(This post includes many references to both Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions and paraphernalia. Rather then slow down the narrative with too many descriptions/definitions, I’ve loaded it with plenty of Wiki links to help keep all of us on the same page.)
Often, people mistakenly think I’m Jewish, which I’m sure has a lot to do with my Italian roots/looks. (They’re interchangeable, right?) Since my wife is Jewish (and therefore, so is my son), I’m frequently in Jew-heavy social circumstances. Here’s an extreme example of someone thinking I’m one of the Chosen: My son attended a Jewish pre-school, one that’s fairly observant. We all went to a Shabbat dinner one night (I believe it was a Friday), which included several Hassidic men praying, complete with tefillin, which are these little black boxes the men attach to themselves when praying, kinda like a leather Rubik’s Cube. One gentleman approached me with a smile and a spare tefillin, reaching for my arm to strap it on. I shook my head and said, “No thanks,” and his response was to nod knowingly and begin to strap it on my head! Here I was–suitless, beardless, and hatless–and this guy assumed I was a member of the tribe.
As I said, that’s an extreme example, and generally speaking, the confusion has never been a problem, per se, just a source of mild misunderstanding and amusement.
Last weekend I attended my first bar mitzvah and it was an education, believe me. It was for the son of one of my wife’s childhood friends, and it was at an Orthodox synagogue in Westchester. My wife, Debbie, was raised as a Conservative Jew (aka somewhat less rigid and observant), so a lot of the traditions and rules were foreign to her. And since they were foreign to her, you can imagine how I felt. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, I was like a (loaf and) fish out of water in that place.
According to tradition, men and women sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue, so as soon as Debbie and I entered the sanctuary, we split up. I was now flying without a net and tread cautiously into a pew. The moment I sat down, a few men instantaneously, albeit politely, pointed out that I was not wearing a yarmulke. Man, that’s Jew 101, and I started right away on the wrong foot.
The fact that I looked like I belonged made it more difficult. At one point when everyone was saying a prayer (in Hebrew), I just hummed along, and a nice gentleman handed me book so I could keep up. I gave a headshake, with a little stutter and gestured with my forefinger to my lips that he was mistaken, but since I was reflexively pulling a “Woody Allen” (right) I only looked more Jewish. Finally I took the book, opened it to pages and pages of Hebrew and did my best to learn on the spot. I couldn’t even figure out the page numbers (which were conventional Arabic numbers!). I gave up and started skimming the English sections for pointers; all I found was a passage where Moses reminded me that God’s punishment for a Jew marrying a gentile is to stone him to death. (Is this where I’m supposed to say, “Oy!”?)
I thought I could go with the flow, mimicking those around me, but the whole vibe was unusual to me. It was all very communal and relaxed, which is the opposite from what I remember of Catholic masses: no talking, sit still, kneel with your back straight, etc. Debbie says that because the services are so long (up to 3 hours), there’s a lot of latitude: there’s friendly conversation and people milling about, entering and leaving the sanctuary. To me it resembled jury duty, with everyone wandering around, killing time. For example, two guys next to me were talking about a trip to Vegas, their voices at a normal register. Man, if I had pulled a stunt like that in Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Jesus Christ himself would have climbed down from the cross to slap my wrists.
My favorite part, however—the portion of the ceremony that prompted this post—was the bar mitzvah boy’s speech to the congregation. He nervously raced through it, like all good 13 years olds do—regardless of their religion—and barely looked up from his notes. But what he said was equal parts history, tradition, gratitude, and humor, and it had “Today I am a man” written all over it. It was marvelous to watch.
Y’see, when I was thirteen, I received the holy sacrament of confirmation, which is a joke. Ostensibly, it’s the moment when a young boy or girl receives the Holy Ghost (aka the Silent Partner of the Christian Holy Trinity), but it’s more like a poor man’s bar mitzvah, something Christians cobbled together to compete with the Jews in the next town over. I was confirmed with my classmates simultaneously, all of us presumably receiving the Holy Ghost at the same moment, which is akin to a Sun Myung Moon mass wedding. What little I could remember of it was, honestly, lame, forgettable and faceless. Nothing about it felt like a rite of passage.
Look, I don’t mean to refute my Christian upbringing, but let’s face it: the Catholic church hit me up with eight years of weekly masses and religious class in school five days a week and what did they get for their efforts?
I’m now an agnostic who married a Jew. (Well played, nuns. Jehovah 1, Jesus 0.)
A post wouldn’t be complete without some popular culture, right? In the fifth season of The Dick Van Dyke Show show, creator Carl Reiner decided to treat most of middle America to its first bar mitzvah.
In a 1966 episode called “Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy,” comedy writer Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), at age 58, takes lessons so he can finally be bar mitzvahed. The conceit is that when Buddy was 13 he was too poor to have one but now he wants to have it for his mother’s sake.
My favorite moment comes when Buddy’s lesson is ending, just as another student’s is beginning. Listen to the football joke at the end of this clip and pay close attention to the studio audience’s reaction…
Most of the audience doesn’t get it; those that do need a long moment to process it; and what laughter we hear sounds like, “I can’t believe they just made that joke!” (The Dick Van Dyke show is rich with moments like these: intelligent punchlines followed by pregnant pauses and then genuine, heartfelt laughter.)
The episode ends with Buddy’s service, which made TV history as it was the first time a series regular was bar mitzvahed onscreen. Not surprisingly, Buddy’s speech resembles what I heard last weekend.
Debbie watched this with her jaw on the floor. She kept saying, “What did people make of this!?” We were probably underestimating America’s intelligence; hell, I’m sure a lot of the 1966 audience had seen The Jazz Singer, fer cryin’ out loud. But I’m way impressed that Carl Reiner put a kippah on Dick Van Dyke’s head.