by Jack Braverman (Sarasota, FL)
This was the day that I was to become a man. It was the day of my bar mitzvah. I could only wonder about all of this. I was the smallest of boys, and I knew that in all ways I was just a little kid.
Everyone was rushing. My mother, Lisle, and my father, Nachman, were getting dressed in their very best. My sister, Marilyn, was yelling something about nylons. Her fiancée, Stanley, was coming to pick her up in a little while so they could go out together for breakfast before going to Temple.
I said the brucha that I had been taught and pulled my tzit tzit up over my head. I put on a new stiff white shirt and clumsily tied my tie into a giant knot. This made the tie too short, so I tried again, and this time the knot came out lopsided, but the tie was the right length. I put on the new suit my mother had bought me from the tailor at the dry-cleaning store. It was my very first suit made too big so I could grow into it and made of thick, stiff, scratchy wool that made me feel itchy all over. I could wear it to my sister’s and brother’s engagement parties and their summer weddings so it wouldn’t be a waste.
I looked in the mirror and tried to smile. Sometimes I wondered if I was normal. Other kids laughed and smiled. I just couldn’t seem to smile. I didn’t know what it felt like to be happy. I usually felt just sort of numb. My parents had often told me how hard their lives had been as children. They had been new immigrants so it had been a struggle for their family just to survive. They often went hungry, were often cold, and some of their brothers and sisters just weren’t strong enough and had died as young children. My father had to leave school in the third grade to sell newspapers in the streets of Montreal. He had learned then how to fight for the best street corners, how to jump onto a speeding trolley to sell some papers and then to jump between the cars onto the next trolley that passed before the conductors could collect a fare. The school of “hard knocks,” my father had called it.
So my father taught me what he himself had learned as a child in order to survive—how to fight with your fists and how to knock someone out before they knocked you out, how to be tough and take a punch and never ever show pain or weakness, how to be a man. So I learned how to be tough. I challenged the other boys to hit me in the stomach and trained myself to take any punch they could give. I never flinched, never showed pain, never cried. But no matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to be as strong or as tough as my father wanted me to be. My mother taught me what she had learned as a child—how to account for every penny, how to work tirelessly without stopping from before dawn to well after dark, to never to give up, to hold my feelings deep inside and never let them show. I was a good student. I learned what my parents taught me.
My parents moved often so I had to go to a variety of different Hebrew Schools. I never much liked Hebrew School. When I lived in Far Rockaway and Brighton Beach, I had to ride my bike to get there, so it was easy to just get lost along the way. Then I would weave my bike slowly back and forth across the whole width of some back road, leaning hard into the turns, feeling the edge, feeling the slow hypnotic rhythm as I rode one curve into another, feeling the bike as it felt the road. Sometimes I made it to school, sometimes I didn’t.
When my family moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn, I was within walking distance to Hebrew School, so I couldn’t use my bike to get there. There was a collapsed building right next door to the school, and there I could spend the hours I was supposed to be in school. Jumping off the edge of one broken wall to another, playing at being an adventurer who could find my footing on the edge of any precipice, leaping out over broken glass and steel shards from one ruined wall to another, improvising more and more difficult jumps—allowing my feet to feel the strength and shape of the broken brick, trusting my senses to gauge the jump and then jumping beyond what I had ever done before, testing my courage, challenging myself to climb higher and jump further, trusting my feet to find their own footing. There was a feeling of danger, and I reveled in it because it made me feel alive.
The Hebrew School teachers in Brooklyn weren’t kind when boys missed class or disobeyed. They taught as they themselves had been taught. Brutalized when they were children, these teachers taught brutality along with the Hebrew alphabet. They walked the aisles striking each desk with a thick wooden pointer as they passed, seeking out the boys who looked away or showed fear for they knew that these were the boys who were not prepared. There was an edginess, a feeling of danger, in the classroom as they called on one boy after another, waiting to catch one unprepared or not paying attention. When they caught one, they would humiliate him, embarrass him, scrape their wooden pointer across their knuckles or slap it across their backs. Sometimes they smashed the pointers across a desk, and the loud crack of wood splintering always managed to command attention. I read well, so the teachers rarely called on me. I made up a game of making the teachers believe I was asleep, resting my head on my books or mindlessly staring out the windows, knowing I was baiting the teachers, knowing that if I lost my place as I played the game I would be shamed or hit or thrown out. I knew it was risky, but it was the very risk that made it fun.
Occasionally, some of the biggest boys, who were bigger even than the teachers, answered back. It was then that little Rabbi Menachim, who wasn’t much taller than 5 feet, would be called in. Rabbi Menachim was the toughest teacher in the school. No matter how big they were, Rabbi Menachim just grabbed these boys by their collar, lifted them right up out of their seats, and threw them down the stairs. Rabbi Menachim became my bar mitzvah teacher, and after throwing one boy out of school Rabbi Menachim confided in me that when he himself was a boy of just fifteen, he had disobeyed his father by cutting his hair short to be like the other kids. His father had thrown him down the stairs and out of his house. Then Rabbi Menachim’s father sat shiva for seven days as if his son were dead and never did speak to him again.
The rabbi told me that though the bruises from being thrown down the stairs went away in a few days, the pain of hearing his own father say the prayer for the dead for him —the pain of looking into his father’s eyes while his father looked right through him as if he weren’t there—that pain was with him still. The personal confidences that Rabbi Menachim shared with me created a special bond between us, and I worked very hard to please the rabbi.
