Tintin did not want a Bar Mitzvah ceremony; a typical starting point for most of his life endeavors to date. The risks of standing in front of an audience and not giving a perfect performance outweighed the benefits. To us it was simply a matter of getting ahead of him in the negotiations, finding a win-win compromise which would put his cunning young mind at ease and satisfy tradition and provide substantial financial rewards. Starting a year ahead of time, Ima timed the debates over the issue at monthly intervals. Months into the debate Tintin conceded to have the ceremony ‘as long as its not hundreds of people’ which was his shrewd way of saying ‘no’ given the size of the synagogues in the valley. As family history shows, no child of ours ever threw into the spokes of the wheels of history a monkey wrench which Ima could not unlatch. If Tintin would not allow himself to be stripped of his dignity by hundreds of pairs of eyes at ‘Beth David’, ‘Temple Emanuel’ or the ‘Hebrew Day School’ synagogues, so be it Ima turned to Habbad. By the time it was all said and done Tintin had less than eight weeks to prepare. A few short meetings with a Rabbi, long hours in our bed with Ima reading and reciting blessings, maftir and haftarah, ups and downs, smiles and frowns, days of hope, days of despair, ‘Can’t you see I’m not prepared!…’ We had another Bar Mitzvah in the air and it would be during Passover.
The Habbad synagogue is small and cozy camouflaged as an office in an aging two story condominium on Sunnyvale road between Fremont and Remington Avenues. Locating a synagogue in an office complex is Habbad’s way of acknowledging the times: people just don’t take time off to pray anymore, perhaps if they could worship while they stop by to take care of something else. And so one can visit a dentist on the floor above or get some tax consulting across the hall. To turn the two offices that it was into a place of worship all of the interior walls were moved to one room, creating a single confined area with a walk-in space, a small office in the back and a storage room to the left, all three crammed into a space smaller than a common kitchen. A small table with a basket of Kipots (prayer caps) stands next to the entrance. You need the head gear to enter; you can pick up the rest of the worshiping equipment once inside the prayer room. The prayer room is the size of a king size bedroom. Office windows that rise from the floor to the ceiling are located in the corners of the room, covered by graceless-yet- functional blinds made of aluminum strips. The floor is covered with an industrial bluish-green carpet which over time built its own odor and character. Whoever chose the carpet did not want the worshipers to pay attention to the floor. Neon lights stationed at regular intervals between grayish ceiling panels shine white light at the carpet. Three rows of simple reception seats face the fro nt of the room. What used to be a six-panel sliding door of a walk-in closet zigzags down an Aisle symbolically separating the seats into two groups the left for woman and the right for men. Bookshelves with Sidurs (prayer books) and Talits (prayer shawls) stand against the back wall behind the seats. Three columns of extra seats, taller than any man are stacked in the far back corner of the room, in case there is a rush on this house of prayer. The seating arrangement faces a crate like ark which houses two Torah scrolls. During prayer the Torah scroll is rolled open on a podium which stands between the ark and the right seat section, covered with red velvet. The un-matching velvet colors stand out, drawing attention to the ark and the podium, away from everything else. This is barebones Judaism as it was intended to be, cases are settled before god and your pears – the setting is irrelevant.
The Bar Mitzvah took place three days after the Passover Sedder. We arriv ed at the synagogue a few minutes before the ceremony. Saturday or not, we cleaned matzah leftovers which stood out against the dark murky color of the carpet. The Rabbi looked the other way, adapting to our need for basic esthetics and cleanliness. Nowadays the call to rescue faiths that hang by thinner threads overrides the Sabbath holiness. Besides, we were alone with the Rabbi in synagogue. The Rabbi started the ceremony without waiting for his congregation to convene; they would gather as the prayer went on and on. Tintin sat between Daniel and me in the front row two feet behind the podium, staring straight at it as a condemned man stares at the gallows, rubbing his hands and jiggling his knee. Ima and the girls occasionally peeked over their shoulders through the ‘mehitza’ with encouraging smiles. I put my arm across his shoulder stretching over to Osmo’s back an eagle wing over the chicks. Osmo put his hand on the yearling’s shaking knee. Tintin avoided eye contact, buried his eyes in the Sidur pretending to read, refusing to fall for the false solace offered to him by family love. His business was with the podium and the scroll which lay open on top of it. At times like this he views the world in two colors black and white. Seven ‘aliyot’, seven condemned men, the first six would be spared, and he would be the seventh. As far as he was concerned there was nothing that we could say or do to save him. Fearing shame he wanted to run, yet the same fear kept him is his place. There were more than forty people in the room when the time came to bring out the Torah.
