Monday, October 5, 2009

My (sort of) Fourteenth-Century Bar Mitzvah

And so it came to pass that on the 27th day of Tishri in the year 5725, young Stephen ben Kenneth ben Edward ben Morris ben Aaron of the House of Gertz (formerly Gershowitz, “Horse Traders to the Czar Since 1826”), who dwelt in the land of Queens in the province of New Judea also known as La Ciudad de Nueva York, reached his majority and was accepted into the congregation as a man because God, blessed be He who bestows savings bonds, apparently figures that when a boy’s sperm squad is mature enough for successful reconnaissance and friendly fire that’s all He needs to know, the kid’s man enough to read from the Torah, lead the congregation, or at least form a minyan.

And so the children of the Lord, three of ‘em because the Baby Boom had produced a bumper crop of thirteen year olds in 1964 and the bimah couldn't bear only one at a time, led the congregation, so Reform that the temple closed for the High Holy Days, in responsive reading, and recited the haftorah. Hijinks, monkeys shines, boisterous behavior wrought by the spiking of hormones and the ring of circumcised flesh rarin’ to go yet with rare, yea non-existent, opportunity to do so, and Borscht Belt humor were temporarily suppressed for the occasion. But barely so.

And lo! Verily, a 13 year old rabbi walks into a bar with a Torah on his head, and the bartender says...

Because I was the Chosen One. my theme of choice for the reception was David Enters Jerusalem. Accompanied by the beating of timbals and the ululating of nubile adolescent Jewesses, I would strip myself of black Barney’s Boy’s Town bar mitzvah suit, shoes and socks, and dance naked through throngs of friends and family members drunk with joy and Mogen David dregs of the vine while my mother wore mourning ashes and sackcloth, for her little boychick was no longer a boy, he was a man, bait for girls that would get him into trouble, and no longer hers.

That tableau didn’t fly with the folks.

My alternative was Julius Caesar Enters Rome Triumphant after defeating the Verbigeni, Tulingi, Latobrigi, Rauraci, and Boii tribes of the Helvetii during the Gallic War. I would be carried in on a litter by Nubian attendants, young Gallic mademoiselles in the van spreading flower petals, while an ancient ancestor of Catherine Deneuve peeled grapes and coquettishly placed them upon my awaiting tongue.

The ears that greeted that scenario were never deafer to my pleas.

The party wound up being held at Tavern On the Green, a very elegant and atmospheric eatery in New York City’s Central Park.

It was a small, low-key affair with only immediate family and friends in attendance, in contrast to the elaborate extravaganzas held at local catering halls that were the contemporary standard; all my friends’ receptions were like the wedding party in Goodfellas but without the scungilli, Petes, Paulies and Maries.

Commemorative kipas were routinely distributed; I still have one from Albert Shemtob’s bash, a pastel powder blue satin yarmulke with the inner white linen gilt-stamped with his name and bar mitzvah date. I sort of felt like I got shorted. Turns out, my parents’ restraint was admirable, like the old days, adjusted for inflation.

Bar mitzvah receptions have evolved from the already excessive 1960s baseline into wild, over the top affairs. I was reminded of this when, on a recent retreat into the Booktryst bunker beneath Devil’s Tower, I came across Bar Mitzvah Disco (2006), a paean to '70s and '80s bad taste as applied to religious coming of age ceremonies, the Jewish junior Miami Vice squad, and tuxedos in pastel hues. It’s like a bunch of pre-adolescent Ashkenazim dropped acid, donned Armani, danced the hora, and wore Ray-Bans while Man Ray photographed the proceedings during a psychotic episode.

I couldn’t help but wonder - just as I know you are now - if that’s what your average, fourteenth-century bar mitzvah was like.

Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe by Ivan G. Marcus provides insight.

“...the bar mitzvah ritual seems to have gradually developed in Germany during the late Middle Ages. It marked the new transition between childhood, when certain religious rites were no longer permitted, and religious adulthood, when they were expected.”

The ritual traveled to Poland where it replaced a religious school initiation and became a public ceremony in the synagogue, a rather simple, straightforward event. The fully-developed rite does not appear until Renaissance Italy but the festive celebratory meal afterward is rooted in medieval Germany.

How that festive German celebration turned into the modern bar mitzvah Oktoberfest saturnalia la dolce vita demonstration of excessive materialism is pretty much the story of the rise of American Jewry, specifically that of German-American Jews who shepherded their Eastern European brethren into the mainstream. These Ashkenazim aspired to keep up with the Kleins, and now Yankee Stadium is available for bar mitzvahs. The average bar mitzvah in New York now costs $15,000 to $20,000; big machers will spend over $500,000.

There’s a lot to atone for.

So it would not be a bad idea to stroll over to the Grolier Club, which is now hosting an astonishing exhibition, The Pursuit of Knowledge, organized by Leipzig University Library to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Leipzig University. Few exhibitions in the Grolier Club’s history have featured books of such interest and splendor. Chief among the treasures on display are two leaves from the oldest complete Bible manuscript in existence, the Codex Sinaiticus (ca. 350), the Mongolian Koran (1306), and the Machsor Lipsiae (1320), one of the most beautiful examples of medieval bookmaking, and one of the most magnificently illuminated Hebrew liturgical manuscripts in existence. The Machsor was produced in the early fourteenth century in southern Germany.

It is displayed at the Grolier Club opened to a lavishly illuminated leaf illustrating the beginning of the Mincha prayer for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of atonement.


There is one aspect of the bar mitzvah reception as yet unexamined by academics and religious scholars, that of the malignant role of the bar mitzvah painters, later photographers, who, cruelly and with undisguised glee, have, over the centuries, compelled bar mitzvah boys to pose for compositions that have evolved into boilerplate standards guaranteed to embarrass at the time and forever afterward.

I refer specifically to Boychick Meditates on the Solemnity of the Occasion, and Goofy Tableau of Nonplussed Bar Mitzvah Boy Kissed on Each Cheek by Girls of His Acquaintance While Dying of Embarrassment. I include my own Meditations of a 13 Yr Old Waiting for This to Be Over as today’s header image. I planned on including Girls Kiss Me So Today I Must Truly Be a Man but I could not bear posting that testament to withering testicles that, having earlier fully descended, in an instant whooshed back up into hiding leaving an empty bag that I’d have gladly put over my head like a felon dodging courthouse papparazzi had the fit been less snug around the ears.

On Yom Kippur, Jews beseech God to forgive their sins against Him; if you’ve sinned against a mortal, you must ask them for forgiveness.

Forty-five years later, I still haven’t heard from the photographer.


In Pursuit of Knowledge will be on view at the Grolier Club from Sept. 10 – Nov. 21, 2009, except for Oct. 17, when the Club will be closed. Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM. Open to the public free of charge.

Liepzig University Library has produced a video about the Machsor Lipsiae that you should really take a look at.

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