Contra Costan has bar mitzvah –at 75

Bert Steinberg's bar mitzvah was one of the very few ever to include parts for the bar mitzvah boy's son and grandson. But then, that's one of the luxuries of putting off your bar mitzvah and confirmation until you're 75.

That and not having to worry about having your voice crack in the middle of the Torah reading.

More than 100 people attended the ceremony at Walnut Creek's Jewish Community Center to see Steinberg, a retired Lafayette financial planner, confirm a commitment he had difficulty making when he was younger.

"I am the quintessential example of the unaffiliated Jew," Steinberg said, explaining why he waited an extra 62 years for this passage to Jewish adulthood. "My parents were atheists, and that's how we were brought up. Religion was the opiate of the masses."

Steinberg, who is still an atheist, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, attending Yiddish schools as a boy. At camp he learned about Jewish artists and writers. After his father joined the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order, which was part of the International Workers Order, young Steinberg learned to sing the "Internationale" in Yiddish.

"At family gatherings we sang all the old Yiddish songs: `Tum Balalaika' and `Oyfen Priperchik,' mixed in with `Joe Hill' and `Solidarity Forever,' We went to Yiddish concerts and lectures; we were Jewish. But never in all those years were we affiliated with any Jewish organization — mainstream or not."

His father taught him "the meaning of fairness, of ethics and morality in my dealings with my fellow man." However, his father never gave him "any idea that these standards originated thousands of years before in a great book, the Torah."

Later in life, Steinberg began studying the Torah on his own — long after graduating from New York University, attending law school, ascending the ranks at various underwriters' associations and moving to Lafayette in 1989.

After the ceremony Steinberg's wife of 55 years said, "I was very proud of him.

"He's done public speaking before in the line of his work," said Sophie Steinberg. "And he's done a couple of commercials. He's a natural actor. So it came to him very naturally.

"Of course, I love him, you know. But everyone said it was good."

Services were conducted by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, found-er and national president of the Interna-tional Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews. Lending their help were Steinberg's grandson Dylan and son David, who is a Santa Cruz poet.

It was only after the Steinbergs settled in California in 1989 — after what was supposed to be a three-week West Coast vacation — that they discovered a Jewish organization with which they wanted to affiliate. The Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish identity and culture without emphasizing supernatural authority.

It was the first group that Steinberg felt allowed him to comfortably be both Jewish and atheist.

He served as president of the society's Bay Area chapter from 1992 to 1994.

As his 75th birthday ap-proached, Steinberg started thinking about bar mitzvah.

"I never realized how very important this was to him," Sophie Steinberg said. "Very often people accuse us, `How can you be Jewish if you're secular?'" But she says her husband "is very Jewish, even though he doesn't believe in God."

Steinberg closed his bar mitzvah speech saying, "Please do not judge me by what I am not, but rather, judge me by what I am."

He then played a tape of Frank Sinatra singing, "My Way."