By Maury Z. Levy
“BAR MITZVAH,” the rabbi shouted, “is not a verb.” Eddie Golden, who is the leader of Eddie Golden and his Band of Gold, is blowing his horn so loud into the microphone that the rabbi can hardly hear himself, which is an important thing for rabbis since they are usually the only ones who listen.
The people behind him are dancing a freylach, which is something like a hora, which is something like insanity. To do this you need at least 20 people holding hands in a circle going at top speed in different directions around a 70-year-old grandmother doing a Russian Cossack dance on the floor.
Bubby Katz, in her strapless, floor-length, scarlet gown by Eva Melnick, head of Eva Melnick Creations, is shaking a leg or two. “Let’s hear it for Bubby Katz!” Eddie Golden yells. The cousins cheer.
“Bar Mitzvah,” the rabbi shouts, “is a noun. You do not get Bar Mitzvahed. You become a Bar Mitzvah, or you celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. You do not get Bar Mitzvahed.”
“Hey, get a load of the rabbi here,” Uncle Meyer says. “Hey, Lil, look at this. He got all fapitzed. Look at this suit, Lil, it’s just like our Eric’s. Where’s Eric? Eric, the rabbi’s wearing your suit. Where’d you get it, Rabbi? You got it at Diamond’s, right? That’s where we got Eric’s. Where the hell is that kid? Lil, where’s Eric? I want the rabbi to see his suit.”
“I think he’s in the bathroom,” Aunt Lil says.”I think he’s throwing up.”
“Damn kid. It’s not even his Bar Mitzvah. I’d better go find him. Here, Rabbi, have a Seven and Seven. Lil, talk to the rabbi until I get back.”
“I don’t think we’ve met formally, Rabbi. I’m Lil Moskowitz, Mark’s aunt. And that was my husband Meyer Moskowitz, Mark’s uncle. We both enjoyed your speech today at the Temple, especially when you talked about teaching Jewish heritage to these young kids today, Rabbi. You don’t know how important that is.
“When we were their age our parents taught us what it was to be a Jew. They taught us all the important things about the religion—like how it was a sin to go out with Gentiles. But these kids today, you think they listen? My own Eric even. Rabbi, last month my Eric brought home a girl to us. Rabbi, I’m ashamed to tell you this, her name was Carmella. Carmella! Can you believe it, Rabbi? You try to teach a kid about Judaism. What would you do, Rabbi?”
Meyer is back. “Lil, I’m gonna kill that kid. I swear I’m gonna kill him. Eric, I tell him, stay away from the bar. You know your stomach. Don’t look for trouble. Drink ginger ale. But no, three whiskey sours he has and now it’s all over his goddamn suit and we’re goin’ home. Lil, I’ll kill him, I swear I will. Oh, excuse us, Rabbi. Something’s come up. We’ve got to go. Nice meeting you, I’m sure.”
“THE AGE OF THE Bar Mitzvah has varied a little through the centuries,” the rabbi tells a sympathetic listener. “Jesus became a Bar Mitzvah when he was 12. Translated literally, the term means ‘son of the commandment’ or ‘man of duty.’ And, although it’s mentioned a couple times, there’s really no Biblical background for it. It didn’t really become a custom until about the 14th century. The term used then was `gadol,’ which means `adult,’ or ‘bar onshin,’ which means ‘son of punishment.’ This means the boy is liable for punishment for his own misdoings. It started as a simple religious rite. The elders then picked the fourteenth year, the year of puberty. The boy, for the first time, was allowed to read from the Torah, from the sacred scrolls. And the father gave a benediction: `Blessed be He who has taken the responsibility for this child’s going from me.’
“The idea of offering presents to the Bar Mitzvah boy came along later. It was a very simple thing at first, a few coins. And a very modest meal followed the ceremony. But it soon got out of hand. The religious meal went to such excess that in Krakow, Poland, in 1595 a communal tax was placed upon it to discourage extravagance. Am I boring you with this? I know you came here for a good time.
“Look, I don’t like to put down my own people. And maybe it isn’t the best idea in the world to hang out our dirty linen in public. I mean, I’m assuming you’re going to print this. Maybe you could suggest that we adopt another extravagance tax. Mind you, I’m not against having a good time, but there are limits.
“I don’t want to make it sound like all Jews are so extravagant. No, there are many who still have a simple luncheon after the ceremony. It serves the same purpose. And even the big affairs, it wouldn’t be right for me to condemn them with such a blanket. Many of them are in very good taste. Take this one right here. . . .”
