Religion & Beliefs

My Big Fat Hassidic Bar Mitzvah

It’s 1979. I’m high in the air. For a split second I look down and below me are ten dark men with large hats and larger beards. I come down into their arms, safe, and they toss me up again, … Read More

By / May 6, 2008

It’s 1979. I’m high in the air. For a split second I look down and below me are ten dark men with large hats and larger beards. I come down into their arms, safe, and they toss me up again, smiling, laughing, shouting. I have been in this room with them for less than an hour, yet they are tossing me around as if I was their own son. I spot my mother peeking out from behind a long white sheet that cuts the room in half. She winks at me.

It’s my bar mitzvah, and I’m a Reform-raised thirteen-year-old in the house of a Hassidic rabbi in Florida. I’m watching myself take to the air as if powered by some esoteric magical spell. I know this is happening, but something about it is quite unreal, like the fantasy world I have been designing in my room with ten- and twenty-sided dice.

* * *

The rabbi’s home was a quiet, dark enclosure filled with the wafting smell of fruit punch and cleaning fluid. The television was up on top of a high shelf crowded with books. The TV could not be really watched from that height, but it still wasn’t exactly hidden, suggesting it had some use. Later my father told me that the Hassidic men in the community would gather at the rabbi’s house to watch the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, then the messianic leader of the Lubavitch sect of Hassidic Judaism, address his followers over cable access.

There were three of us that came every Sunday morning to this Miami Chabad house, each of us twelve, preparing for our bar mitzvahs. The house was an island floating in an ocean of strip malls, country clubs, gated communities and swamps. I never asked myself what I was doing here. This was like nothing I had ever known, an expression of Judaism as foreign to me as Israel. Yet, there was something familiar, something in the preparation and practice that, like a magnet, pulled me into its center.

Still, every time I asked what it might all mean, the rabbi gave me quick and infuriating answers. I begged to be shown that what we were doing here on these Sunday mornings was something I could take home with me. I wanted this Jewishness, his Jewishness, so different from my own, filled with mystery, arcane secrets, knowledge. My home was too much in the goysiche world, I knew, despite the other lovely Jewish families on our block. It was a world where I was learning biology and Shakespeare, reading my older brother’s dirty magazines, watching Doctor Who, and eating ham and cheese sandwiches. (At least they were on rye.) It was nothing like the home of the rabbi. But to the rabbi, I was an alien: a pork-eating Jew who didn’t know Hebrew.

When it came time for my parents to decide what to do about my bar mitzvah they needed to act quickly. We had just moved to Florida from Massachusetts and didn’t belong to a synagogue, so our options were to the Chabad house in nearby Miami. After a few phone calls, Rabbi B., a leader in the community, agreed to teach me on Sunday mornings. The bar mitzvah itself would then be performed in his home, which doubled as a place of community worship and prayer. My parents knew that this was not the Judaism of our own home. Still, they seemed to hope I might find something to relieve my private anxiety. They also might have had some regret and guilt for not having a more traditionally Jewish home. The other extreme, if only for a year, must have felt like a mitzvah.

Rabbi Borowitz was a large man, with broad shoulders and arms like pillars. But he never seemed weighed down, at least not by his own body. He was jubilant and patient, but he had no time for anything outside our studies. That year Steve Martin had gone on stage in bunny ears and exclaimed, “Well, excuse me!” Once when reading from a text, the rabbi remarked the meaning of slichah, “excuse me.” I kept disrupting our study session with outbursts of “Well, slichah!” in my best Martin voice. Rabbi Borowitz never once laughed. He didn’t have any idea what I was referring to. He also never asked.

No matter the rabbi’s selective ignorance of 1970s American culture, I still believed he knew something I didn’t—that he walked in two worlds, the one where he taught me the aleph-bet and another where he knew the real power of the letters, and what power could be wrought through their correct permutations. I wanted to know how these two worlds spoke to each other, what the common language might be. We read from Genesis, and while I knew it was myth, I also believed that myth stood for something real. Myth was the language of the numinous, a bridge from what was secret to what could be known. I couldn’t have put it into such words at the time, but my insides were on fire with a desire to glean secrets from the other side, looking for answers to the riddle of my restless soul.

Rabbi Borowitz reeked with God’s potent charm. This was a rabbi who purposefully kept the family television just out of each, who kept the lights in his home only bright enough to read in. This was a rabbi who prayed, who really tried to speak to God, a word he wrote only as “G-D.”

I had been going to the rabbi’s home on weeknights during the few weeks leading up to the day. I even had him recite my blessings into a tape recorder that then I played back over and over again, memorizing the sounds, not the content, until it became perfect music in my head: “Baruch ata adanoi…” It was theurgy, where mysticism becomes magic.

