Bar Mitzvah Boys (thats me on the left & Howie on the right)
My 13th birthday was fast approaching, only a year away and with that fact came the nightmare that I would have to be bar mitzvahed. I had never attended Hebrew school, nor did I ever want to and my parents went along with it. I don’t know if this had to do with their religious non-beliefs, lack of money or just not caring, but lucky me I was never forced to attend. My family was very non-practicing, I can recall very few times that they attended synagogue even on the high holidays. On those holy days when I was 11 or 12 my mother would sneak us out of the house to have Chinese food or we would go to Manhattan and take in a few movies. I believe that we went to see Psycho in Times Square on Yom Kippur in 1960. Later that night after returning to Brooklyn from the movies or Chinese food my mom would park the red and white Pontiac blocks from our house and we walk back to our apartment passing some of our neighbors and yentas sitting outside resting after a hard day at the synagogue. But now we would have to face the fact that I had to start learning Torah for my transformation from a boy to a man. On the recommendation of my friend Howe’s mother I was to take private classes in Hebrew and Torah from a Rabbi Schatz who lived in the neighborhood. It just so happened that Howie was also studying with him and on some days we would take our lessons together. This was great because we were close friends. What was not so great was that we liked to goof off and to laugh at people who we thought were funny. We found the Rabbi, his wife and his ancient mother in law quite funny and we would crack up all the time during the lessons. When we misbehaved, the Rabbi would take his strap from his pants and hit us. This hurt but that didn’t stop us from laughing and carrying on. We would leave his house with welts on our thighs and asses. We were two little Jewish boy hipsters, wise guys and know it alls who would stop at nothing for a good laugh. We knew who the beats and Lenny Bruce were and for 12 year olds our humor was quite sophisticated but also silly and hurtful. The Rabbi would greet us at the door having just finished with his dinner, but his dinner was not quite finished with him, as traces would always be on his clothes and in his beard. He smelled. His house was dark and full of stuff and that also smelled. We sat in a small inner room off the front entrance way and over and over we would recite passages from old books in this strange language that had absolutely no meaning for me or Howie. To me all a bar mitzvah ever meant was that your parents threw you a big party with bad music, lousy food and lots of relatives who you had never seen before or would ever see again, and you got money or a watch or a fountain pen.As a young boy I always found the Jewish religion creepy and off puting. In synagogue You had to sit on hard uncomfortable wooden benches for hours as smelly dirty odd looking old men would sing or moan in Hebrew. The whole thing frighten me. I much preferred Christianity, not because of any beliefs, (this is another scary religion) but because it was pretty, what with all those glowing candles and twinkly Christmas lights and wonderfully wrapped presents. Growing up I had an Orthodox Jewish friend named Heshie who with his family lived in our building.. He was a nice boy and he would sneak up to our apartment to watch Superman on our TV. which was the only one in the entire building. The only Jewish holiday that I did like was Sukkot which was one of the few happy holidays in the Jewish religion. Observant Jews would build little houses on their property or in the backyards of apartment houses and would celebrate and actually live in them for a week or so. The holiday was celebrated 5 days after Yom Kippur and was symbolic of how the Jews lived in temporary dwellings after getting the hell out of Egypt. Heshie’s father would build the sukkah in the back yard of our building and the smell of the hay, bamboo poles, branches and wood that they would use to build the dwellings and for covering the roofs was lovely. To me it was like playing house or living in a little cabin in the woods, and looking back I can now see how these sweet odd buildings influenced my art. Forget Picasso or Matisee I was inspired by skukot. They would decorate them with colorful pieces of crepe paper and decorative hangings sometimes using fruit and vegetables. For a short time when I was a young boy I would go to synagogue on Friday nights with some of my more religious Jewish friends. I would put on a white shirt, my best pants and shoes and before going to services, Jeffrey and Eddie’s father would allow us to have sips of that awful sweet wine. I quickly became bored and uncomfortable with the whole thing and stopped going.. After studying with Rabbi Schatz for months, I decided that I could not go through with it. The thought of getting up in front of people and singing those words in Hebrew mortified me. I just wouldn’t do it. When I told my parents that I didn’t want to go through with it, they said “Fine.” I think they were relieved at not having to go through with this event either. So that year I went to Howie's, Marty's, Harold's, Sheldon's & Sid's Bar Mitzvahs and I knew that my day of reckoning was fast approaching. I would have to make up a good story about why I didn’t have a celebration for this my 13th birthday. I told Howie and others that I just went to synagogue with my parents and did the bar mitzvah only among them and the Rabbi. Of course Howie saw through the lie, after all he lived right next door to me for many years, and knew that I did not want to be Bar Mitzvahed, but he never questioned me about it. Years later we discussed it, and all he said was that he knew, but at that point neither of us cared anyway and Howie had converted to Christianity.