On Becoming a Man Again

04 Aug 2002
August 4, 2002

Forty years ago I became a man. In the Jewish sense. August 4th, 1962 I was bar mitzvahed. It was actually the 4th of Av, 5722 on the Jewish calendar. And that day actually fell on July 13 this year. But I, being the assimilated Jew that I am, decided to commemorate this event by going to temple yesterday, a place not normally a part of my Saturday schedule.

Since I live far from where I grew up I went in search of a synagogue. A coworker recommended a couple shuls nearby, one Reform and one Conservative. I grew up in a Conservative temple so that was my first choice. Of course, Judaism being what it is, Conservative doesn’t mean “conservative” as the word generally implies. It’s actually middle-of-the-road within the continuum of Jewish practice.

There are at least three denominations within Judaism. Orthodox adheres most strictly to the tenets of traditional Jewish practice. While Reform temples are more liberal in their interpretations. Conservative falls in the middle. There is also a fourth movement Reconstructionist, which is relatively new.

I am a modern man. I embrace change and progress. So it was surprising how at home I felt with my past as I entered B’nai Israel Synagogue. The service had started before I arrived. But people are always coming in throughout the ceremony.

As I entered, a woman at the door greeted me with the traditional sabbath salutation, Shabbat Shalom. “Are you new here?” she asked. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. “You’re 53!” she replied. Yes, I admitted to myself; if you’re going to celebrate this 40th anniversary, you have to admit how old you really are. “I’m going to my 40th high school reunion this year,” she continued. “Please have a seat.”

The sanctuary and the people within felt so familiar to me: the old, hunched over man, in his tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl, davining (bending forward and backwards slightly as one prays), women with their children on their laps, and men shaking hands and talking.

Years ago, while traveling in Europe I came upon a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Venice. A bar miztvah was taking place the next day so I made plans to return. A German guy I met at the youth hostel I was staying at asked if he could tag along. It was a huge Moorish interior, illuminated mainly by the light streaming in from huge windows. All the women were in the balcony, while the men sat down below (separating men and women is tradition in an Orthodox synagogue).

When we got there the bar mitzvah boy was reading his haftorah. We sat down and my fellow traveler was shocked that so many people were talking while the service was taking place. In his church, he said, everyone was silent. There is a low level murmur that accompanies any Jewish service and I simply felt at home.

As I took my seat yesterday, I felt this same comfort. I took out my own tallis, the one I had been given for my own bar mitzvah, and put it on. Suddenly I noticed how old it appeared. As I looked over to the old man, I noticed he was wearing earphones. It took me a minute to realize the temple had audio enhancements for the hard-of-hearing. I laughed to myself. This was not 1962.

• • •

1962. It was a tough time for my family as I look back now. My mother had had a major brain operation the year before that had left her paralyzed on her right side. We were all trying to adjust to our new reality. Dad tried his best to keep some semblance of continuity to our lives and my bar mitzvah was part of that.

We had a professional photographer, of course. There was no video back then. And 8 mm home movies weren’t allowed. However, my father had won a new reel-to-reel audio tape player the year before (in a church raffle of all things) and he slipped the rather large machine inside the beama (the podium) to record me reciting my halftorah.

Until I received this tape from my stepmother after my father’s death two years ago, I didn’t realize how important that audio was to me. Hearing my 13 year old voice immediately brought back memories long forgotten: memories that had nothing to do with this event.

The most important part of the tape, however, was the very beginning, before the ceremony even began. It was my father documenting (Quicktime 187 k): “This is the bar mitzvah of Jeffrey Stuart Gates, August 4, 1962, with Rabbi Kazan and Cantor Solomon,” he said slowly. This is the only recording I have of his voice. I have none of my mother’s. And while I have many visual memories of her, and can remember many things she said to me, I can’t remember what she sounded like.

Today, of course, our videocams record sound as much as the visual reality of the moment. But there was no sound with home movies. So, while my youth had been recorded on film, it was a silent version.

What Dad didn’t know at the time was this would be his bar mitzvah day too. Since he had never been bar mitzvahed, when he came to the pulpit to say the blessing, the Rabbi informed the congregation that this made it official for him as well. While he had only to recite a blessing, I had studied for months, learning the chants and tones from an LP recording of my particular haftorah.

After the ceremony we had the traditional temple reception of sandwiches and Manischewitz wine (grape juice for us newly anointed “men”). Often there is also a larger reception that takes place at a hotel or restaurant that night or the next day. Dad and Mom decided a small version of this celebration with close relatives and some of my friends worked best for them. But, they decided to have it at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood.

In it’s heyday, the Grove was the Hollywood nightclub. It’s opened in 1921 as part of the Ambassador Hotel. The first Oscars were awarded there. Judy Garland made her comeback there, the jury of the Charles Manson trial was sequestered at the Ambassador and, of course, six years after my reception, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the pantry of the hotel’s kitchen.

1962 was nearing the tail end of it’s golden period. Freddy Martin was playing there that night as was a performance of The Can Can. I remember going backstage afterwards to get everyone’s signature on my program.

• • •

Interwoven between prayers and the Torah reading yesterday I thought about my family. I thought about my parents, both gone now, and reflected on their wishes for me that day. I considered what it really means to be a man: lessons learned and relearned over the years. Inevitably, I came back to my present, my thoughts more focused on my wife and children and my wishes for them.

Related Story: April 7, 2001

4 replies
  1. Donna says:

    A beautiful entry, Jeff. Brought tears. Congratulations on your journey to manhood. It sounds like you have arrived.

  2. meryl says:

    40 more years until your next bar mitzvah. Better start studying! :)
    I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, does that mean I am forever a child?

  3. meryl says:

    P.S. Those are beautiful pictures of your bar mitzvah and your family. I love the b&w. My brother had his when I was 3 in 1973. Somehow those aren’t as classic as yours with the ridiculous ’70s style clothes.

  4. Jacob Shwirtz says:

    Truly great story. Thanks a lot for sharing! Very poignant. I just returned from a european trip where I visited Jewish communities in a few different countries. Worth a link…

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