THERE’S A DRUM ROLL. Eddie Golden approaches the microphone. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, a very splendid surprise courtesy of Harry the Caterer, caterers for all occasions. Could we bring the Bar Mitzvah boy up here? Where’s Mark? There we go. Come on up here, Markie. Let’s have a big hand for him, ladies and gentlemen—our Bar Mitzvah boy Mark Moskowitz. And where’s Mom and Dad? Myrna? Morris? Here they come. And how about another big hand for mom and dad. Yessiree, the people who made this all possible. God bless you, folks.
“And now, let’s bring in the surprise.” The doors to the kitchen open and two waiters wheel in a large cart. A red satin cloth is covering the big bumps underneath. There is another drumroll as Eddie Golden pulls off the cloth. First there are “ooohs” and then there are “aaahs” and then there is wild applause.
“And there it is, ladies and gentlemen, a life-sized bust of Mark Moskowitz made entirely out of chopped liver. Let’s hear it for the chopped liver.”
Across the room, the rabbi is turning as green as the olives they used for eyes. The boy and his parents are admiring the wonderful likeness. They made him turn all different ways to make sure all the angles are right.
“That’s my boy,” Morris Moskowitz says proudly. “Well, time to dig in.” He picks up a fork and a plate. “Okay, who wants the nose?”
IT WASN’T ALWAYS this way. Back when Mark Moskowitz’s father became a Bar Mitzvah, thrills were cheaper. A man who celebrated Bar Mitzvah the same month in the same Strawberry Mansion synagogue as Morris Moskowitz remembers:
“Then it was really a turning point in life,” he says. “It meant a lot of things. It meant you were old enough to be listened to and it meant you were old enough to get a job to help out the family. But most of all, to the kid, it meant one thing. It was the only big thrill to look forward to. It was the day your father took you down to South Street to buy you your first pair of long pants.
“I remember leaving my knickers at the tailors. I never wanted to see those things again. I was a man now. I was fitted for the pants on Friday and on Saturday we went to the synagogue. There was me and my brother Phil and my father and my grandfather and my Uncle Abe. I remember it was snowing very hard when we got there and there were only four old men in the whole place. That wasn’t enough. You need ten adult males to have an official service. We waited for almost an hour and nobody else showed up. I was heartbroken. I thought I would have to turn in my long pants.
“Finally, my Uncle Abe put his coat back on and went out into the snow to find the tenth man. Fifteen minutes later he came back with an old black man who was carrying a carton full of groceries. ‘Listen,’ Uncle Abe said, ‘we’re going to have to make it fast. He’s got some dairy products in there. If he doesn’t deliver them soon, they’re going to go bad and smell up the whole place. God would frown on this.’
” ‘But, Abe’ my father said, `he’s a shvartzah. “Look: Abe said, ‘I had to give the guy a buck to come in here for ten minutes. For that kind of money, he’s got to be a Jew.’
“We went ahead, and I was called to the Torah for the first time. The men all shook my hand and said, `Mazel tov’ because now I was one of them. The delivery man picked up his carton and left. The rest of us went back to the house, where the women were waiting. My mother had baked a sponge cake and my Aunt Bessie brought some honey bread. My father gave me my first shot of whiskey that day. It tasted like poison, but I drank it like a man.
“There were presents too. I got a woolen scarf and three fountain pens. People don’t give fountain pens anymore. I don’t even think most people remember what they stood for.
“When you gave a fountain pen to a Jewish boy, it was like you were making a contract with him. Some day he would be expected to fulfill his end of it by becoming a professional man, using the fountain pen to write lifesaving prescriptions or great legal decisions. I still have those fountain pens. None of them work very well anymore. But I wouldn’t give them up for all the money in the world.”
“I THINK THE WORLD Of these people,” Eddie Golden says during a break in the music. “Look, I guess it would be easy to poke fun at them, easy to laugh at them for all the extravagance. But don’t get the wrong impression. Sure there are loudmouths and showoffs. You find them anywhere. But look around this room. Stop looking at the chopped liver bust for a minute.
“Look at the bubby, God bless her. You can see a tear coming through the gleam in her eye. She thanks God she’s lived to see the day when her grandson becomes a man.
“And the parents. Sure they’re putting on the ritz. But they’ve waited years for this. They’ve been planning for 13 years. It’s worth every penny to them. The father looks like a callous guy, doesn’t he? Well, he’s the same guy who was crying with happiness to me before this started. Today, that little boy he’s slaved for all these years is a man. And the mother. A typical Jewish mother. She’ll love and protect you to death if you let her. This is one of the biggest days in her life. Her son is coming out of the shell. And she’s so proud of it she wants to show the world.
