Memorable b’nai mitzvah

What was your most memorable bar or bat mitzvah, and why? We asked our readers, and here are their stories.

Tough act to follow

I was bar mitzvahed in a small Orthodox shul in Los Angeles in 1938. After I had been studying with the rabbi for many weeks, he asked my parents if another young man could be bar mitzvahed at the same time — unusual at that time but now very common. He said the boy was an orphan studying with his grandfather. My parents agreed.

On the appropriate Saturday, we both performed our Hebrew portions quite well. Then came the speeches. This boy went first and gave his entire speech in Yiddish. Naturally the congregation, mostly elderly men and women, immigrants, ate it up. With tears in his eyes, he blessed his grandfather for bringing him up, blessed his hands and his beard. The entire congregation was in tears.

Then came my turn; what an act to follow! I thanked my mother and father and all my relatives. I felt lower than two cents, and there was nothing I could do. My mother came to me afterward, very stern, and said I should have been an orphan. I remember this bar mitzvah to this very day.

Sy Greenstone | Palo Alto

Over the big top

Many years ago, I was invited to my noveau riche cousin’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.

My cousin Suzie married Alan and they had done very well and lived comfortably in Roslyn, Long Island. But the spectacle that was their daughter Marnie’s bat mitzvah was something even I could not have imagined.

After the ceremony at the shul, the guests were ushered into the party room by a multitude of jugglers, clowns on unicycles, magicians and way, way too many balloon animals. All of this was bordered by fog supplied by unseen fog machines.

The next thing I noticed was there was enough food for a small country.

During the cocktail hour there was a full buffet with beef, pasta and salmon stations.

Most of us thought that this was the lunch, but no, this was only the warm-up.

When white-gloved waiters served the main meal, there was soup, salad, then a sorbet course (to cleanse the palate) and a choice of surf, turf or both (most guests took both).

A full dessert cart was wheeled in for the adults, and a make-your-own sundae bar was wheeled in for the swarm of still-hungry 13-year-olds.

I remember when someone asked me at the party what the theme of my bar mitzvah was, I innocently replied “Judaism.”

A small coda to the story … Many years later when I called my cousin Suzie to tell her that my mom had died and that the funeral service would be on Sunday, her response was: “Sunday? We have theater tickets.” I guess all that food had done something to her brain.

Lawrence Helman | San Francisco

Turkey day

You are 13, it’s the biggest day of your life, lots of pressure to perform, 120 sets of eyes locked on you and the one thing you fear the most happens. No, it is not that you will forget your Hebrew or that the cantor has laryngitis. Nor is it that you might giggle uncontrollably when making eye contact with Aaron, your older brother. You are well prepared and confident about everything!

It is wild turkeys. Yes, wild turkeys. The one thing you just don’t like. They make you cringe. They make you cover your eyes in terror. They are at your bar mitzvah. Only 30 feet away. Strutting around outside the large, panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows behind you. Could it be possible? You periodically glance behind you to see if they are still out there. They are! A whole flock of them. During the entire religious service.

You, Jason Farovitch, don’t let this fear deter you. Only your father and I know, and it was the bar mitzvah of your life!

Roberta Steiner | San Rafael

Kristallnacht memorial

Needless to say, my two grandsons’ bar mitzvahs were very special ones to me.

However, the most poignant bar mitvah for me took place in Germany in October 1988.

My husband and I were invited by his hometown, Karlsruhe, to visit there, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Eight hundred former residents of Karlsruhe were invited — 400 in October and 400 in November. Since it was an emotional happening at best, we chose not to go in November. We attended Shabbat services in the beautifully rebuilt synagogue (in the shape of a Magen David).

At the Torah service several of the guests were honored with aliyahs, especially one man from the United States. He was supposed to have his bar mitzvah the Shabbat after the synagogue was torched, and at his request he finally became a bar mitzvah. He read his portion, gave his speech and received the traditional gift of a siddur and a Kiddush cup.

There was not a dry eye in the synagogue; it was an event that I shall never forget.

Carolyn H. Vollmer | Hayward

Filling an empty place in my heart

From the time I was 7 to the age of 13, I went to (Hebrew school). Because I was raised in an Orthodox home, there was no celebration of my accomplishments as a girl student — and I could read faster than most of the boys, both in Hebrew and Yiddish.

It always left an empty place in my heart that I had not had a celebration for my accomplishments.

As adults my husband and I joined Temple Solael, a Reform temple in Woodland Hills, in 1970. At the same time Rabbi Bernard Cohen offered a b’nai mitzvah class and questioned each of us as to what we wanted from this class. I shared my feelings of not being complete and I guess not being acknowledged as a young girl student.

After six months of study and interpretation, my dream came true and I was honored in temple, with a party in my home with most of my friends and relatives in attendance.

So, a young Jewish girl was finally happy and complete to be acknowledged as an equal student.

Madelon Cohen | Brentwood

On a lark

When I learned an adult b’nai mitzvah class was starting at my synagogue, Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, I urged a young Torah study friend to enroll. She agreed on condition that I would, too.

Laughing, I dismissed that idea. My knowledge of Judaism, my ability to read, write and speak Hebrew were at kindergarten level. At 81, the idea of memorizing a new language, learning prayers and rituals and mastering parts of the Torah was daunting. But notified I was expected at the first meeting, I went along to see what it was like.

What began as a lark with 16 other people became a commitment that before long turned into something I dreaded on Saturday afternoons. In a few months I quietly resigned from the group. But a phone call from a class member in her 60s asking me to reconsider gave me thought. Talks with my two daughters and son gave me other points of view. I decided I could see this as a challenge.

So I rejoined the group, learned some about the Torah and Judaism and a lot about how much I don’t know.

On Sept. 13, 2003, wearing the tallis my children gave me, I stood with much awe and a bit of pride on the bimah, facing a packed sanctuary. Momentarily I panicked, but hearing my classmates, I chanted my portion and became a bat mitzvah.

Ruth Guthartz | El Cerrito

J. Staff