The Rabbi turned to me: ‘Can you call someone in your congregation to open the ark?’ This was not a question I had no choice I sent Yair. Yair did not hesitate for a moment. With a slight nod of his head the Rabbi offered Tintin to pass the Torah through the congregation Tintin passed. The Torah was brought out and opened on the Podium.
‘Ya-aleh hhh’ he was looking at me trying to remember my name, or pretending not to know it.
‘Yiftah’ I said using the correct pronunciation.
‘Yiftah Ben’ ‘Amatzia ve ‘
‘Yiftah Ben Amatzia Rishon…’ He cut me off.
I stood up and took a step forward to the podium waiting for further instructions.
‘Hold your tzitzit to the beginning of the reading portion’ he instructed, pointing with the metal finger to the middle column of the open scroll.
I did as I was told.
‘Kiss the tzitzit’ he continued in a tone which I told myself was full of fervor.
‘Now here’ he pointed again to what I assumed was the end of the portion. I made a mental note that he did not say ‘here where it says’, he did not expect me to try to read.< /p>
‘Now kiss the tzitzit’. I made another mental note that he did not use the word ‘again’, this was not repetition; each step of the ritual was unique.
‘Barechu’ I began
‘Baruch Adonai’ the congregation answered
‘Baruch Ata Adonai’
He then read the Torah, not for one minute assuming that I could have read it myself. We repeated the tzitzit touch-and-kiss, again the Rabbi avoided saying ‘again’, and showed me back to the Sidur for the blessings when the kissing was done. ‘Stand here’ he instructed when I was done reading the closing blessings, positioning me at the right corner of the podium. He scouted the room for the next ‘Koreh’ (reader). His eyes locked with Motti’s.
‘Morde chai’ Standing before god, Motti reverted to his god given name.
‘Mordechai Ben”Nahum ve’
‘Mordehai Ben Nahum – Shenni’, the Rabbi cut Motti off.
Motti received the same instructions what to touch and when to kiss, making me feel better about myself. As the Rabbi read for Motti my ego rose even higher, only to crash in shame when I remembered that this was not all about me, we were all preparing for the seventh Aliyah – Tintin in front of God, or in front of himself. I looked at Tintin who was staring at a point right in front of him, more or less at Motti’s rear end. I looked at Osmo, he smiled, I winked, Motti continued to read while Tintin continued to stare at his read end not seeing it. Motti complete his part, we shook hands as he took my place at the right of the podium, and I went back to my seat. Haim was summoned third.
Daniel was quite surprised when he was inv ited to read ‘fourth’. He gave the Rabbi a ‘what the hell’ glare, stared at me, saw my ‘you gotta take one for the team’ look and rose from his chair assuming the big brother role with honors. As he pulled his Talit closer over his shoulders, I could read his mind. He was quickly reciting the verses he had heard in the house so many times over the past few days, polishing his own Bar Mitzvah memories. He read very nicely, with the Rabbi standing guard ready to help him along should an unfamiliar word and a memory blank meet. Osmo did not need any help. He read the blessings, touched, kissed, replaced Haim and waited for the next ‘Koreh’ (reader) to be called.
‘Ya-alleh’ As the Rabbi turned to scan the congregation, pulling his Talit back from his head, I finally understood his pattern, too late to do anything about it. He was calling upon those in the room whom he did not know, triaging the flock, discerning between those who could still be save d and those that were too far gone. His eyes fell on Hanan. God alone would not have called on Hanan to stand before him, but with the Rabbi at his side, God was willing to give it one more shot. Hanan stepped up to the plate without a Talit, hands in his pockets, signifying defiance with every step. The Rabbi thought nothing of it, a quick flick of a hidden finger and some loyal follower quickly shed his own and wrapped Hanan in the prayer shawl. Touch-kiss-read that’s all there is to it, but there is always one more bug It doesn’t say where to stop and Hanan went right on to the closing blessing not stopping for anyone to read the Torah. To a bystander this kind of reading could have been received as a mix of piety and ignorance. Knowing Hanan, piety had nothing to do with it. The Rabbi let the benefit of the doubt win over the embarrassment and intervened to calm the fervor of the runaway payer. He was more specific when it came to the closing: ‘read from here to here’ he said pointing to the closing blessings in the Sidur. Now that I understood the pattern it was obvious that Gadi would be called next.
‘Ya-alleh’ the Rabbi did very little scanning, he had memorized the faces and focused on Gadi as he clung to Hanan who tried to bail to his seat, rather than remain at the side of the podium.
