It was this time of year. It was hot and sunny most days and, best of all, there was no school. Back then, summer was an eternity; once it began it was as if it was never-ending. It was utopian and ideal — there was nothing better.
This past Tisha B’Av I marked my birthday. I was not born on Tisha B’Av itself but rather on the tenth of the month, which is the day this year when we observed Tisha B’Av because the actual ninth of the month was Shabbos.
Because I was born in the middle of the summer, it turned out that there were three distinct components to my bar mitzvah celebration. Some of the festivities of that period are on film somewhere in the home of one of my siblings. Years ago, from time to time, the family used to get together to watch family movies. I don’t think people do that anymore. Now every important event is recorded on an iPhone and committed to posterity, so long as the video does not exceed 90 seconds.
Right now, just a few feet from where I’m sitting, I have five invitations to early-September bar mitzvos, some from friends and some from family. I’m sure each in its own right is going to be an interesting and memorable event. But I cannot imagine that they will be anything like the three-pronged celebration we had about a half-century ago.
First of all, there was the parashah that we will read this coming Shabbos, Va’eschanan. It is an unusual word and an even more fascinating sedrah, with extraordinary subject matter. It is, in part, about the final days of the illustrious life of Moshe Rabbeinu and all that we can learn from him to this very day.
I studied the portion with my bar mitzvah teacher for months. I was drawn to the haftarah in particular, which, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, signals the beginning of the healing process and G-d’s love for the Jewish people despite all the distractions and so on.
My actual birthday that year occurred on a Thursday. As we lived in Crown Heights and attended the main Chabad shul, otherwise internationally known by its street address, 770, the plan was for us to daven with the minyan on the first floor of the shul, one of the many daily non-main minyanim in the shul.
In those days, the Rebbe used to daven Shacharis privately in his study. On Monday and Thursday, however, for the reading of the Torah, he would step out of his office down the hallway from the room where the minyan took place in order to hear the reading of the Torah. And on this particular summer day, as this bar mitzvah boy stepped up to read until sheini in Parashas Va’eschanan, one of the people listening to me was the Lubavitcher Rebbe. So it was a good start.
Following davening and a flawless leining of the Torah, we had a l’chaim and a morning snack set up to celebrate this coming-of-age. I don’t know if I liked herring before that day or if I acquired a taste for it on that Thursday. All I know is that it made a lifelong positive impression on me—the chopped herring in particular, which you do not see on the shelves around here. (Note to the supermarket buyers: what’s going on?)
A few days later, on Shabbos Nachamu, I was the star at a weekend bar mitzvah — mine — at the Empire Hotel, which was owned by two brothers. One brother was named Neiman and the other was Newman. No one ever explained to me how it came to pass that two brothers pronounced their names so differently. Oddly enough, that was not the last time that I ran into a name-pronunciation situation like that. I still don’t have a plausible explanation.
That was my introduction to the idea of a weekend bar mitzvah. I’m not sure where my parents got the idea from; I don’t recall any of my friends having the same kind of bar mitzvah celebration.
Just about all my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and some friends were there. Perhaps my parents thought that, considering it was midsummer, who was going to want to leave their bungalows (a lot of people were in bungalows for the summer) for a party on a Sunday or midweek?
It was a beautiful Shabbos Nachamu which even today is a breakout Shabbos of sorts after the struggles and the historical difficulties that we deal with during the prior three weeks culminating with Tishah B’Av. Nachamu was a breakout Shabbos for me as well. It was the entranceway to early adulthood. In other words, I was not a kid anymore.
Lest you think that my parents tried to spoil me, I don’t think they did, but I am still thinking about it. You see, since the weekend was limited to about 50 family members, my parents apparently felt compelled to make me a full-blown party in the ballroom of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway after the summer for all my friends and classmates, as well as many of their friends, too.
It was a great shindig with a six-piece band, fully catered sit-down meal, and all the accouterments. Where did my parents get the money that this three-pronged bar mitzvah cost? I don’t know, and I don’t think at that point I had made the connection between the need for money and hosting all these parties. I mean, I probably knew that it cost money but I just did not consider that part of the equation. Oh, to be young!
If you are going to have all these celebrations, you had best be prepared to speak more than once. I can recall reciting a ma’amar from the Rebbe on that Thursday morning in 770. The ma’amar is standard fare for all bar mitzvahs in Chabad. I presented it in Yiddish and probably only understood about half of it.
I also spoke at the Shabbos table at the hotel on Shabbos Nachamu. Yet, what I recall most vividly is speaking from the podium, from the place where the rabbi usually stands, in the sanctuary of the Young Israel on Eastern Parkway. There is a photo of me standing at the mic, but there was no video or audio so I don’t know what I was saying.
Baruch Hashem, we have made four bar mitzvahs, all at different times of year, but none in the thick of the summer. Two were in the winter, one was in Israel, and one was over Shavuos at a hotel in the Catskills, though not at the Empire, as it was already long gone.
Now we are starting to think about our grandchildren’s bar mitzvahs beginning in less than a year from now. I don’t know what their moms and dads are planning, but we can certainly kick in some expertise if they need it and they ask. Sure, the world has changed dramatically over all these years, with one exception — and that is the fact that every 13-year-old Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah whether he wants to or not. At least that hasn’t changed yet.