“Maybe that’s why they spend all this money. Look, to a lot of people it’s worth the money just to have the family together. When else do they see each other, at funerals? It gives me a warm feeling to be up there playing the music for these people and watching them have such a good time together.
“I play dozens of these things every year. Some are big and fancy like this and some are very plain and simple, more religious maybe. The size doesn’t matter. When you take away all the razzle-dazzle, you’re left with the very simple feeling of pride these people have. Up until a short time back, you know, the Jews had it very rough in this country. So now they have cause to celebrate. It’s not just the Bar Mitzvah of a boy. It’s a celebration of the freedom of the people. And there is a very deep ethnic and religious meaning in that. It’s something you just can’t put a price on.”
MOST PEOPLE DON’T LIKE to talk money anymore, especially when it comes to the cost of Bar Mitzvah celebrations. But there have been Bar Mitzvah affairs in this city that have cost over $50,000. That includes flying people in from all over the country and putting them up for a non-stop weekend of champagne breakfasts, lavish luncheons and formal dinner dances.
One local food store chain executive made his son’s affair so lavish that a national magazine came down to photograph it. A local meatpacking mogul served nothing but steaks—little filets for appetizers, big ones for the main course and bigger ones yet for dessert.
Bar Mitzvahs in tents have become pretty popular in recent years, especially among people who have enough ground to put up a big enough tent. Sometimes, of course, it gets a little chilly for that sort of stuff. It doesn’t matter, though. There have been many tent Bar Mitzvahs indoors, the most memorable in the main ballroom of the Bellevue, with the tent made of satin.
In a weird sort of way, the tent Bar Mitzvah reverts to a rather primitive time in local Judaism. Before many local Jewish communities became affluent enough to put up ornate synagogues, members of the congregation would erect large canvas tents in open fields. Important services would be held in them, many times with the rabbi competing with the pounding rain for the audience’s attention. The tents were just pragmatic ways of temporarily housing large numbers of people, many more than could ever fit into the synagogue proper.
There have been other apparent returns to the more primitive, the most current and popular of which is the Israeli Bar Mitzvah. This is a return to the homeland, usually for a ceremony at the Wailing Wall, followed by a pilgrimage to holy shrines and maybe a side visit to a kibbutz or two.
This kind of thing is very in now. Recently, three families from the same block in Wynnefield, all with Bar Mitzvah boys, made the trip together. They chartered the better part of a plane, took along about 50 relatives and friends, including their very own rabbi, and watched the kids become men up against the wall.
“We figured out what it would cost us to have a large affair at a very posh place,” one of the fathers says. “We would have all had separate affairs and it would have cost us a fortune. And what would we have had to show for it? For the same money, we all went to Israel, to the Holy Land. In a few years, all that most people will have to remember about their son’s Bar Mitzvah are some corny pictures in a banquet hall. But Israel, none of us will ever forget Israel.”
Some people, a few outspoken rabbis in particular, would just as soon forget the whole Israeli trip. “It’s an abuse,” a local reform rabbi says. “A place is not holy. The thing you have to look at are the intentions of the people involved. I don’t want to criticize my colleagues who have gone over there with them. I’m sure their intentions are good. We are all working for a return to a real interest in Judaism, a rejuvenation. But those people are no closer to Judaism than when they left. What they sought wasn’t a repatriation. It was a vacation.”
The desire to “do something different” is something that has crept down from the well-to-do to the mass middle class. A couple out in the Northeast recently joined the ranks of those who’ve taken to the seas for a floating Bar Mitzvah.
Actually, it was the Delaware River, and the luxury liner was the Showboat. They rented it for a Saturday night cruise. The boat was decked out in a baseball motif. About 150 people came along. The kids all had bats and gloves with the Bar Mitzvah boy’s name on them. The cake was a baseball diamond.
The mother (“I always had this talent”) decorated the boat herself, making her own paper flowers. To carry off half of the double-play theme, the invitations were shaped like boats. And the return cards were addressed to Captain Scott Mellman.
There was dinner and dancing on the four-hour cruise. Captain Mellman’s mother said it cost her and her husband as much ‘as a dinner dance would have cost. “We just wanted to make something for the kid better than we had for ourselves,” she said.
YOU’D THINK that people would start to run out of ideas after awhile, but they don’t. They just compound them. One Bar Mitzvah that people are still talking about started out small. First there was a ten-piece band. Then the ten-piece band took a break and they brought in two rock and roll bands. Then the rock and roll bands took a break and they brought in a string band, a full-dress string band straight out of the Mummers Parade. All the time, there were go-go girls dancing in raised cages. And when the go-go girls took a break, they put a pair of fat twin sisters up there.
