Why is it I can believe how old I am and how old my children are, but am having such difficulty in believing—by which I specifically do not mean “coming to terms with” but actually believing—that tomorrow, May 28, 2016, is going to be the fiftieth anniversary of my bar-mitzvah, which took place (obviously) on May 28, 1966? That’s the question I’d like to address in this space this week!
I really can believe how old I am. (I might as well!) And I can also believe, more or less, how long I’ve been married. I can believe lots of things! But what I can’t quite grasp is how half a century can possibly have passed since that fateful day—and in terms of my future life it truly was fateful—how a full half-century can have passed since that day on which I, like every bar-mitzvah boy before me and since, stepped uncertainly forward as my name was sung out, grasped the wooden rollers of the Torah scroll that lay open before me, and, in my thirteen-year-old’s still-highish voice, pronounced the blessings that somehow constituted the liturgical equivalent of the threshold I was expected at that tender age to step over into manhood. Or at least into adulthood. Or rather into the specific combination of the two that everybody says matters incredibly in terms of who you are in the world even if you do have to go back to junior high school the following Monday. (Note to younger readers: in olden times before there were middle schools, “junior high school” was where you went to wait out the hellish interval between elementary school and high school and, occasionally, to learn something.) I was a young thirteen at my bar-mitzvah too, as I recall, even the advance heralds of impending pubescence still considerably further down the pike than I myself was at the moment.
But it wasn’t my boyish demeanor or my slightly-too-big suit from Barneys—much less my clip-on necktie—that I remember the most vividly from that day: it was my mother sitting in the front row between her own aunts Bea and Alice and crying as she focused not on me or my great accomplishment in becoming a man, much less on my haftarah, but rather on the death of her own mother only a few months earlier on, a loss which both overshadowed and lent unexpected meaning to my big day.
I was a precocious lad, I suppose, but I truly recall thinking that, with the death of my grandmother leaving me with no grandparents at all (and placing my parents in the front line facing the eventual void that we all fear less when there’s someone around we deem likely to fall into it first), I was in some way taking their collective, now fully vacated, place in the Camp of the Israelites. In that thought, I included them all—the grandfathers I never met, the grandmother I only vaguely recalled from my days as a toddler, and my maternal grandma (of whom I’ve written in this space many times with respect to her Bensonhurst-blue hair, her gentle demeanor, her considerably artistic talent, and her almost unbearable overheated apartment on 84th Street in Brooklyn)—and felt that, by stepping forward into at least theoretical adulthood, I was ensuring both the continued existence of my own family and, in some extended sense, of the Jewish people itself.
This latter notion I didn’t come up with on my own—no thirteen-year-old is that precocious—but was rather planted in my brain as a result of something the rent-a-rabbi provided by Riverside—whom I met the day of my grandmother’s funeral and never saw again and whose name I can’t recall if indeed I ever knew it—said to me in the limousine that took us from the I.J. Morris Funeral Chapel on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont. I was listening carefully, impressed that he was even talking to me at all as we drove eastward down the Belt. And, even if I was still unable to detect any nascent stubble where I was certain my sideburns were supposed to be, I got the message. When people ask, as they occasionally do, when I decided to become a rabbi and to spend my life in the service of the Jewish people, the formally correct answer is “years later, when I was already in college.” But that answer only records when the plant blossomed, not when the seed was planted.
But I digress. My bar-mitzvah took place on a beautiful May day. Strangely, the entire operation was conducted on foot. We walked from our apartment house to the Forest Hills Jewish Center for the service not because we were strictly—or even vaguely—Shabbat-observant, but merely because my father was certain that we would have ended up parking further away from the synagogue than we actually lived. (Anyone who lives or ever has lived in Forest Hills will attest to the reasonableness of that thought.) And then, when the service was over, my parents led a kind of Cohen Family Parade down Queens Blvd. to the Stratton Restaurant, in its day a well-known roast beef restaurant with an interior vaguely reminiscent of an English pub (or, rather, what its owners must have hoped their customers would imagine British pubs to look like) and today a branch of the TD Bank. We were entertained, as I recall, by a three-piece band, a trio consisting of a bass, a piano, and a drummer. We sat in pre-assigned seats, as indicated on an elaborate table created by my mother herself on a large piece of oak tag using blue and red magic markers. There were supercool cylindrically-shaped boxes of matches on each table, each covered in yellow velvety paper and emblazoned with my name and the date of my bar-mitzvah in fancy gold letting on the side. And then, when it was all over and all the other guests had left, my parents, myself, and my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Herb walked home to our apartment.
