By Bill Levine (Belmont, MA)
Every 50 years or so, my dad hosted a Bar Mitzvah celebration. The first was my own Bar Mitzvah in 1964, and then a belated celebration for my 20-year old nephew in 2013. I appreciated my dad’s second celebration of Judaism much more than the first as it was an event that sealed off the fallout from sibling toxicity—at least for a day.
When my father first announced his intention to stage this rite of passage, I was skeptical. I couldn’t envision my sister’s son, Gabe, adding to his Brandeis academics with Bar Mitzvah lessons. I worried that dad at 94 didn’t have the wherewithal and energy to transform this bucket list item to reality. Then there was the problem of my sister and I. Could we collaborate instead of fight over our object of estrangement, namely dad’s checkbook?
On a Sunday afternoon in April it really did happen. At my sister’s request, I had agreed to cut dad’s checks for Bar Mitzvah shoes for Gabe and floral flourishes instead of just flowers. With our help, Dad was able to shepherd in his last hurrah, and my nephew dedicated himself to learning Torah. As the cantor warmed up the guests by extoling the virtues of my nephew, I surveyed the makeshift sanctuary. The buffet table was packed with eating contests portions of deli. No one would leave hungry unless they were vegan.
The Senior Life residence function room filled with odd demographics—mostly under 21 Brandeis students; aging baby boomers; and the over 85 crowd. It was an advertiser’s nightmare: no one 25-54. What resonated with me the most, though, was that my dad, my nuclear family, and my sister’s brood were all in the same room for the first time since my dad’s 90th birthday party was held four years ago.
Later in the service I was called up for an aliyah to close the portable ark in tandem with my sister. Due to our recent turbulent relationship, I was disarmed when she gave me this procedural honor. But it occurred to me that maybe closing the ark curtains could start to close the curtains on several years of friction between us.
After the service, my dad’s “greatest generation” crowd headed right for the buffet table, happy to be partaking of a spread that wasn’t punctuated by the sadness of a shiva. Our extended family—consisting of dad, my son Matt, my sister, my niece Molly, myself and my wife Lesley—all sat together for the first time since mom’s funeral six years before. Our table talk was a triumph based on the low expectation threshold of no put-downs or arguments. Meanwhile, a sprinkling of long-time connections paid their respects to my wheel-chair bound dad, introducing themselves with a hopeful “Remember me…”
Later came the shared “what a family moment.” My fellow boomer cousin, Johnny, took out his iPhone, and my family huddled around to view a series of standard old relative shots featuring great-aunts in voluminous bathing suits on long demolished boardwalks. Then Johnny showed us a picture of three well-dressed men in a 1940s swank nightclub. One was my great-uncle, one a cousin, and, unbelievably, the third man was Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper. Right then I thought, Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? To hang out with my family, obviously. Our family was blessed with a TMZ (a celebrity gossip TV show and website) moment.
When the guests left, they took with them large Styrofoam containers of deli, enough for several brunches. My sister had ordered too much food at my dad’s expense. I was irked. But I understood there was a truce on sibling rancor. Besides, I thought dad might have preferred the gluttony because at his Depression-era Bar Mitzvah his monetary gifts had doubled as the payments to the caterer.
A year after the Bar Mitzvah, dad was dead, and my sister and I were dueling heirs yet again. But dad had given me that day a lasting snapshot of a functioning, reasonably happy birth family. It is still a vision to shoot for.
Bill Levine is a semi-retired IT professional, aspiring humorist, and freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.
Note: “A Lasting Snapshot” was published previously as “The Bar Mitzvah Gift” in the Jewish Advocate and also on a senior’s web-site, GO60.US. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.