My Bar Mitzvah Speech
Yesterday God wanted to remind me that He was the better satirist. So He donated a downpour to Karen’s and my B’nei Mitzvah. There is a cordial clamminess to being hugged by the soaking wet. I felt that I was being baptized. But if God really had a great sense of humor (or hired me as His holy ghostwriter) He would have scheduled the Second Coming to preempt our B’Nei Mitzvah. But Cousin Jesus probably wouldn’t have cooperated: “If I couldn’t get out of My Bar Mitzvah, why should you!”
But as we say during the High Holy Days, “The Shofar Must Go On.” Three adults and my facsimile of one participated in the B’Nei Mitzvah. Knowing that our Temple President was a former high school linebacker, I resisted the temptation to begin my speech “Welcome to Finerman’s Wake.” A pity, really, because my brogue is better than my Hebrew. There was also concern–if only because I repeatedly threatened to do so–that I would change the Torah trope to a Gershwin tune. It really wouldn’t be any less Jewish. “Someone to Watch Over Me” seems theological. (“Porgy and Brise” is a different ceremony.)
Yet, within the constraints of decorum, I think that I still managed to be me…
1.1]…In the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying:
2] Take a census of the whole Israelite company by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. 3] You and Aaron shall record them by their groups… from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.
So begins the fourth book of the Torah and the reason it is called “Numbers.” The preceding book “Leviticus” imposed some 600 laws on ritual, conduct and diet, giving the Jews a lasting identity as well as a few idiosyncrasies. If Leviticus created a culture, then Numbers established a government. And the first concern of this nascent government was defense, how to coordinate the twelve tribes into one army. To accomplish that, it seems the Jews invented the Draft Board. Every adult Jewish male was registered and counted; there would be no deferments from his responsibilities.
Some 3,000 years later, in the wilderness called Rogers Park, there still was a census of Jewish males, however dubiously adult: the Bar Mitzvah. But now one could get a deferment. I did. Yes, I started the basic training of Hebrew school and had the typical resentment of any ten-year-old. Is it a surprise that the first year of Hebrew school seems like a Jewish production of “Lord of the Flies”? I wanted to drop out–and my family let me.
I was raised in a secular home, where our Judaism was more of an ethnic identity than a theology. Memorizing ancient incantations seemed less important than knowing our history. My mother was a gifted teacher, and so I learned that Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon were our friends, “the knights in shining armor” were all bastards, and that Christopher Columbus was hiding something. I was also taught to know every Jewish actor in a movie. For example, in “Gone With the Wind” we have…Leslie Howard! I won’t say that this was a traditional Jewish education, but it worked and evidently was good preparation for “Jeopardy!”
So, despite being a renegade from Hebrew school, I cherished my ethnic identity. If you have any doubts, my wife is not Trixie Lee Hatfield. Indeed, being married to “a nice Jewish girl” encouraged me to join a synagogue, the very one where my wife had been educated and confirmed. In 2008 I promised Karen that I would join Solel if a Democrat won the presidential election. My membership here is one of the smaller consequences of history. Ironically, the former rebel became a very active member: singing in the choir, participating in education programs, even writing the Purim megillah–and playing Haman. My enthusiasm led me to realize the obvious: I now was ready for my Bar Mitzvah.
From a middle-aged perspective, Hebrew school is no longer “Lord of the Flies” but more like Dante’s “Purgatory.” Any torture was for my eventual good. The Hebrew alphabet consists of 21 letters, half of which sound like K. But I persevered, with the encouragement of Karen, the guidance of Rabbi Moffic, and the dedication of Simcha Ackerman. If I have any semblance to competence, it is a tribute to them.
I now stand here ready to affirm a covenant that has withstood time and tyranny. I add my name to the census, joining the number that stretches back a hundred generations. The Jewish people do not merely defy history, we define it. This is my heritage and my inspiration.