Thinking about my Bar Mitzvah Partner

I came across an article in the LA Jewish Journal today, talking about the custom of the “Bar Mitzvah partner.”

What’s that you say? You actually had to SHARE your big day with someone else? You’re not the STAR of the show? All eyes are not focused solely on YOU as you read your Maftir or discordantly chant your Haftarah and deliver your brilliant speech?

Haftarah preparation booklet for Ha’Azinu
Recently uncovered Bar Mitzvah Card from my Bar Mitzvah Partner, Lee Goodman, z’l

(Deuteronomy 32:49)
“…and see the land of Canaan that I am giving the Israelites as a possession.”

Moses on Har Nevo

Thanks to TBE’s first Rabbi, Aaron J. Tofield, who arrived in 1957 and was the long-time founding clergy member of shul , ” JUST as the Children of Israel accepted the responsibility for the Land of Israel, SO TOO (!) do I accept my religious responsibilities on this day!”

How’s that for brilliant Talmudic exegesis? Compared to some speeches today, mine was comparatively brief and written under the theory that children were meant to be seen and not heard. So get to the point kid, and sit down. I still want to lay my hands on that speech that was typed on “onion skin” paper on a manual typewriter by my Mom.

A number of years ago I found a cassette tape (remember those?)

recording of my speech and the Rabbi’s charge to the “Bar Mitzvah Bucher.” As an adolescent, I recall thinking of Rabbi Tofield as rather old, and not particularly relevant. But listening to the speech decades later, I discovered that what Rabbi Tofield had to say was actually pretty relevant and cutting edge. I guess the passage of time causes us to look at things with a different perspective?

But coming back to the custom of the “Bar Mitzvah partner.” What’s that all about?

Ed Rodman, one of my Hebrew School classmates wrote, “For many of us who came of age in the 1960s, double b’nai mitzvah were unavoidable; the Jewish demography of the times dictated them. There are just so many Shabbats in a year, and suburban synagogues, whose sanctuaries dotted the Southern California landscape like sesame seeds on a challah, did not have enough dates for the oncoming wave of baby boomer b’nai mitzvah.”

So that’s the way it was. I never gave it a second thought. You were paired with another kid and you each shared the responsibilities of leading the service on your big day!

My Bar Mitzvah partner was Lee Goodman (z’l). Sadly, Lee passed away a few years ago and when the anniversary rolls around I always think of Lee fondly. That, and the picture that sits on my parents’ coffee table of Lee and I standing side-by-side in front of TBE’s iconic Aron Kodesh with the marble Twelve Tribes up either side. Many of my peers may know that the TBE building was sold to a Romanian Pentecostalist Church and now the front of the building says, Emanuel Church of God, but that’s s story for another time.

Lee was over 6 feet tall and I was just barely 5 feet tall, even in my early-disco platform shoes and hounds-tooth suit coat.

Lee and Steve. Mutt and Jeff

For some reason, our parents scheduled it the day after Yom Kippur, not the most convenient schedule-wise for out of town visitors.

My birthday is in August but I suppose a summertime Bar Mitzvah was “pas-nischt,” just not done, if you wanted all your Hebrew School classmates to attend who were away at Summer Camp.

The portion was HaAzinu and it does lead to weird calendar quirk.

In years where Yom Kippur falls on a Wednesday or a Thursday, there is an extra Shabbat before Sukkot and that means, HaAzinu gets its own dedicated Shabbat in those years. In other years, HaAzinu is combined with “Shabbat Shuvah” (The “Shabbat of Repentance”) that falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. That means when we read HaAzinu, the Haftarah is a special haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah. Not very good for nostalgia purposes and so for 2020, we don’t do my haftarah on that day.

I’ll have to wait for my reprise until 2021, which is probably just as well, since none of us are attending shul in person these days anyway in this COVID-19/Zoom-shul reality that we find ourselves in these days!

Lucky for me, there’s often a division of labor in my shul. Our Rabbi is also a HaAzinu kid so he traditionally gets the Torah reading and I get the Haftarah when we are together in shul.

So Lee, read from the Torah that day and I got half of the HaAzinu haftarah that day. I also led Musaf, since Lee led the Torah service.

And oh…was there hell to pay. Fresh off a summer at Camp Ramah in Ojai, I decided to wing it and do a “campy” melody for “Yismachu” (apparently NOT on the approved list of melodies approved by our beloved Cantor Moddel.)

I can still recall the “crickets” from the congregation and the sense that Cantor Moddel’s eyes were boring laser beams in my skull. “Young Man, what is it with this unapproved Congregational melody?” I still sweat bullets 46 years after the fact.

One day, hopefully in the near future, we will all be together on our bimahs. Hopefully, be we will kvelling over the newest generation of B’nai Mitzvah and we can all think back fondly to that Shabbat in 1974 when I proudly stated, “today, I am a fountain pen!”

Oldest Bar Mitzvah joke in the book
My Bar Mitzvah Portrait (thanks Mom!)

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