‘Ben-Zion’ this was a tricky one
‘Ben Ben-Zion’ I made one more mental note congratulating the Rabbi for his correct management of ‘double Ben’.
Humi sauntered in when Gadi was done. Humi was still wearing his traveling pouch to indicate that he had come directly from the airport. His timing was too perfect to fool anyone. Seeing how pale Hanan was he broke into a broad smile and took a seat in the front row as if to say: ‘I would have loved to be called up, but I just arrived from Israel thirty minutes ago’&n bsp;
Then it was Tintin’s turn. He rose tense and miserable. His hand trembled when he held the Tzitzit to the scroll; I wondered how much visible trembling bothered him. It runs down the father side of the family, Suma and Tintin got stage-fright induced hand-trembling from me. We can play our stage parts perfectly, but it takes a few minutes for the trembling to stop. Tintin sang with a strong steady voice, a higher pitch the only vocal indication of his tension. To the rest of the world this seemed to be his regular singing voice, common to nervous Bar Mitzvah boys whose voices have not yet changed. If not for the carpet, you could hear a pin drop. Congregations are silent when a boy sings his portion, cheering him on with their silence. We all reflect on our own anxieties when we read our Torah portions, the older ones forty years ago, the younger ones forty days ago. As the ‘maftir’ went on the hand holding the ‘Etzbah’ became steady, the knee stopped moving as he read the blessings after the ‘maftir’. Half way into the Haftara his voice settled to its normal pitch. I read ahead, searching for potential pitfalls, and reading back to where Tintin was reading. I counted the verses that still lay ahead, the lines, the words, realizing that I wanted this to be over for Tintin’s sake, feeling remorse that this was all I wanted. ‘Ben Adam ha-atzamot ha-eleh kol beit Yisrael hemah’ Ezekiel’s prophesy of the resurrection of the dry bones, a prayer of hope for a better future, a belief that there is a future, and my only concern was to put it in the past. I snapped out of my guilt trip to scout the text ahead. Five more verses: ‘Here comes a munach revi-ih’ I worried, I didn’t like the way the Rabbi taught him to sing the ‘munach revi-ih’. Tintin read past it without a hitch, his tone rising and falling perfectly. ‘What an ear’ I thought, thanking Ima for the kids’ musical education. I read on to wait by the ‘sof pasuk’. ‘ el admat Yisrael.’ Two more verses, any hard words, any ‘mapik ba-hei’, which robs you of your breath just when you need it to finish off a verse? No mapik, no double ‘yod’ god name traps, just a few ‘pashta’s’ which Tintin had no problem with. ‘We should be ok.’ ‘dibarti ve-asiti neum adonai’. Tintin cinched it and without much ado went on to read the blessings that follow the haftarah. ‘Baruch asher bahar binvi-im tovim’ Tintin was calm you could hear it in his voice. ‘Zur kol haolamin’ I had to stop and wonder about the repetitive content. ‘Rahem’ Can we really be expected to recite this every day? ‘Samhenu’ Do we need a king? Isn’t it time we gave the prayer book a little overhaul? ‘Al hatorah mekadesh hashabat ‘ and it was over.
‘You’re hired’ the Rabbi congratulated Tintin smiling. Tintin stood under a shower of candy. I recited ‘Baruch sh-ptaranu’. The Rabbi opened his ‘drashah’ by blessing us and thanking us: ‘When the Porat family came to me forty five days ago…’ You see in America you begin preparing for a Bar-Mitzvah a year in advance if your average, six months in advance if you are sworn optimist, three months is advance reckless forty five days is considered impossible. ‘…But I am a man of faith’, the Rabbi continued ‘and Amitai came through beautifully’. ‘Yes, Rabbi’ I though to myself, all it takes is a mother with the talent, patience and strength to cuddle, cajole, reward and reprimand her cantankerous offspring. All it takes is a mother who understands her child’s fears and aspirations, who will not let him give up on himself, who will help him bring out his best no matter how hard he tries to wiggle off the hook. A mother with unsurpassed teaching skills, knowing that she has to push and keep pushing hard so that the child learns that he can live up to the challenge. There were so many times that I wanted to step in and give him a break. I can only be thankful that I didn’t. It would have sent the wrong message, making the task at hand appear daunting. ‘It’s all in his head’ Ima would have said. I could only marvel at the simplicity of the conviction.
We had kidush, the girls stayed to clean the bluish-green carpet while Ima rushed home to prepare for the main reception. I followed with Tintin and friends in the other car. I contemplated the Rabbi’s closing words: ‘at times this ceremony is both the grand opening and the going out of business sale of a child’s brush with his Jewish tradition’.
Time will tell.