The Bar Mitzvah has evolved in 53 years, but the more it’s changed – and it has, big time – the more it’s stayed the same.
Back in those ancient times, there were fewer elaborate parties. Those that were held cost quite a bit less and they were planned by the parents, not event planners. It was nonetheless understood that some kind of social gathering would follow the morning service, an effort that required spending a lot of money outside of the normal household budget.
Remaining virtually unchanged since 1965, however, are the religious requirements that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah candidate has to go through: Attending Hebrew School, or a tutorial equivalent, is still considered essential, as is the somewhat lengthy process of studying so the student knows how to recite his or her maftir and haftarah.
That aspect was the same for me as it was for my older daughter in the months leading up to her July 18, 2009, Bat Mitzvah. She had it a bit tougher than her old man as she had to lead some of the service. Despite my six years of Hebrew School, I only had to learn my maftir and haftarah, Ekeb, from the Book of Isaiah. Full disclosure: the name had escaped me until I found my old orange study book.
My daughter, however, and I shared the same reaction to having finished our work on the bimah: sheer relief that it was all over. But that’s where the similarities ended.
Whereas her morning in the synagogue was followed by a catered brunch for congregants, family and friends, and a separate evening dinner/party for close friends and family at another venue, my celebration was fairly basic.
The “party” – far from today’s slick affairs, complete with a band or DJ, a guest entertainer, party favors and a whole lot of other “extras” that drive the price up to the equivalent of several mortgage payments – consisted of a post-Bar Mitzvah lunch at the synagogue. After that, family and friends gathered at our apartment less than a mile from the shul. There, I thanked people for their gifts – mostly U.S. savings bonds, which years later proved a nifty way to pay for college. Now those bonds won’t cover the meal plan at your chosen university.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a relaxing Bar Mitzvah afternoon at home.
I got sick – again.
That’s right: I had been ill less than two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah – an ear infection – and even though I had recovered enough to be able to handle the day’s duties, including giving a speech (“Ladies and gentlemen, today I am a fountain pen …”), the fates had other ideas.
I felt fine after returning home from shul, so well in fact that I ditched my Bar Mitzvah suit, changed into shorts and decided to shoot hoops in my backyard with my cousins and some friends while the grown-ups were busy noshing on the leftover knishes.
I worked up a good sweat in the August heat and suddenly I was wicked thirsty. So I poured the following liquids into a tall glass: Cherry Heering (which I later found out isn’t adult juice) and ginger ale.
I felt fine initially, but a couple of hours later, my face was redder than the Red Sox’ socks and I was burning up. After telling Sylvia, my mother, what I had consumed, she initially assumed a cause-and-effect equation, only to realize a little later that my horrid complexion wasn’t tied to the drink.
So Sylvia called our family doctor, which was possible in 1965. Not only did one physician care for all family members, from grandparents to newborns, but doctors once upon a time also made house calls. While not the Bronze Age, it was in the days before medical appointments were followed by wrangling vociferously with insurance providers to get the coverage you paid for – and before we were put on hold by insurance companies longer than it took our ancestors to cross the desert.
But I digress.
The physician, Dr. Robert Ober, arrived that Saturday night, and soon this conversation between patient and doctor ensued:
Doc: So, Larry, kissing girls again, I see. (I got that a lot from him.)
Me (in bed, with muted laughter): No, doc, I’m really sick.
Doc (taking temperature): You’ve got a 105 fever.
He determined my ear infection had returned, and then said what’s stuck with me all these years: The fact that I had downed Cherry Heering was a very good thing, because it helped me sweat out my fever.
It may not have been the most exciting Bar Mitzvah, but it was one that I’ve never forgotten – even if, a half-century later, I couldn’t remember the name of my haftarah portion.
LARRY KESSLER is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.