By Larry Gordon
It is not that my parents invented weekend bar mitzvahs, but that’s exactly how we celebrated about a half-century ago. At the time, way back then, I anticipated that it would be a most memorable Shabbos Nachamu together with family and friends, but now I know for sure. It is still a vivid memory.
I was born in mid-July, a day after Tishah B’Av, which presented the challenge of how to celebrate the momentous event of my bar mitzvah.
There was a pretty nice hotel in Ferndale, New York, managed by two brothers. One went by the name Newman and the other was known as Neiman. The sign at the hotel entrance said: “Newman and Neiman’s Empire Hotel.” How two brothers had similar but different names always puzzled me. I satisfied myself with the thought that it was all in the pronunciation.
We actually have a silent reel of film recording the arrival of our guests for Shabbos. It is a trip down eight-millimeter memory lane.
There was a very long table in the dining room, where I sat at the head with my dad on my left side and my mom to my right. It was my bar mitzvah, my Shabbos, and I was the star of the show.
One of the memories I cherish most followed the Shabbos-afternoon seudah, after I read the parashah in shul and spoke at the meal and was able to take a deep breath, exhale, and relax. I remember sitting at the table, leaning against my father while he was leaning toward me. He had his arm around my shoulder and pulled me as close to him as possible. It was an expression of deep and abiding love and closeness that words cannot effectively capture.
My mom was off to my right, talking with her parents—my Bubby and Zaide—as the other guests milled around. We sat there together, watching the people and living in the moment.
That was a great day and outstanding Shabbos.
All these decades later, I am blessed to have grandchildren, and inevitably some of those offspring were born during the summer. We have a grandson who will celebrate a birthday over these few weeks, and the discussion before the summer was how to maneuver things so as to celebrate properly, if there is such a thing.
He began to put on tefillin a few weeks prior to the summer, but how do you coordinate a festive seudah that includes family and friends, with almost everyone on the move in different directions?
My parents dealt with the exact same issue by presiding over what I now term the “triple crown” of bar mitzvahs.
That year, prior to Shabbos Nachamu my birthday fell out earlier in the week, so we kicked things off with my leining of the first aliyah of the parashah. The davening and leining took place on the main floor of the primary Lubavitch shul at 770 Eastern Parkway. The tables were set with some vodka and other spirits along with an assortment of cakes and crackers and several types of herring.
That might have been the day I acquired a taste for herring—but not the nouveau types that challenge what traditional herring should taste like.
But that is a digression. The point that I want to make is that during that period, the Lubavitcher Rebbe davened Shacharis privately every day in his office down the hall from where our minyan was taking place. On Mondays and Thursdays, he would step out of his office to hear the reading from the Torah that took place on that same floor.
On this particular Thursday of Parashas Va’eschanan, the Rebbe heard this 13-year-old—that would be me—reading the beginning of the parashah from the Torah. I don’t know whether the Rebbe knew that it was me leining, but I knew that it was he who was listening.
After the reading the Rebbe returned to his office and the minyan continued to the end. Then we drank l’chaim (not me, the adults), I recited a ma’amar—a Chassidic discourse on the mitzvah of tefillin—we had some herring, crackers, orange juice, and we were on our way upstate for the weekend bar mitzvah.
Judging from the photographs and my recollection, I think there were about 50 or so people there for Shabbos. But my parents knew a lot of people, and I don’t know if their friends made these types of simchas or not. So, before I knew it, there was a party being planned for September 11 in the ballroom of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway. (Of course, a few decades later, 9/11 was dramatically redefined.)
The invitation went into the mail, the photographer and band were hired, my parents met with the shul caterer, and we were on our way, baruch Hashem, to the third leg of my bar mitzvah.
About a year and a half later, my brother, Yossy, had a similar type of gala event for his bar mitzvah, but there was no need for a triple-play because his birthday is in March.
That day of reading the Torah in 770 and the party in September were bookends to that whirlwind Shabbos weekend that brought everyone together for about 48 hours of celebrating a young man coming of age.
Back in those days I may have wondered about the future—after all, I was a teenager, going into high school, growing up, and so on. But most interesting, as I tap out these words, it occurs to me that most of that future is now a wonderful and illustrious past.
It is a lot of years later but thank G-d for that. I’m not going to say that I have no complaints; I think we all do. But I’m not doing any complaining. Certainly not here, not now.
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