Maury Z. Levy

The Coming of Age of Mark Moskowitz: The Bar Mitzvah Story Your Rabbi Doesn’t Want You to Read

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on February 1, 2011 at 9:52 am

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.”

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  1. Nicely done Maury. Having thrown one of these myself last year, I can totally relate. Fortunately, out here in SF in the 21st Century, things were a little different.

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