Bar Mitzvah Presence


PROVIDENCE – At my bar mitzvah in 1946 – the first postwar year at Temple Emanu-El – the front row guest, in splendid finery and feathers, looking at me beside the pulpit, was my sort-of grandmother.

Clara wasn’t quite my grandmother.  Perhaps more than that, or maybe less than that.  She was the second wife of Harry, my father’s father.  Clara’s niece met Harry’s son, so my mother and father met as first cousins by marriage and, in time, I was born.

Clara was a formative figure in my destiny.  She was always “Auntie” to my mom and was both a stepmother and the closest thing to a mother-in-law to my dad.  Their homestead, at the top of my hillside, was all I knew of genealogy and ancestry.  Yes, there were also two lost grandmothers from each branch, but Clara symbolized both “sides” of my roots.

And how did she fit into my boyhood routine?  Well, for one thing, she was no bubbe.  She baked ordinary American chocolate cupcakes, not knishes or other exotic delicacies.  For another, she taught us proper manners at the start of the era of casual behavior in the U.S.  She always left something upon her plate when she came for tea or for cards and dinner on Sundays.  “You should never appear to need more and never ask for a second serving.  Wait until asked, never demand.”

Clara was proud of her mysterious background.  She kept many photographs, and even paintings, of her glamorous youth.  She enjoyed showing off to me if I stopped by on my way home from the nearby grammar school for a quick cupcake treat as well as a visit to the canary or the goldfish in the little den with its wicker furniture.  She would take out the album of images of her Gibson Girl past.  I never quite understood her pride in her appearance.  As children, we accept the standards of beauty set before us on screen and upon the pages of popular magazines.  That “beehive” figure held no allure for me, except for my respect for the intimidating presence of Clara herself.

Sometimes I would see her at the local cinema, the Hope Theatre, or at the town beach in Narragansett.  As I grew up, I grew away, but in my heart I sympathized with her plight and her innate dignity.

Another significant facet of the Clara phenomenon was her artistic flair and craftsman competence.  Her younger child and only son, Herbert, was a renowned artist and was born with skillful fingers.  He fashioned my toys, painted murals on the walls of our playroom basement and, later in our shared history, created my lifelong career at the Rhode Island School of Design, using his reputation for talent to promote me as a writer and speaker.  He depicted his mother in his printmaking and portraiture work as she looked when young and wrote me descriptions of her character as a mother.  He defended her from her family foes with his filial respect and affection – never merely sentimental, but admiring, not adoring.  “A simple, straightforward country woman!” he once penned in a letter to me. He intended those words not scornfully, but rather in awe of her independence and competence, traits he perhaps inherited from her.  As her fortunes and family declined, and the castle in which she reigned also diminished, she withdrew.  I recall the day of her funeral and my mother’s tears of regret that, toward the end, we had neglected to pay her adequate court.

My mother and her Canadian sisters remembered her elegance of long ago and visited her formally whenever the opportunity arose.  Another, and major, aspect of my deep interest in Clara and her legacy was that she kept in touch with our Rumanian relatives, before, and during, the dreadful years of the thirties and forties.  Vague and cloudy though the memory may be, I do recall that when she realized that her correspondence with Bucharest and Podu Iloaiei  had ended horribly, she turned away from me and wept quietly on the small, short sofa in that sunroom with its plants and its canary and its jar of goldfish.   There was nothing noble, distinguished or intimately personal – that I knew of – about the extended family left behind in East Europe.  There was, for me, just the devotion of Clara to our connection to generations past and away, bygone and tragic.  She had the flag in her window that gave me the pride of having a close relative fighting the war for liberation and rescue.  She had the sepia postcards with the letters in Hebrew, Yiddish and Rumanian, and a few words in English. And she had the tapestry with her initials “C.C.,” for Clara Cohen, surrounded by roses and peacocks and kept both above and upon the grand piano in the parlor. All objects that I now own. They mutely witness a lonely life, a difficult sojourn in my neighborhood and all I truly have as a Jewish heritage.

Mike Fink ( is an English professor at RISD and writes a regular column for The Jewish Voice.