by Phil Jacobs
So when we were brainstorming about stories for our bar and bat mitzvah section, I have to admit I drifted away in a day dream.
My bar mitzvah was on Oct. 8, 1966, parshat B'reishit, the very first parsha in the Torah.
I can remember Rabbi Gus Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel in Baltimore using every distraction he could to keep me from passing out with nervousness. He told me to look at the clock on the back wall of the temple. But that wasn't going to work, and I knew it. He told me the old one about pretending everyone in the room was sitting in their underwear, but that still didn't do it for me.
Finally, Rabbi Gus hit me in my sweet spot, the Orioles.
Oct. 8, 1966, might have been the day I "became a man," despite my soprano voice and fear of speaking in front of anyone with a pulse, or anyone without a pulse for that matter. But Oct. 8 was also the day that the Baltimore Orioles took another step towards becoming one of the greatest sports teams of that era. A guy named Wally Bunker outpitched Dodger Claude Osteen, and the Orioles' centerfielder Paul Blair hit a fifth-inning solo home run for the game's only score.
I made it through my Torah portion and haftarah, and the Orioles won the third game of the World Series at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. They'd sweep the series the next day with a repeat 1-0 score. It was, I believe, the lowest scoring series in history.
Before any pitches were thrown, I still had to get through the bar mitzvah, and I remember Rabbi Gus being so concerned that I was so nervous, that he took me into his office and went to my comfort zone, baseball. He asked me about the Orioles, and who I thought would win the game that day. He talked about the games he remembered as a kid, and in the 20 minutes I had before getting on the bima, we learned that we had something very much in common - a love of baseball.
That was like a manager coming to the mound to settle down a pitcher. That's what Rabbi Gus did, he settled me down, had me focus on the parsha and somehow, someway, we hit the spiritual ball out of the park.
I guess I wanted to write about this for our special section because I've been to countless b'nai mitzvah celebrations in my life, and I am so impressed with the job that the children do on the bima. Some seem effortless in their command of the tefillah or prayer. A great deal has to be said about the rabbis, cantors, teachers and parents who help their children sometimes reach levels of achievement beyond even their own expectations.
I see Rabbi Gus from time to time, and it gives me such joy to be able to point to that man and say, "See that gentleman, he was my bar mitzvah rabbi."
After the Hebrew service was completed, I had to give a speech, which of course was mostly written by my now late father, Morton. The speech I wrote talked about opening a door of my life and stepping through to accept my role among the Jewish people. The speech made it sound like I was trading in my childhood of baseball cards and model cars overnight for a life dedicated to spirituality.
Rabbi Buchdahl told me to keep that door ajar a bit, and still enjoy life as a young teen, pointing out that activities such as baseball can have their spiritual sides.
After the bar mitzvah service, my parents held a luncheon in my honor. All the while we kept looking at our watches wondering what was happening at Memorial Stadium. Obviously, this was before one could watch the results of each pitch on a cellphone. But one friend did do something that I also remember. He snuck in a transistor radio and had an earplug. I bet he got more handshakes than I did.
Now I have witnessed so many different forms of b'nai mitzvah that I hardly recognize what I grew up with. Parents are spending tens of thousands of dollars on their children's bar or bat mitzvah. However, it's all for a happy event, and one in which the honored child donates a major portion of his or her bar/bat mitzvah money gifts to charities.
I am one to believe, though, that it will be the little things, the behind-the-scenes discussions and interactions, which will be remembered by the bar and bat mitzvah children. The videos are great, the themes often show creativity beyond belief, but there's always that little conversation with the rabbi or the person who taught the child his or her parsha, those are the elements of continuity that will be remembered. Those memories are very important, along with later in life going back to that video and seeing family members who perhaps aren't with us anymore, their pride, their contributions to the lives of the bar and/or bat mitzvah child.
There was one part of the bar mitzvah back in 1966 that I remember the most, and it's something I keep with me to this day.
Rabbi Buchdahl taught my father to say "May the Lord Bless You and Keep You, and May the Lord shine His countenance for you and establish peace for you for you all of your days." He taught my father to say this in Hebrew. My late dad didn't know a great deal of Hebrew, but on the bima that day in October 1966, my father with such pride held his hands over my head and said the prayer. I remember that.
And I remember it on those Friday nights when I say that prayer to my two daughters. And I watch as my oldest daughter, the mother of our grandson, and her husband say the same prayer to their toddler son.
So the flowers, the banquet and the music are all important.
But it's the stuff that is taught quietly by a teacher to a student that will outlast everything. It's part of the continuity of our Jewish lives.
And one thing is for sure - it's tough to inspire your son or daughter with a talk about the Orioles these days.