When 12-year-old Norm Simmons was getting ready to ascend the bimah for his bar mitzvah at London’s Brixton Synagogue, the day didn’t feel very festive. It was June 1944. World War II was raging. His father was in southern England awaiting orders to see if the British army would cross the Channel.
It was three days before D-Day, when more than 160,000 Allied troops would land in Normandy, France, to fight Hitler, and most of Simmons’ family had fled London.
“It was only my mother and I, and we were getting ready to go to shul,” said Simmons, 83, from his home in Los Altos. “But I couldn’t find my kippah, so my mum ripped a piece of black felt lining from her hat and cut it in a circle for me to wear to my bar mitzvah.”
He kept that small piece of fabric in a box for more than 70 years until this summer, when he brought it out to wear at his second bar mitzvah at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto on Aug. 16.
“I was so relaxed this time around,” mused Simmons. “About 300 people were in attendance, and the jokes kept coming. The whole congregation was sitting on the edge of their seats; everyone thought it was a wonderful thing.”
Simmons says the experience, from the preparations to the ceremony, helped to re-establish his belief in God. But a bar mitzvah do-over wasn’t something he’d ever anticipated. In fact, he stopped affiliating with Judaism after his bar mitzvah in 1944.
“Except for marrying a Jewish woman and having three Jewish sons, I didn’t consider God a viable part of my life,” Simmons said. “I wasn’t an atheist, but more of an agnostic.”
But after the death of his second wife in 2010, he felt lost and took a trip to Rome with his three sons. There he had an epiphany. “It was the first time I had been in the Sistine Chapel without scaffolding because they had been cleaning it for 55 years, and it took my breath away,” he recalled.
“Here I was, a Jew in a Catholic church, and not only did I have a distinct feeling of the presence of God, but with the sun streaming through the stained-glass windows, I felt my wife and God were saying, ‘Norm, this is it.’ ”
When Simmons returned to California, he took a tour of synagogues. For the first time in his adult life, he joined a congregation.
With the help of Kol Emeth’s Rabbi David Booth and b’nai mitzvah educator Jeff Schwartz, Simmons studied three times a week, diligently relearning his long-lost Hebrew and prayers, to prepare for the big day.
“I’d have all my books laid out on my kitchen table, and every time I walked through the room, I’d spend a few minutes practicing,” he said. Simmons estimated he spent hundreds of hours over the course of 11 months studying prayerbooks and the Torah for the Conservative ceremony.
“He came back to Judaism like gangbusters and become a wonderful member of the community,” said Schwartz. “Norm was a different kind of student than I normally have because he did all of his homework and was very motivated. He’s got a great sense of humor and wanted to do everything just right. I learned just as much from him as he did from me.”
This time around, Simmons decided to do his bar mitzvah a bit differently. “Of course it’s going to be different, because I did it 70 years after you normally do,” he said.
“I made up a new tradition. I asked the entire Kol Emeth senior choir to join me up on the bimah, so we had about 30 seniors join me in song.” The entire event, which Simmons posted on YouTube, lasted over 3 1/2 hours in a sanctuary packed with congregants and family members.
What’s next? “Learning conversational Hebrew,” the sharp-witted Simmons answers quickly — because that will help when he has his next bar mitzvah in 12 years, as he plans to continue the trend of repeating the ritual.
“I don’t know if God will give me that amount of time, but that’s what I’m planning on,” he said. “Because now I’m a believer in God.”