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Memoir part 3: My early teen years: A bar mitzvah, and questioning authority


In the 1950s nobody locked their doors. In 760, every kid could go into every apartment—well, nearly every apartment—and find a home away from home. Unlike my mom, most of the housewives didn’t work, so you’d go to your friend Irwin’s apartment, or Donald’s, or Bobby’s, or Kenny’s, or Howie’s, or Ricky’s, and there’d be a mom there. “You want something to eat? A sandwich? Milk? Eat! You shouldn’t be so skinny.” The adults had their little feuds (and occasional affairs), but we kids didn’t know about that. What we knew was that we were special: part of a gigantic herd of Jews that extended beyond 760, across The Bronx and New York and America, through war-ravaged Europe down into Israel. And while we kids weren’t well-versed in the details of World War II and the Holocaust, we understood that the Jewish people had suffered terrible things, and that the only reason we were here was because our parents had survived. Our parents never talked to us about what had happened; they were notoriously reticent about anything having to do with the war. It was almost as if, by not mentioning it, it hadn’t existed.

My parents sent me to Hebrew school starting at the age of seven. I went three times a week, after regular school. Hebrew school was in our synagogue, Congregation Hope of Israel, about three blocks away. I enjoyed Hebrew School, but there was a troubling aspect that influenced my later attitude towards religious dogma. We had a young instructor from the Yeshiva, Rabbi Saperstein. He was teaching one day about the age of the earth, which he said was 5,715 years (in 1955), according to the Jewish calendar.

Of course, little Stevie the troublemaker just had to raise his hand.

“Rabbi, at the Museum of Natural History, they say the dinosaurs lived 100 million years ago. So how can the world be only 5,715 years old?”

Rabbi Saperstein had the answer. He launched into the story of Piltdown Man, one of the most infamous scientific frauds in history. Someone in the early 20th century claimed to have dug up skull fragments in northern New York State and declared that the long-dead creature was the “missing link,” the fabled connection between apes and humans. It turned out not to be true; the bones had been chemically doctored. “So,” Rabbi Saperstein triumphantly announced, “as you can see, all these so-called ‘fossils’ are fake.”

The troublemaker was having none of it. “But Rabbi, just because Piltdown Man was fake doesn’t mean that all the other fossils are fake.” Poor Rabbi Saperstein didn’t know how to deal with an obnoxious, stubborn kid who wasn’t afraid of him. He ordered me to stop asking questions, which is why, to this day, I am intolerant of religious fanatics who reject science.

A story: In 1996, I went to a wedding in Manhattan, and decided to take the subway up to 161st Street to visit the old neighborhood, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I’d forgotten all about the synagogue. I was walking towards 760 when I passed it. Wow, still there, I thought. I opened the creaky front door: the same dimly lit vestibule, the same musty old smell. I peered inside: empty, silent. Then, from someplace out of sight, an old man’s voice in a thick Yiddish accent.

“Who is that?”

I quickly thought to myself, “He heard me enter. The neighborhood is Puerto Rican now. He’s frightened.” I yelled, “It’s okay. I was bar mitzvah here. I came to visit.”

From the darkened stairwell slowly emerged a human being, rising like a submarine from the depths: an old head of white hair beneath a skullcap. Wizened face with glasses. A dark suit. A white tallit draped around his shoulders. The apparition gazed at me. “You were bar mitzvah?”




The apparition steps towards me, grabs my elbow with claw-like fingers, and tugs. “Come.” I let him guide me down the stairs.

Below, in a large, brightly-lit room, a crowd of perhaps thirty people, men, women, children. A table laden with Jewish food: rugelach, hamentaschen, challah. The people have gathered for Minchah, the afternoon service, but in order for it to be legal according to Torah law, they need a minyan: a quorum of ten adult men. They had only nine. “We prayed,” said the apparition, the rabbi, “and God sent you.”

* * *

I took my bar mitzvah shortly after my 13th birthday, in late June, 1959. Generations of Jewish boys have had similar bar mitzvahs. First there’s the religious ceremony, with the ritual services and prayers and singing of the Haftorah, for which I practiced for months. Then all the guests go someplace for the party. It wouldn’t be a bar mitzvah without a party! In our case, this was in a rented event space under the old Jerome Avenue “el”, next to Yankee Stadium. There was an ice swan (don’t ask me how an ice swan is part of Jewish tradition), tables laden with lox, bread, cold cuts, chopped liver, tuna salad, roast beef, chocolates, cake. Tons of liquor: Jews love to drink. We had a band. People danced, drank, ate, socialized, drank, danced, ate, gossiped, drank, came over to pinch the cheek of the bar mitzvah boy and hand him an envelope containing a U.S. savings bond. When the inside pocket of my suit jacket (fitted by old man Fox) was stuffed with envelopes I went to the bathroom, sat inside a stall on the toilet, and added up my loot. Then it was time for my speech. The band stopped: I went to the microphone and thanked everyone. My cousin Rita, a former Miss Texas, was married to a very good-looking guy named Richard. Richard was drunk. He grabbed the microphone from me and gave his own speech.

“Stevie.” His words were slurred. “You think all these people are here to celebrate your bar mitzvah? Wrong!” Ears prick up among the Jews. Vas ist das? “They’re here to eat your father’s food and drink his booze!”

Mayhem. My father, Uncle Teddy and Uncle Lennie took Richard down. Teddy, all 6’4” of him, clobbered Richard with a right hook; Richard fell backwards like a chopped tree into the arms of my father and Lennie. The three of them carried him out into the lobby and threw the unconscious body onto a couch. The party went on.

  1. Nancy Brown says:

    Nu? So all the family stories I heard were true. I doubted some of them but I trust that you are not exaggerating at all and now I believe everything story I was told. You made me smile. It was a very big smile.

  2. Thanks Nancy!

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