Your RDA of Irony

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.

Thank you.


  1. Nancy Kullman says:

    First things first: Oy vey, the puns… Finerman’s Wake. Only the exclusive clan of Finermans can pull that off. Seriously: hearty congratulations and Mazel Tov to you and Karen on your B’nei Mitzvah. I remember wrestlng with the Hebrew for my own adult Bat Mitzvah (Classical Reform Jewish girlhood, no Hebrew, no Bat Mitzvah.)

    I’m sorry I could not be there; I was working, in the rain and then sun and then rain, at Pasquesi’s.

    Congratulations to you both,


  2. Sam & Andi Solomon says:

    A wonderful day. There were good feelings all around. Thank you for letting share in your fulfillment.

    Sam & Andi

  3. Leah says:

    I hope you have another deal in mind so that a Democrat wins the election in 2012. Hard to top getting bar mitzvahed for your side of the bargain.

    Maybe you could actually go out on the street and invite a stranger in to come share Passover seder with you next spring? That might be interesting.

  4. Bob Kincaid says:

    Mazel Tov, Eugene!

    As I sit here in Germany (long story- catch the impending podcast), it was a joyntonreqd your reflections. And the Bearded Juvenile Delinquent In The Sky will, I suspect, forgive your trenchantly delightful irreverences. He almost has to.

    As Robert Frost wrote in his shortest poem:

    “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
    And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on Me.”

  5. Tony H says:

    Congatulations, Eugene! I’m not sure your mother was right about Cromwell and Napoleon, but her heart was definitely in the right place.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I can understand your British reluctance to give Napoleon any credit, but be fair about Cromwell. I would not want Cromwell to plan my Bar Mitzvah but he would have permitted me to have one in England.


      • Tony H says:

        OK, I can see where she was coming from with Cromwell but, as you suggest, you wouldn’t want him in charge of the disco. As for Napoleon: we were showing a French friend the sights of London and she was delighted and not at all surprised to see that we had erected a statue of Napoleon in Trafalgar Square. I took great pleasure in telling her it was Nelson. Honestly, the French are so chauvinistic, they even gave us the word.

  6. wayne rhodes says:

    We looked forward to your speech and you didn’t disappoint. You both did a great job. Thanks for including us in the special day.

  7. Laura says:

    *applause* It would have been easy to leave that one not done.
    You must be very proud and satisfied, if of course you are done feeling humble.

  8. Cindy Starks says:

    Eugene — I lift my hat to you — or my yamika, or whatever! Excellent, excellent remarks. sweet and funny and heartfelt and appropriate. Mazel Tov a hundred times!

  9. Mary pattock says:

    Eugene, congratulations. I trust this will open new paths for you.

  10. Rafferty Barnes says:

    Congratulations! I knew you could do it.

    Now, Cromwell sold my people into slavery, so I can’t agree with your mother there.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you so much Megan.

      You have every reason to hate Cromwell but he was a humanitarian compared to the the 19th century Whigs who let the Irish starve.

      And Napoleon disappointed your ancestors. He sailed to Egypt instead of Ireland. The French did send a regiment to incite an Irish rebellion, but you know how French are without a mad shepardess or a short Corsican. The French were quickly captured. As for the Irish who rose in rebellion, the lucky ones were exiled to Australia.

  11. Harvey Shapiro says:

    Although we are connected via Linked-in and therefore we are “friends” (or is that just Facebook.), the reality is I don’t know you from Adam. But nonetheless, I want of offer you a heartfelt Mazel Tov on finally becoming an adult. I thoroughly enjoyed your Bar Mitzvah speech. I was both moved and amused by it, and rest assured it was decidedly better than the average 13 year old’s effort.

    May you go from strength to strength.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you, gracious stranger. You may have Elijah’s place of honor. (Who is to say that you are not one in the same?)
      As for our tenuous connection, we share an acquaintance on LinkedIn as well as some enemies (Mel Gibson, Pat Buchanan, etc.)

      Once again, thank you.

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