Back in 1968 I was in 7th grade. It was a pivotal year in many ways. 7th grade meant leaving elementary school and going to junior high school. I would no longer be sitting in one classroom all day. Now I would change classes for each subject. These were the big leagues; and I was on the precipice of teen-hood.....just one training bra away from womanhood. Junior high had the day broken up into multiple periods for each and every subject. Bells would mark the end of one class and then another bell marked the beginning of the next. All of the shuffling through the halls would occur with a stack of books under one arm and a pocketbook on the other wrist. I had rehearsed the "one arm book hold" from the very first time i saw Sandra Dee do it. My greatest aspiration was to be a teenager! Having an older sister and two older brothers, i had taken careful mental notes.Now I was entering junior high school and it was my turn to be Gidget.
The first stop into "Teendom" would be the Bar and Bat Mitzvah circuit. I had enviously watched my sister when she was 13 as she readied herself for all of the fabulous parties. They were formal affairs or creative theme parties. My favorite party that I wished i had been invited to was a cowboy themed "Barn-Mitzvah" The invitation came on yellowed card stock, with type looking like a wanted poster. There was a small card with information that had a loop of twine holding a very tiny six-gun revolver.
I would sit in Roberta's room as she teased her hair into a poofy crown and then place a small velvet bow, in an indent between the poof and her bangs. Then she would select a party dress and slide on hose that attached to her garter belt. I yearned for the day i would no longer wear socks or patent leather maryjanes.
I had never been one to put a lot of effort into things. I wanted to be good at ventures, but never liked involving myself with either, practice or study. I took up violin in the school orchestra solely for the cool factor of walking through the school halls carrying an instrument. I can honestly say, i never, ever practiced. The orchestra leader had no choice but to show me the door, ending my chances of becoming the next Yehudi Menuhin. Then there was the time my parents had me take piano lessons. We had a magnificent baby grand in our living room that i never touched. At the year end recital, I sat at at the piano, played one note, looked out at the audience, then got up and ran out of the building and all the way home.
Now, my lack of effort was going to be directed at my Bat Mitzvah lessons. By 7th grade, i was in my 5th year of Hebrew "studies". The word "studies" is in quotations because in those 5, I had Hebrew school for 2 hours twice a week in the afternoons, Sunday school, Saturday Jr Congregation, and yet, i managed to only learn the letters Alef and Bet. For those of you who are also not Hebrew scholars, there is apparently an entire alphabet that follows those two letters. With my impending Bat Mitzvah looming over me, never learning Hebrew was certain to be a problem.
One after the next, all of my Hebrew school classmates were Bar Mitzvahed. I was the youngest in my class, making mine the last. With each one the ante was raised. This was not just a rite of passage, there was a lot of one-up-manship.
During this time, i was not the only Kabat celebrating an important life event. My brother, Lee, became engaged to his college sweetheart. He was the handsome guy that was the country club life guard. She was the 6 foot, model bodied blond. They had that "it" quality. They weren't exactly the couple with whom i wanted to share the spotlight.
For convenience and economy, my mother thought it would be a terrific idea to combine the two events in a one week Kabat extravaganza. The week of Christmas was selected since all of our relatives had nothing to do and nowhere to go. While all of the rest of the world celebrated the Christ child's birth, we would have a Jewish Jamboree. All of our relatives could come from the New York tri-state area. We offered them two fabulous affairs with only one fare south....what a deal!! They would all come, my Long Island cousins with all of their children, my great aunts with their freshly blued hair and ample bosoms, my elegant uncles, my fat grandfather who smelled of cheap cigars and herring, and all the rest of the cast of "Goodbye Columbus".
|All of the family was there|
Everyone came to Greensboro, then we all drove together in cars packed like circus clowns to Sumter, South Carolina for my brothers wedding. Not since Moses lead the slaves out of Egypt had there been such a Semitic spectacle. Car after car, on winding two lane highways, the extended family found our way to this small southern town. Sumter was completely unprepared for the likes of us.
The brides mother was a southern Jew, complete with a refined southern accent and elegant, WASPified mannerisms. She politely greeted us at the hotel and said that there were very few restaurants in town...especially being Christmas Eve, so the pre-bridal luncheon would be at a small truck stop. My relatives all chuckled at her droll sense of humor. When we arrived at the luncheon and saw that it was indeed in a building behind a gas station all conversation stopped......but only briefly.
