Bar Mitzvah thwarted
Purim explained to dad that he’d rather be captured and tortured by Egyptians than have me in his Hebrew class.
During this chanting, dad hunched down like a man about to be sent to the guillotine, while mother, the real spiritual Jew in the family, coaxed him to get up there and recite his important Jewish prayers.
By Dell Franklin
Since I’d been around 5 or 6, my parents had continually reminded me that when I was 9 I would begin Hebrew school in preparation for my bar mitzvah. I was now 9. Already bored and unbearably rest-less while forced to sit at services in the drab, cinder-block-like Compton synagogue, I had blocked the possibility of going to Hebrew school from my mind as I would a visit to the dentist. During ser-vices, as mother moved her lips to the prayers conducted by the rabbi and stood with the congregation, dad dozed off into a resonant snore from which he was jabbed awake by mother, who chastised me for squirming, making untoward noises, pinching my sister, and aggravating adults who were dead serious about services and appalled by my father and me.
It was torture enough being cooped up in Sunday school when was bursting with energy to flee to the playgrounds to play baseball or football with my hellion gentile friends, but now they expected me to go straight from school (instead of the park and playgrounds) to the synagogue three afternoons a week for Hebrew lessons.
I pleaded with mom and dad to let me “wait a while,” but dad claimed HE started at 9, which was late for most serious Jewish boys, and so now I had to go, too, and be like him and make my bar mitzvah. Dad, for all his defending Jews with his fists, for growing up in an antisemitic neighborhood in Chicago where he beat the shit out of Poles, Germans and Irish who called him sheenie and kike and Jewboy, was a pathetic example of a Jew on those stifling hot days at ser-vices on high holidays, when Jewish man after Jewish man, yarmulkes on heads, shawls on shoulders, walked humbly yet proudly to the stage to recite in perfect nuance and verse from the Torah while the rabbi nodded approvingly. During this chanting, dad hunched down like a man about to be sent to the guillotine, while mother, the real spiritual Jew in the family, coaxed him to get up there and recite his important Jewish prayers — a few lines so simple a gentile could conquer them in two weeks.
When dad was at last spotted in the crowd by the rabbi and beckoned to the stage, and actually stood over the Torah, he appeared stricken, petrified, and this man, deep-voiced, assertive, forceful to the point of intimidation, ex-boxer and Major League ballplayer, was reduced to a sheepish wimp, a blushing wretch as he mumbled in near-inaudible incoherence and stammered under his yarmulke, an old shapeless black rag compared to the shiny white satin caps worn by his fellow Jewish men. Celebrity and hero he was to most of the congregation, they cringed in shocked disbelief and whispered furtively to one another as they witnessed his disgraceful and embarrassing butchering of the Torah, voice growing weaker and weaker.
The poor rabbi, too, was stunned, though he tried to coach and encourage dad and feigned patience until finally nodding to dad that he was released from his misery and could at last sit down, for the good of all, and especially, I suppose, God.
“Some Jew,” I said, jabbing my idol with an elbow, after he sat down beside me. “You were a real pussy up there.”
“That’s enough out of you,” he snapped, mopping sweat off his face and neck. “You’re no one to talk.”
“But I’m just a kid, dad. You’re a grownup.”
“Just shut your mouth, wise guy. You’re starting Hebrew school this week.”
“So I can be like you? Ha ha ha.”
“One more word, and so help me God, I’ll drag you out of here and beat you into a thousand bloody pieces.”
I reported to a tall, scholarly-looking sourpuss named Ben Purim, who would be my Hebrew teacher for the next 3 1/2 years. Already my Gentile running mates were clustered at the window of the room at the synagogue, pogoing up and down to gape in, baseball equipment in hand. Purim shooed them away, fixing me with a reprimanding gaze, as did my fellow students, all studious about learning Hebrew and making bar mitzvah.
When I looked at the backwards book with a strange, hieroglyphic-like language, I closed it and yearned for what I was missing on the playgrounds. Purim repeatedly glanced at me as I fidgeted, cleared my throat, snorted, doodled, yawned, clacked my teeth menacingly at Bernie, Shelly, Norman, Steven, Sheila, Ester and Sidney, eventually punching Shelly in the nose and pummeling him into tears when he stuck his tongue out at me and mouthed the word “stupid.”
