If Only We Had Cell Phones, YouTube and the Internet when I was Growing up… A Bar Mitzvah to Remember
Diversity & Inclusion Perspectives 06/10/19 Mark Kornfeld
My Jewish heritage easily provides for one of the most character‐building, and equally hilarious and entertaining moments of my 51 years on earth. A little background is in order.
Like virtually every Jewish boy living in Briarwood (Queens) NY in the mid to late 1970s, I was forced by my somewhat typical Jewish mother to attend Hebrew school two to three days a week (right after regular school). The Hebrew school (the Briarwood Jewish Center) was located close to my apartment on the corner of 84th Drive. My mother Ferne was back then a big "macher" (Yiddish for "big shot") at the Center, as she had the title of President of something or other associated with the Sunday school and the congregation. She was proud of being Jewish and demanded it be part of who I would be. Ironically, my then stoic father Ralph, who escaped Nazi Germany with his parents when he was just an infant, was beyond indifferent. His father, my paternal grandfather Sigfreud (Fred) was a cantor (an official who leads prayers in a synagogue). My father grew up as an orthodox Jew, observing Shabbat dinner, attending religious services and eating kosher (i.e., food being prepared in compliance with Jewish law). Upon becoming an adult, he went the other way. He never attended religious services, or the "high holidays" (Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for prior sins). We ate however, whenever, and whatever pleased us without regard to Judaic law. He arguably became the least religious, most ambivalent person on the planet. That is, quite surprisingly, until the last few months of his life. When the multiple myeloma was simply overtaking him at the age of 80, my father began randomly quoting Torah passages from the deep recesses of his memory, and shortly before his death, he asked to see a rabbi. Go figure.
I would be lying if I suggested that I much enjoyed the "religious" experience that was Hebrew school. Learning to write, read, and understand Hebrew, chant songs, recite prayers, and recount certain dogma that as a pre‐teen I didn’t fully understand, often while looking out the window on sunny days, wishing I was at Hoover Park playing hoops or riding my bike, was not much fun. To be sure, it was never meant to be fun. It was simply what Jewish families did back then.
The years of hard work studying about the excruciating, at times devastating history of the Jewish people, the many deeply and solemnly held traditions, the rich culture, the Holocaust, the joyous celebrations and holidays, the fundamental, humanitarian, values, the never‐ending struggles for the people of Israel to survive, and much more, was to culminate in what is widely seen as the Super Bowl event for most children raised Jewish. At the ripe old age of 13, I would, in a common, Jewish "rite of passage," become a "bar mitzvah." Some characterize this signature moment as when a Jewish boy "becomes a man." I always found that designation to be a bit strange if not a tad arbitrary, but at its core, the bar mitzvah religious ceremony involves you as the bar mitzvah "leading" a full congregation made up of family, friends, rabbis, Board members, the Sisterhood, and other faith‐based worshippers in a long, at times, tedious prayer service, where you read directly from the Torah and direct the responsive, interactive reading portions with the attendees (all before hopefully having a kick‐ass party with obscene amounts of food with hundreds of family and friends).
My bar mitzvah was supposed to be a "forever" moment of joy for my mother who would on this day be beaming with extra helpings of maternal pride. Watching her son become a bar mitzvah in her "house" in front of her peeps, would be a Mount Rushmore moment likely behind only her sons' marriages, and her becoming a grandmother multiple times over. My non‐religious (not sure he was an atheist even to this day) father would also be quietly happy, because he knew this moment would bring the rarest of visible smiles from my serious‐minded grandfather the cantor, he of the booming, inspiring voice who would be towering over the "stage" too, leading songs in celebration of me, in front of about 300 plus who attended.
The best laid plans.
At age 13, I was not the confident public speaking lawyer who writes today's blog. I was quite nervous. More than nervous ‐‐ I was flat out terrified. I had never spoken in front of this many people. I had also been a bit under the weather in the days leading up to my big day with a bug and some dread. This combination led me to truly make bar mitzvah history. At the beginning of my reading of the haftarah (the short reading of the Prophets after reading from the Torah itself), in front my grandfather seated behind me, my dad and mom in the front row, my extended family, my parents' dearest friends, random acquaintances, normal temple worshippers, and all of my best friends (including all the girls I liked!), I THREW UP. ; Yes, you read that last part correctly. I became "a man" in the eyes of the Jewish traditions embarrassing, I dare say, humiliating myself BY VOMITING ON THE TORAH AND PODIUM FROM WHICH I WAS PERCHED. Had there been cell phones, and people taking pictures, I would have gone viral, receive millions of hits, tens of thousands of emojis and trolls, and likely would have ended up on Carson or Letterman doing a guest spot as the kid who threw up at his bar mitzvah. I might have parlayed this fame into a different career, or life journey. Maybe I could have built a stand‐up comedy routine around the moment. Perhaps I could have written a book and then in an ironic twist done the motivational speaking tour entitled ‐‐ How to Laugh at and Survive the Humiliation of Throwing up at Your Bar Mitzvah ‐‐ an Unorthodox Journey into Manhood. It is truly hard to say.
What is easier for me to say, amidst the self‐deprecation, occasional, good‐natured, self‐loathing, and much‐warranted laughter by one and all, is that regardless of a person's religion, heritage, or faith, whatever it may be, in some way, shape or form it will all undoubtedly materially influence your value system, your beliefs and fundamental tenets of life. As an adult, based on my own life experiences, I have probably moved a lot closer to my father's perspectives (and perhaps if being objective, cynicism) than my mother's when it comes to the religious and belief in god parts of my Jewish upbringing, favoring a more values, humanistic, culture and tradition‐driven perspective. But I have also gained incredible perspective from my upbringing allowing me to have extraordinary admiration and profound respect for those of deep religious commitment and/or faith ‐‐ whether Jewish or otherwise ‐‐ even if I am not such a person. I ultimately believe faith and religion to be a very personal thing, and something that makes us each unique. And that ultimately is one of many components that help comprise a diversity and inclusiveness that should always be celebrated though our shared humanity.
And in case you were wondering, after my less than stellar entrance into manhood, I rallied, we had a kick ass party, I ate like a fiend, and along with two of my best friends (one of whom is my oldest son's godfather), comprising "The Bar Mitzvah Trio," belted out the legendary Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" to an awesome crowd. Again unfortunately, no YouTube.
Mark A. Kornfeld is a partner in the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Group in our Tampa office.