All of this was only a warmup for the final crusher. They opened the doors and in pranced this giant trained elephant from a circus in Florida. They had all the guests line up on one side with the elephant and the Bar Mitzvah boy on the other side, and every time the boy would nudge the elephant he would bow to the next guest.
The affair ran the whole weekend. And the circus part alone, which accounted for only about half of the festivities, cost $35,000.
TO QUALIFY for such sweepstakes, a boy has to put in several years of schooling. Usually, this means going to a Hebrew school about three times a week, two hours a day for around four years. It is a trying experience, becoming a man. Mark Moskowitz remembers.
“The worst thing about it, I think,” he says, “was that I couldn’t play Wiffle-ball on Tuesdays or Thursdays or Sundays.
“Some of the boys used to cut classes a lot and go to the shopping center and smoke cigarettes. One day I went with them and they made me smoke but I started to cough and choke because I’m allergic to smoke. That’s what my mother told me.
“From then on, I went to class every day and I studied very hard. When I was 12, I started going to Bar Mitzvah class.
“My parents had hired the hall even before I started class. I went with them when they met with the caterer. He was a funny-looking man and I couldn’t understand what he said because he kept talking with this big cigar in his mouth. Something about package deals. First he said the chicken deal would be $8.50 a person. ‘No chicken,’ my mother said. ’Chicken’s not good enough for my Markie.’ So they got the prime ribs. I think that was $12.50.
“Then we got the band. This Eddie Golden guy had an office right in the caterer’s place. The caterer said he was the best. So my parents hired him. He sat down with me and asked me what kind of music I liked. I told him I liked Grand Funk. My mother made me apologize.
“Next they went looking for invitations. At about the fifth place, my mother finally found what she liked. The invitations were supposed to have a blue-and-white-striped border around them because those are the colors of Israel. But when they came back, they were missing the blue stripe. The printer said my mother talked so much he never heard her say anything about a blue stripe. So my mother had to sit down with a blue pen and a ruler and make all the borders herself. All the time, she kept cursing the printer, but my Uncle Meyer told her not to worry because he knew a good lawyer and they could probably get enough money out of the guy to pay for the whole Bar Mitzvah.
“After the invitations, they went to order the flowers. This time my mother didn’t take me with her because I have rose fever. She told me the florist was going to spray them with something special so that I wouldn’t sneeze when I was making my speech.
“While my parents were picking the flowers, I had to make up a list of kids I wanted to invite. My mother told me I could invite 25 kids. All together, they were inviting 200 people. But they kept having arguments about cutting down the list. That’s why the invitations went out a week late.
“When it was time to have the dresses made, my mother and my grandmother and my aunts and everybody all went to Eva Melnick’s because my mother plays cards with her.
“Me and my father went to Fleet’s. First he wanted to take me to Krass Brothers. He said if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. But my mother wanted us to go to Fleet’s because she wanted me to get my picture in the paper.
“Fleet’s, you know, up on Castor Avenue, has this ad every week in the Jewish Exponent, and they show pictures in the ad of the kids who buy their Bar Mitzvah suits there, and they give them a whole little write-up and everything. My mother said it wasn’t such a great picture. She said I should have smiled more. She said it cost her $2,000 at the orthodontist for my braces, so I should smile more.
“The man who painted my official portrait, the one that’s hanging up in the living room now, says I smiled allright. My mother is mad at him too, though, because he painted my eyes brown, and when you look real close, they’re really hazel. Uncle Meyer says the lawyer can handle two cases.
“Anyway, we had to go to the party place next. That’s the place where they make the, what do you call them, favors. The place was owned by these two ladies. One of them was in my mother’s Jewish war veterans chapter. My mother had everything made with my name on it—the matchbooks, the napkins, the cake bags.
“Everybody was really so busy when it came time for the Bar Mitzvah. I had to go to Friday night services to say a prayer. My father was the only one who went with me. And the next day in synagogue for the Bar Mitzvah service, there were about 40 or 50 people I knew.
“The rabbi said I did real good reading from the Torah, so then the pressure was off me. The only thing I had to do at night was make a speech at the affair. And I didn’t have to worry about that because my mother had already written it.”
EDDIE GOLDEN CALLS for another drum roll. “And now, ladies and gentleman, a most solemn part of this most happy occasion. Right now, we’d like to call up none other than our Bar Mitzvah boy himself, so he can say a few words to you all straight from his heart. Ladies and gentlemen, Mark Moskowitz.”