The wedding was a lovely affair at the Sumter Holiday Inn. It was the finest establishment that could....or would....be available for a Jewish wedding on Christmas day. The bride was beautiful, my brother was handsome, everything was perfect. The morning after, we all loaded once again into our caravan and headed back to Greensboro for my Bat Mitzvah.
The excitement of the wedding and my duties as junior bridesmaid kept me from thinking about my own ceremony. Driving toward Greensboro, i sat in the back of my father's Cadillac, and it occurred to me that i hadn't studied for my Bat Mitzvah that week. Even more troubling, it also occurred to me, that i hadn't studied at any time during the last year. The realization that i did not learn my Haftorah was now water over the dam. I had exactly 48 hours to learn 13 years worth of Baruch Atah Adonais.
|My mother inscribed the wrong date|
Back in Greensboro, the following days were a flurry of beauty parlor appointments and last minute dress alterations. On Friday morning my father started to complain that he wasn't feeling well. By the time we needed to get dressed to leave for Friday night services, he said he was too sick to go. My father apologized and said that he needed to go to bed so that he would be better for the important Saturday service. I don't have a strong memory of this moment, but i have never been someone who handled disappointment well. I am sure i gave my father a dose of guilt making him feel even sicker. The guilt I served up made my mother nod with appreciation that i had indeed become a Jewish woman that evening.
Usually the Bat Mitzvah girl would lead the Friday night service, but the Rabbi and my teacher had long given up the hope of me being able to do that. They had me read a few English responsive reading passages. There seemed to be a murmur in the congregation as they noticed my lack of Hebrew participation. I felt their disapproval, but as long as they sent me a good gift, i didn't care what they were muttering!
|Wearing the bridesmaid dress for my Bat Mitzvah portrait|
Saturday morning, my father awoke with a raging fever and a case of full blown flu. He was going to miss my Bat Mitzvah....i couldn't believe it!! His dear friend Al sat beside me on the bima, where my father should have been. I led the few prayers that the Rabbi had hastily transliterated for me in his final act of resignation. Even with that, i stumbled over the words . Then, my Haftorah...it was a mangled amalgamation of sounds that had little to do with Hebrew...or any known language on our planet.Most of the congregation and guests didn't really know what it should have sounded like, but it was clear to all, by the expressions on the faces of my instructor and Rabbi, i wasn't even close. The two men shot glances at each other over the opened scrolls. It seemed like i had struck a terrible blow against all Judaism...i had committed "Haftorah Holocaust "
It was as if my mother psychically knew that this was going to be the worst Bat Mitzvah in all chronicles of Beth David Synagogue's history. With this in mind, she planned the most second rate party ever. My two older brothers and sister had beautiful receptions. Unfortunately, with all of the planning and excitement of my brother's wedding, who had time to organize a decent luncheon? Not my mother, that's for sure! It was downstairs in the basement of our old shabby synagogue. Tuna salad and Lender's bagels, ginger ale and sherbet punch, Mogen David concord wine and stale, week old Challah brought down from New York by my cousins.The one detail my mother took care of was hiring an accordion player. ...........yes, an accordion player!
Every child in our congregation would give a speech at their Bar Mitzvah luncheons. It was supposedly written by them, but was almost, without fail, written by a parent. My father wrote a fabulous one for my sister, complete with stage notes in parenthesis saying (look up), (pause), (speak slowly). He did not write one for me, after all this is the same father who didn't even come to my Bat Mitzvah! It never dawned on me to write one for myself...what, with all of the studying for the service that I was not doing, I was entirely swamped! Therefore, in between bites of my bagel, I composed a speech. One of my friends and i worked on it and thought we had just the perfect amount of sincerity and humor that was called for on this important day. As everyone ate their sub par kosher meal, I stood up and thanked everyone for coming. I also thanked everyone for their thoughtful and generous gifts. After that, I picked up my knife from my place setting, waved it furiously in the air, then thrust it forward saying, "and for those of you who haven't gotten me a gift...I KNOW WHO YOU ARE!!! Anticipating howls of laughter, i looked out at the tables of people who stared back at me looking like they were posing for Edvard Munch's "The Scream".
Lunch ended and we returned home. My final memory was of my mother telling my father how lucky he was to have been sick
|A Bit of Herring|