I knew enough about wizards and sorcerers from fantasy novels and Dungeons and Dragons to know that language was where power resided. There are legends of Jewish mystics who try to gain access to the various levels of heaven. At every step, fearsome angels bar their ways. The only way for the mystics to gain power over these creatures is to learn their secret names. Once they do, the mystics become magicians, wielding power rather than just hoping to know God. I wanted this kind of experience. I believed in these other worlds, but I didn’t want to encounter them to become one with God. I wanted power, a power over my anxiety, over my awkwardness in the world, over the world of adults where I didn’t belong. And so I learned the Hebrew—without knowing what it meant or why I had to say it—because I thought it could open some door to a world only my rabbi could see.

The morning of my bar mitzvah, I woke early, feeling a bit uneasy, but also excited. Whatever had been hidden during my studies on Sunday mornings would certainly be revealed on this day. I got dressed in my blue suit. In the kitchen, my father greeted me with a gift. I knew what it was before I even opened it, something I had wanted for so long: a digital watch. It was a Seiko, with a liquid crystal display, chronograph, alarm, with the date and day in tiny letters on the face. It was beautiful.

And it didn’t fit.

The band was made for an adult, and although my father promised that he would get me the right size, I started the day defeated. Whatever magical knowledge or experience that was being offered to me by Rabbi Borowitz and my family was lost.

My brother had it made. He was bar mitzvahed in high suburban style in a little Reform synagogue in the suburbs off the Massachusetts turnpike. Uncles and aunts from all over the country were there, with little envelopes and kisses. And they shmoozed and had a few drinks and my brother giggled with his friends, hundreds and hundreds of friends, it seemed. Everyone danced into the late hours of the afternoon.

Seven years later, at my own bar mitzvah, none of my friends were there.

At the rabbi’s home my family was greeted by the rabbi’s wife and children. She led my mother and sisters into another part of the main room behind a long white curtain that had been affixed to create a separation. These are the kinds of surprises they should have let me in on during my bar mitzvah training. None of my friends were around; I would not be getting wads of money like my brother had at his bar mitzvah; and my mother, grandmother, and sisters were going to be hidden away. What little control I thought I might have over all this was quickly being taken from me. Once I could no longer see my mother, I tried to cling to my father, but he was lost in the sea of all these other men, none of whom—except for Rabbi Borowitz—I had ever seen before. They all looked the same, elders of a society to which I didn’t belong. But here they were allowing me a glimpse.

I was led to the front of a room where I met another rabbi who looked just as I imagined Tolkien’s Gandalf would. He unrolled a torah scroll and placed in my hand a remarkable object. The yad, or torah pointer, is a thin rod of silver, about the length of a fork. At the end is a tiny hand with its pointer extended. With the yad, you point to the torah without having to touch the scroll. I was then instructed to recite my “portion,” and the wizened rabbi held my wrist and guided my hand holding the yad across the torah. I tried to read the Hebrew, as it was, with no vowels, nothing like the Hebrew I had been taught on those Sunday mornings. I could barely get through, feeling more and more a separation between myself and whatever these rabbis felt was happening.

These old world Jews here in very contemporary Miami were not Jewish in the same way I was. My Judaism was suburban, a Judaism that had left its Jewishness mostly behind. Even more than that, though, I was separated from these men because of God. For them, this was a time of worship to a God with whom their relationships were intimate. For me, God was a vague sense of otherworldliness, something that haunted me. The God I believed was something hidden, a private thing to wrestle with while I tried not to fall asleep.

I was sweating, my hands were shaking, and I couldn’t see my mother. She was the only one of us who knew anything about any of this. I had watched her light the Friday night candles, watched her go into a trance of sorts, her palms resting over her eyes, the candle flames rising up, straining, to meet them. She knew the secret.

When it was over, I thought I would be allowed to sit down. I badly needed to. But then there was singing, and all the men got into a circle and lifted me up, tossed me around with such joy, that for a moment, I felt like an honored guest. These men were so utterly happy, as if they had witnessed something miraculous, something that had transformed them and me.

I wanted to feel this change, wanted to believe I was now a man. But the watch didn’t fit. I was proud that I had at least gotten through it, but I was still afraid of the other, hidden reality. This other world had not appeared as I had hoped. Instead, as the men chatted and ate, and my mother and sisters continued to peek out from behind the curtain, my rabbi led my father and me over to a table of drinks. He poured some vodka into a shot glass and said, “You’re a man now.” I tossed back the vodka as he and my father laughed. It went down hard, burning all the way.

Afterwards, the rabbi and his wife would visit our house in the hopes we would join them for Shabbat, or that I would continue to study with him. My father would quickly but politely close the door, and that was that. Later, in my twenties, when I was struggling to identify as a Jew, I wished I had been a different kind of boy. Being secular didn’t make us worldly so much as it cut us off from experience. This is the problem with the secular fear of religion: It doesn’t believe it can participate in any way that wouldn’t be a compromise. But my family didn’t have to compromise anything. In fact, it was the rabbi that made the compromise, to bar mitzvah a boy he knew would likely never return.