Where my mother and her sister went off to once we got home, I don’t remember. But my father, my uncle, and I repaired to my bedroom to tally up my checks and to inspect the rest of my gifts. And then eventually my aunt and uncle also left—in their white Cadillac convertible with red leather seats, which the thirteen-year-old me deemed even cooler than the yellow match box cylinders—and I was home alone with my parents, a boy no longer (or at least not in the sense I had been only a day earlier) and more or less ready to begin the rest of my life.
After all these years, when I think back on that day in May of 1966, I’m stunned by how much has changed in my life and in the world since then. It was a tumultuous month, that May. The siege of Da Nang in South Vietnam was underway in full force. The Cultural Revolution in China was just beginning. Bob Dylan had just released Blonde on Blonde. The number one song on the radio was the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” (The thirteen-year-old me was about to become a huge Stones fan.) Cuba was under martial law as the Cubans awaited an American invasion that never came. LBJ was in the White House. John V. Lindsay, whom my father particularly reviled, was mayor of New York City. It all seems like such a very long time ago!
And yet it also doesn’t. From the vantage point of half a century’s worth of days, something like 18,250 of them, I can see the trajectory of my life more clearly than ever before. I can understand that, although it was weightless, imperceptible, and invisible, the mantle that was settled on my shoulders as I stood before the incredibly byzantine, slightly scary Ark of the Law on the bimah at the Forest Hills Jewish Center and tentatively read out the haftarah that morning that recounted the birth of Samson was totally real. I didn’t perceive it at the time. I was more focused on being annoyed—this I do remember clearly—that the other boy having his bar-mitzvah that morning and with whom I thus had to share my big day, was also named Martin…which led to people amusingly confusing us throughout the morning. (My parents thought I was overreacting, particularly since even I myself couldn’t say why I was making such a big deal out of what was obviously a mere coincidence.) But although I could barely perceive what was happening to me at all, I now see myself on that day crossing a line back over which I haven’t ever crossed or even, speaking honestly, thought to cross. Somehow, I actually did become a man, or at least a pre-man, on that specific day and in that specific place.
The haftarah was also a coincidence, merely the lesson from the Prophets that went with the Torah portion assigned to me because it went along with the Shabbat that itself had been assigned to me. But sometimes even the most fully coincidental happenstance can lead somewhere profound and real.
In the story as told, a man appears out of nowhere and tells the wife of one Manoah that, although she has never in the past been able to conceive a child, she will yet be a mother and that the child she conceives will devote his life to the service of God. Later, the man (an angel, it turns out) repeats the same message to Manoah himself. But when Manoah demands that the man reveal his name, he responds that the request cannot be honored, that his name is not merely unknown but actually unknowable. And, with that, he steps into a flame rising from Manoah’s makeshift altar and, riding it aloft, ascends to heaven. The best part is that the man’s promise actually comes true. Manoah’s wife conceives and eventually gives birth to a son, whom his parents name Samson. And then we get to the bottom line: va-yigdal ha-na·ar va-y’varkheihu ha-shem. The boy grows up and God blesses him in every way.
I lack Samson’s physical strength. (Who doesn’t?) But we only children tend to stick together and for that reason alone I’ve always felt connected to Samson’s story. I don’t suppose my future existence was announced to my parents by an angel. But I do know that my parents, both of them, were not at all sure they would ever produce a child until they finally produced me and that, in this just like Samson, I too was born to my older parents in the context of expectation and mild amazement. And I too grew up to be blessed by God in every imaginable way: with marriage and children, career and vocation, creativity and productivity, purposefulness and a deep, abiding sense of wonder that I ended up charged with doing so much and serving so many…and that now, after all these many, many years, I still feel myself in the middle of the journey, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, proud of the past but far more filled with curiosity and hope, still, about what the future might yet bring.
These are the thoughts I bring to this fiftieth anniversary of the day on which I stepped into manhood and took my place in the House of Israel not as my parents’ child but as a man in my own right. I didn’t look like a man. I probably didn’t act much like one either. But as the mantle settled onto my shoulders, I was altered by the moment…and thus became myself long before even I had any idea what that would or could possibly come to mean.