Posts Tagged ‘bar mitzvah’

My Bar Mitzvah Speech

Posted in General on May 27th, 2012 by Eugene Finerman – 15 Comments

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.


Keeping Up With the Cohens

Posted in General on May 13th, 2012 by Eugene Finerman – 5 Comments


So what are Karen and I planning for our B’nai Mitzvah?  Not this….

The headliners read like a who’s who of music: Aerosmith, 50 Cent and Don Henley of the Eagles. No, it wasn’t the Grammys, it was 13-year-old Elizabeth Brooks’ birthday party — a $10 million mega bat mitzvah.

How could anyone spend ten million dollars on a bat mitzvah? From an ethical perspective, you can’t; and even from a financial view, it is a daunting challenge. But there are ways…

The traditional form of overkill would be to buy 250 tons of lox, along with cream cheese and assorted bagels. Aside from sating your guests–provide them with doggie bags by Gucci, this strategy would likely corner the lox market, preventing anyone else from having a bar mitzvah. In effect, you would be the most powerful Jew since Herod or at least Louis B. Mayer.

Of course, if you think that cholesterol is Anti-Semitic, consider a California theme. All your guests get plastic surgery. The bat mitzvah’s rhinoplasty can be done during the temple service: What better gift for a bat mitzvah than looking Gentile. Your guests will have their clips, lifts, and tucks during the luncheon: the open bar is all the anesthesia they’ll need. Everyone leaves looking like a 13 year old! For those who actually are 13, the California motif offers body piercings by Bulgari. And in honor of our Jewish roots, we can also provide designer tattoos based on Marc Chagall.

If you prefer a more mental form of ostentation, then you would want a bar mitzvah theme that would look good on a college application. For ten million dollars, the thirteen year-old can receive a Junior Nobel Prize. Fly your guests–and don’t forget the Harvard admissions office–over to Stockholm for the ceremony. King Carl Gustav will present the award (what else has he got to do). The ceremony will include the world premiere of Harold Pinter’s translation of the Torah.

Here is an excerpt:

God: Thou shall not kill.

Moses: I never do.

God: I wasn’t accusing you.

Moses: I might cheat at cricket.

Burning Bush: What kind of Jew plays cricket?

God: Now I can’t remember what I was going to command next.

Moses: Does it matter?

At the very least, this bar mitzvah will also be nominated for a Tony.

However, since there are already so many Nobel laureates, you might want a truly distinctive celebration. Do something that no one has ever done before: rent the Vatican for your bar mitzvah. What could be classier than having chopped chicken liver in the Sistine Chapel? Why settle for ice sculptures when you can have the actual Michelangelo Pieta lactating champagne? And who wouldn’t enjoy the Gregorian version of “Hava Nagillah”? Make your 13 year-old feel like a Messiah.

Remember: when money is no object, neither is taste.

By the Numbers

Posted in General on October 4th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 5 Comments

I am planning to have my bar mitzvah next year.  (Most of you suspect that I am only 12; half of the time, my wife does.)  Forty-seven years ago, I dropped out of Hebrew school–and if you knew my classmates at the time, you wouldn’t blame me.  It was a Yiddish production of “Lord of the Flies.”

Fortunately, my family was not shocked by my rebellious irreverence; in my secular home, ancient incantations seemed less important than ethnic identity.  So I was trained to know the Jewish member of every film cast…Leslie Howard in “Gone With the Wind”, Erland Josephson in “Cries and Whispers”, half of Claire Trevor in “Stagecoach.”  At least it was good preparation for Jeopardy.

My wife Karen had a more conventional upbringing than I did, equal parts Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth.  Years of Sunday school made her literate in Hebrew; however, at the time, her synagogue did not offer bat mitzvahs.  So the nice Jewish girl and the renegade Jewish boy were equally unmitzvahed.  No one would mistake us for Patrick and Deirdre, but we felt a desire to a fulfill our commitment to 4000 years of history, tradition and idiosyncrasy.  So the two of us enrolled in an adult bar mitzvah program.

The class began with a dozen aspiring candidates.  But the challenge and frequent absurdity of Hebrew (21 letters, half of which are k, along with 350 vowels) took a toll.  Half of the class dropped out; one lady found the gutteral exertions threatened her botox.  But Karen and I persevered.  I now have a command of Hebrew that qualifies me to be a village idiot anywhere in Israel.  And this week, in preparation for the actual ceremony,  we received our assigned chapters in the Torah.

The Torah is actually the first five books of the Bible.  We know that Genesis and Exodus have everything you’d want in a movie.  Leviticus actually can be quite funny:  imagine a temper tantrum by Jackie Mason.  Deuteronomy really is outtakes from Exodus; it would have been the added features in the special DVD of “The Ten Commandments.”  But then there is Numbers–apparently the root word of numb.  It is basically a census of how many warriors in each tribe and how many sheep each person contributed to the Israelite Bond Dinner.

So, what is the purpose of Numbers?  I believe that it was the first CPA examination.  Nothing in the book would pass a serious audit.  According to the tally, the ancient Israelites had an army of 603,550 men.  Really?  With that size army, why stop at conquering Canaan?  Take Egypt, Troy and Babylon, too.   Persia and Rome, at their height of power, never commanded half so large a force.  But Joshua did?  Either Bernie Madoff is 3000 years old, or he was following in the family business.

And, if you had any doubts, Karen and I have been assigned to read from Numbers.   Maybe we should have bribed the Rabbi.