Bar Mitzvah

No surprise, I was thirteen and no surprise my Bar Mitzvah was different. It was not until many years later that I understood we had less and wanted different things in my family than in others.

I had begun religious school earlier than most. I adored the Rabbi, a tall gentleman who welcomed me warmly and I loved dearly until just before my thirteenth birthday.

That’s when he moved to Israel and left me in the clutches of a not so warm Rabbi. I had been a brat throughout religious school. I was the little guy who everybody teased and I was the little guy who fought back by bringing a water pistol to religious school which, when the teacher fought me for control, somehow wound up squirting her squarely in the face. That was trouble.

I learned my prayers and my torah and other readings from the wizened old cantor who knew everything and expected the world of me. His office was small and the main furniture was the piano. I didn’t love him but I surely respected him.

There were other things that were different for me. I had a beautiful voice which began to change the summer before my November 1962 Bar Mitzvah. One of the other guys from 222 got to chant the torah portion that starts “In the beginning”, yup, the first one. So I got the story of Noah, not nearly as flashy.

The service went very well. I have an image of me looking down at the scroll, chanting beautifully while my father looked on. And I have pictures in my head of me standing before the congregation singing the words from the prophets and making a speech of some kind. I also have a picture of my accepting the bible from the Rabbi, a gift of the congregation, and turning my back on him without shaking his hand. That surely was the angry child acting out the perceived “betrayal” of the first Rabbi, with his successor.

My neighbor’s party, one of my best friends in the building, the week before mine, was at the Hotel Astor near Times Square. I don’t remember much about the party at the Astor except it was big and noisy and I’m sure lots of fun.

My party was at home in our comfortable but feeling very small apartment at 222. We never kept up with that family. His father was a health care professional. Their apartment was bigger, his mother stayed home while mine always worked.

Just the same, I loved my party and was troubled at the same time. Two groups of friends attended, the everyday school group and the very special, had not seen them in several months, camp pals.

The camp group which attended my Bar Mitzvah included one particular counselor who was the most beautiful woman on the planet (to my thirteen year old eyes) and the one who gave me a really great kiss that afternoon. So of course the 13 year old hung with the camp friends who he didn’t see every day and who included the red headed counselor. You know that my school friends made me pay for that.

But I have digressed. While I left the home synagogue at thirteen I was president of the youth group at another west side synagogue by sixteen. Leaving there with college I moved to another at about twenty where I was active as an “adult” in their youth program eventually becoming co-chair of the youth committee.

At 26 I wandered into becoming a rabbi. Supported by all but one rabbi I encountered during the process of decision making and admission I went off to Israel in the summer of 76. I attribute my early return to many things. No betrayals here but depending on others and not myself and my faith was clearly implicated in this redirection.

Marriage led to yet another synagogue and leadership in their youth program. Here I raised my family and moved up the leadership ranks, eventually becoming president for a brief tenure. I offer no details as to why I resigned except that I felt that sting of betrayal once again.

I have learned from all of this that although there is important community in synagogues one cannot build one’s faith on the people or their leaders. The Power, whatever name you have for it, is the truth, while people are fallible and betrayals are to be expected.

Elizabeth

It must have been third or fourth grade at PS9 on the northeast corner of 82nd Street and West End Avenue.  It was an old building even then.  The playground was the cement enclosed “courtyard” in the rear of the building and the sidewalk on West End Avenue. There was a typical West End Avenue apartment building alongside the school to the north and more across the avenue.  Up 82nd street was Broadway and down was Riverside Park.    

Elizabeth was very dark.  We learned she came from Liberia and heard that her father worked at the United Nations.  Of course, how would a black child be in our class unless they or their parents were somehow special?  We were tracked in those days.  Ours was an “IGC” class.  We were intellectually gifted children.  Our West Side liberal parents permitted this tracking of their children into classes for their “intellectually gifted” and white offspring. This was a 1950’s privilege to be kept together on a track to better teachers, high schools and beyond with the other white, predominantly Jewish children of the neighborhood.

I remember Elizabeth as tall and thin.  Her eyes and teeth provided contrast, gleaming white out of the very dark face.  She was bright like us.  Played with the girls.  Her long legs outdistancing everybody in the short spurts of running that the area permitted.

I’m pretty sure it was Fall and early on in the school year.  We were running around on West End. This was not unusual; nobody seemed to worry that we were not safely contained in the rear yard.  Today I imagine it is quite different.

ps9

Elizabeth fell and scraped her knee.  She fell near the little fence around the planting of the neighboring apartment building.  As she lay on the sidewalk, we all gathered around the injured party to see the damage.  In this case it was a revelation.  The murmuring in the crowd of school children flowed, “look, she’s white!” 

We would learn of course that the layer of fat beneath the skin, regardless of our color on the outside, appears white.  To us Elizabeth was now one of us.  She was white too.  Probably one of the most important lessons we learned at PS9.

Looking back from today I see only one Black child in my classes through junior high.  We were in the SP (special progress) program (7th and 8th grades combined into one year).  As you looked at the three year SPE (special progress enriched) program there was a little more color and then as you marched from classes designated 9-1 to 9-11 (the former allegedly being a better class and so on) there were more and more children of color. 

We were segregated but I do not remember being conscious of it.

In some way I repeated the cycle.  I left Manhattan when I married and we raised our children in a very white area of Nassau County.  We moved there because we were comfortable in that environment.  Unlike my West Side neighborhood this one was segregated, racially, religiously, economically. 

We sent them to a camp run by the Hartford YMCA because we wanted to be sure they were exposed, in a healthy environment, to people from all walks.  I think it truly helped make them the wonderful open adults they have become.