Rabbi Menachim made it very clear to all of his students that if they could not or would not sing in the very fast, precise, restrained, somewhat stilted way that he taught, they would be bar mitzvahed anyway. They would sit up on the bima, but they would sit there like fools, shamed and embarrassed in front of all of their friends and family because they would sit up there in front of everyone and say nothing. He insisted on the form of the cantillation being perfect—every word sung in an even controlled tone, no part louder or softer, no part faster or slower.
I worked as hard as I could at being the perfect student for Rabbi Menachim. I did just as I was told, and the rabbi gave me more and more to chant and finally gave me the Torah portion itself to chant. I sang every note perfectly and distinctly just as I was taught, even though the stiffness and the flatness made the words sound dead—without spirit or heart or melody.
The chanting that Rabbi Menachim taught sounded nothing like the cantorial music that my father listened to at home. My father would sit at home in the evening listening to old scratchy recordings of the great cantors of Europe and America—Moishe Kousevitsky, Rosenblatt, Serota. These were the cantors from a lost age, my father would tell me. These were cantors who had found a poetry, a natural harmony, in the Torah. They sang with a mesmerizing rhythm, an intensity, an anguish, a cry in their voices that drew me in. My father called these cantors chazans—those who could sing with a feeling in their voices that came from somewhere beyond themselves. They gave a voice to the pain, the loss, the loneliness and the hopes of generations of Jews. The chazans, my father told me, were those who could recreate the ancient haunting melodies hidden deep within the Torah.
I heard that same music over and over for years growing up. My father would sit in a chair listening, crying quietly as he listened, revealing an emotion that I didn’t know my father had. My father and I didn’t talk much but since my father always seemed pleased when I sat down and just listened, I sat with him often. He told me that these chazans“sang from the heart” and “that was why their singing was so powerful.”
“Singing from the heart, touches the heart,” he would say.
Sometimes when I was sure no one was around, I played those old records, listening carefully to the anguished chant of those chazans. I even found a recording of my own Torah portion and sang along and joined in with the recording, singing in the loudest voice that I could, filling the room with my voice, releasing something inside that was almost dead.
My sister, Marilyn, came in to see me before she left with her fiancé for breakfast. She retied my tie, tucked in my shirt, which was half out, kissed me on the cheek, and gave me a hug.
I sat up on the bima waiting to get up to sing my portion. It was the Akedah, the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. God himself had had to intervene to stop the sacrifice. This was the Abraham whom God had told to lech lecha, to leave his father’s house, to leave everything he had known, and go to himself. What a strange idea, I thought. To reach beyond everything he had known by going to himself, to reach into himself in order to go beyond himself. Is this what I’m doing now, I wondered?
I felt even smaller than usual sitting up there alone, vulnerable in front of all those people. I swung my feet back and forth while I waited to be called. I could hear Rabbi Menachim’s instructions in my head. I could still hear the pain in the rabbi’s voice when the rabbi had told the story about his father saying the prayer for the dead for him.
I felt confused. Didn’t Rabbi Menachim’s own father sacrifice his son just for cutting his hair? Didn’t Rabbi Menachim himself sacrifice some of the bar mitzvah boys just because they couldn’t sing perfectly? In my mind, I could hear the cries and the hypnotic chanting of the chazans. I could hear the rhythms of the poetry in the Torah, the mesmerizing passion. As I sat perched high up on the bima, I remembered my father sitting in the living room crying as he listened to the chazans chanting.
I wanted to please Rabbi Menachim. I wanted so desperately to finally please my father. I wanted to express the pounding, throbbing emotions that I felt. I wanted to stand up and scream out, “Here I am. I am a person. I have feelings too!” I wanted so much for my father just to notice me, to express some emotion towards me, to approve of something. I wanted to step out of the deadened, crushing life that I lived, unfeeling, numbed.
Was this a dream? A dream where I couldn’t feel? A dream where sad old men had taken over a religion and forgotten their heart and their spirit, where a son became dead to his father because he had cut his hair, where a father could cry for long dead cantors while ignoring his own living son sitting right in front of him?
I heard my name called in Hebrew. I stepped up onto a stool so I could see over the podium. Standing on the edge of that stool, I felt I was standing at the edge of the world, on the edge of everything I had ever known, and I could see a soft void in front of me waiting for me to fill it. All those faces in front of me.
Something was tearing at me inside. My head was throbbing. Thoughts and memories were crowding within me, pushing against each other, trying to get out. There was a pounding in my ears. My skin was hot. There was a cry pushing its way out of me: the anguish of Rabbi Menachim, my father’s tears, my own long buried ache pulsing and pounding within me. I was sweating. I could smell my own fear. I tried to control all these feelings that were exploding within me. I tried to hold myself together.
I could hear the words of my portion — “Heneni: here I am” —screaming in my head. I am a human being. I am someone, too. I won’t be crushed. I will be…….
An ancient haunting wail filled the synagogue echoing back from the rear walls. An ancient rhythm seemed to call out to each of the listeners, speaking to each of them in their own name, drawing them in with a passion and a cry that seemed to know each one’s secret pain. The usual constant murmuring in the synagogue was silenced. The passions of the chazans was still alive. A song from the heart touched many hearts that day. I looked up to see my father embarrassed, wiping away some tears before anyone noticed.
At the end, when I walked off the bima, I tried to catch the eye of Rabbi Menachim, but the rabbi stood there stone-faced. At first the rabbi seemed to turn away. But when he turned back toward me, he looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there. My father ran up to me, his face still wet, and, proud father that he was, he picked me up and held me up high like a trophy.
Rabbi Menachim and I never spoke again.
Jack Braverman was born and raised in “the old country,” better known as Brooklyn, New York. He dabbles in swimming, sailing, kayaking, photography, and writing short stories.