Mark takes the words straight from his pocket and when the applause dies down he starts to read. “I would like to thank all of you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah and helping to make it the great success that it is. And I want to thank each and every one of you for your wonderful gifts. But most of all, I want to thank my wonderful parents, without whom none of this could be possible.”
“Beautiful, Mark, just beautiful,” Eddie Golden says, taking out his silk handkerchief to brush a tear away. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, if we can bring the cake in, we’ll start the candle-lighting ceremonies. As you know, this is the highest honor the Bar Mitzvah boy can bestow on those near and dear to him, to ask them to light one of the 13 candles on his Bar Mitzvah cake.
“And now, all the way from Miami Beach to light the first candle, here they are, cousins Ben and Bessie Berkowitz.” Rat-tat-tat tat-tat-tat rat-tat-tat.
“And the second candle goes to . . . great aunt and uncle, Burt and Gert Goldstein.” Rat-tat-tat tat-ta-da rat-tat-tatta-da-da rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Boom.
It goes on. Each candle brings up another group of long-lost relatives, most of whom Mark won’t see again until the next Bar Mitzvah or wedding or funeral. And each relative and friend brings with him an envelope. The ever present envelope. They come in many sizes and many shapes and many colors, but they all have the same thing inside. The only real difference is in the denomination.
THE CANDLELIGHTING CEREMONY is over now.Eddie Golden strikes up the band and everybody forms a long line like a snake and starts dancing through the hall with Bubby Katz in the lead, shaking a finger in the air and throwing up a tangle of varicose veins every three steps. Just about the only one not dancing is the rabbi, who’s sitting in the corner finishing his baked Alaska.
“They’re not really bad people,” he says.”In fact, they’re good people. They mean well by all of this. Maybe I just see too many of these things. To them, a Bar Mitzvah is something that comes along once or twice in the lifetime of a family. But me, last year alone my synagogue had 75. That’s a lot of baked Alaska.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m just a deadhead. Maybe I’m just not, how do you say, ‘with it.’ But somewhere along the way, this whole thing has lost its religious significance.
“I’ve seen this coming since World War II. It’s been a parallel development to Jews becoming more comfortable and more stable economically.
“I just find it wasteful. Of course, these people are entitled to do what they want with their money. And not all Jews are like this. I hope I’m not leaving you with that impression. But it’s very hard to pinpoint the blame.
“You see, the Jewish community suffers from what I call a 13-year-old syndrome. Parents have helped set up the Bar Mitzvah as the ultimate achievement in a young man’s religious life. So the boy reaches Bar Mitzvah and he stops. He stops learning and he stops being anything more than a token Jew. Certainly this is nothing to celebrate. It’s no wonder people don’t come back to synagogue. At age 13, all they’ve got is a Mickey Mouse impression of religion. What’s to celebrate?
“Our synagogues have become little more than Bar Mitzvah mills. In fact, you don’t even have to study in Hebrew school any more. You can literally buy a Bar Mitzvah now. You can go to someone and pay him to teach your son just enough to get by on his Bar Mitzvah day. It might take only a few weeks.
“Why do the synagogues go along with all this? It’s simple. They need the money. While their child is studying, the parents pay a membership fee. And that helps keep the synagogue going.
“But I look at some of these affairs and I wonder if we’re not better off going broke. I mean, some of these things are pretty sick.
“I tell you, you just don’t know what to expect next. Last week in my own synagogue there was a Bar Mitzvah. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it as long as I live. It was one of those theme affairs. The parents didn’t tell me what it was going to be. They said they wanted it to be a surprise.
“I came down from my vestry to hear a lot of strange music. The mother of the boy met me at the door. All I could see were a lot of little tents and people in sheets and a big chopped liver camel.
” ‘How do you like it?’ the mother beamed.
” ‘I’m afraid I don’t know what it is,’ I said.
” ‘Why, Rabbi,’ she said, ‘it’s an Arab bazaar!’ ”
THE PARTY’S OVER. His family and friends say good-bye to Mark Moskowitz, the man. At home, finally, Mark Moskowitz slumps on the couch and unloosens his tie.
“I think now that it was all worth it,” he says. “It used to bother me going to Hebrew school all those years learning some funny language that I knew I was never going to use. But now I feel different. I’m not sure what it is. But something has happened to me.
“You know, while I was making my speech today, I kept thinking of this story from the Bible that my Hebrew school teacher taught me. It’s a story about a father passing down all of the things he has to his son. But the most important things, the story said, weren’t the things you could buy with money.
“Today was one of the weirdest days of my life. A lot of that stuff was pretty gross, but I know my parents meant well. It’s funny, they thought they were doing it all for me, but I was doing it for them. For the first time in my life I realized what it really means. To be a man.”