Purim, shocked and troubled, sent me home and called dad that night. Purim was from Israel and wanted me banned from his class, intimating to dad I was some kind of vitriolic Jew-hater bent on sabotaging his class. Dad bullshitted him for a long time and after hanging up pinned me with a vicious look and informed me that disgruntled Purim had agreed to give me a “second chance after deep misgivings.” Dad made me promise to put a halt to my shenanigans or he was going to “beat me into a thousand bloody pieces.”
I told dad I hated Hebrew school and was miserable there, but he said that part of being a good Jew was “suffering with things you didn’t like and learning about my people and learning Hebrew and making my bar mitzvah.”
This made no sense. “Dad,” I pleaded. “I don’t wanna learn that weird gooble. Look at you…you hate it, too. You can’t recite a word of the Torah, and you know it. Even mother says your bar mitzvah didn’t do YOU any good, or else you’d be able to recite your prayers like those...geeks.”
“At least your father tries,” he argued. “I’ve forgotten a lot because with baseball, and the war, I haven’t had time to go to services.”
“Those geeks who go up there, they been to war, and they work. You HATE it up there, and I don’t ever wanna go up there and chant those prayers.”
“Yes you will!” He was fired up. “You’re a Jew. You should be proud of your religion, and your Jewish heritage. Millions of Jews died and made sacrifices so you can be here today. I fought every Jew hating no-good bastard I could, and I have all my life, and now what do I have for a son? An antisemite, a Jew hater.”
“I’m no Jew hater. I just don’t like any of those Jewish kids. I like my own friends, dad. Why can’t I be with my friends, if they’re not Jews?”
“That’s not the point,” he burbled, getting flustered. “You’re changing the subject. And I’ll tell you what wise guy — you’re going back to Hebrew school tomorrow afternoon, and that’s that! You hear?”
Next class, Purim asked me to recite a few words. I hadn’t read the book and knew nothing. He glared at me, and I glared back, while my fellow students snickered. Sheila, beside me, a future replica of her yenta nonstop gabby mother, issued me a look indicating I was a loathsome putrid slime-ball, and when I returned the look she slapped me and I pinched her hard on the ass and she squealed and jumped up and ran around the room sobbing, and then Purim went crazy, also chasing me around the room, babbling at me, face all red.
He chased me out of the room and through the synagogue and out front, where my pals were waiting for me, baseball equipment in hand, and I hightailed it down the street, leaving him puffing and glowering on the front steps of the synagogue.
That night Purim explained to dad that he’d rather be captured and tortured by Egyptians than have me in his class, maintaining I was worst student he’d ever had.
Dad did not “beat me into a thousand bloody pieces,” which I had a hard time visualizing, but he did render me a tepid strapping. He’d never been this angry with me before. And right off he and mom, who was also miffed and shocked, managed to dig up another Hebrew private tutor for me across town. I had to take a bus and then a street car through the black part of town to meet this tutor in a Jewish neighborhood. He proved to be a reasonable and understanding man with long whiskers. After an hour he told me he could not teach me Hebrew because I refused to learn it and was so unhappy he felt terrible and could not endure being around me. He called dad and reported this fact, and then dad and mom engaged in a long, serious discussion which I listened to, my ear glued to their bedroom door.
The discussion grew into a raging argument, and finally a shouting match and verbal war. Mother refused to back down in her defense of me. Dad’s sticking points were the usual: He’d had to do it, it was the right thing to do, so I had to do it, and he didn’t see any-thing wrong with raising me like his father raised him, because HE’D turned out okay!
They argued into the night, were barely talking the next morn-ing at the breakfast nook. An agreement was made that I was hereby released from Hebrew school, and, if I changed my mind later, I could always go back when I was more mature and realized the importance of making my bar mitzvah.
“Honey,” my mother said. “I can’t bear to see you so unhappy.” Dad stood with coffee cup in hand, glowering down at me. A relentless, vicious competitor who could not bear to lose, he’d lost this round, and he didn’t like it. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.