around here and I’m in no rush to unearth it.
• The vast majority of attendees were total strangers to me. Forget who gets Bar Mitzvahed. These affairs are for the mothers. Hence, it was my parents’ friends, their aunts and uncles with whom I was barely acquainted and my father’s business associates who crowded the dance floor and did the hustle. Despite what was said about certain of them at home, they all seemed friendly enough (I received so many hearty handshakes that I thought I was running as a Scoop Jackson delegate in the New York primary) and thoughtfully left behind a generous pile of United States Savings Bonds — a nice nest egg, it would turn out. My limited seventh-grade popularity could score me but one table of youthful colleagues. We snuck away from the main action for the thrill of lighting up the contents of the requisite souvenir boxes of matches.
Hey, the boxes of matches! I just remembered that they were blue with my name inscribed in orange. I suppose there was a Mets presence at my Bar Mitzvah, albeit a flickering one.
I may not have worn a tallis very often since my Bar Mitzvah, but I’ve been very enamored of another sacred garment these past 25 years. Let me tell you about my most beloved Mets jacket at Gotham Baseball.