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The Bar Mitzvah Boy

The Bar Mitzvah Boy

– Fiction by Shalom Camenietzki –

Featured in issue 17 of Dreamers Magazine

Homemade Insanity

“So far, Jerry’s bar mitzvah is coming along flawlessly,” Irwin Glasberg remarked under his breath. “Not a single blooper,” he thought, proud of his son and of Jennifer, his wife, who had made most of the arrangements for celebrating that joyous landmark at shul and at home.

Jerry’s grandparents had already been called up to the bimah, the shul’s small, raised wooden platform, to intone the blessings preceding and following that Saturday’s Torah readings. To calm down, Irwin silently re-read that week’s story of God testing patriarch Abraham’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac , on an altar, as if he were a lamb or a young goat.

Irwin shivered as he glanced at Jerry, now sitting to his father’s right and panting. He looked fidgety and worried, Jerry, though he’d rehearsed, what felt like a hundred times, the ceremony of being called to the bimah to read out loud a passage from the Torah and a portion from Kings a short while later. Jerry was also scheduled to deliver a D’var Torah, his interpretation of spiritual issues raised by that week’s readings.

But now, at the shul, Irwin anxiously inspected those seated in rows of chairs ahead and beside him. Almost all men, it pleased Irwin to find out, wore dark suits, white shirts, and satiny, colourful neckties. Women too participated in the services, and it was evident that their dresses, jewelry, and smart hats, had been chosen meticulously.

At last, the sonorous voice of Simon Hirsh, the shul’s tall, hoary president, summoned the “bar mitzvah boy” to the bimah, where an open Torah scroll was resting on a chest-high wooden table. Jerry hesitantly took the few steps up to the top of the bimah, where he recited, perfectly, the blessings, then read out loud a portion of that Saturday’s Torah readings, followed by reading a passage from Kings.

Irwin thought that his short-statured son looked like a ten-year old, whose high-pitched, soprano voice made his physical underdevelopment noticeable. He was painfully aware of the nickname his son’s acquaintances used to tease Jerry. “Shrimp,” they called him.

Irwin’s own bar mitzvah, thirty years ago, took place in the same shul as Jerry’s. At the time Irwin was exceedingly anxious to please his father, who expected his son to chant the blessings, then read out loud portions of the Torah and Isaiah in an articulate, soothing voice.

Days before his bar mitzvah celebration, thirteen-years-old Irwin had barely slept; he’d dreaded disappointing his father by performing poorly at the bimah. And yet, young Irwin read out loud exceptionally well, perfectly chanting each word and phrase as articulately as he’d been taught. Still, it took Irwin weeks before his anguish over his performance at the bimah had gradually receded into the background and become a fond memory that Irwin’s parents and grandparents were pleased and proud of.

Once Jerry had intoned passages from the Torah and Kings faultlessly, Jennifer twice tweaked her husband’s hand, to congratulate him and herself on their son’s accomplishment. Irwin smiled lovingly at his wife, then turned around, reflexively, to gaze at his old father, who bowed his head twice, then smiled at Irwin triumphantly, to acknowledge his grandson’s superb performance.

After Jerry’s readings some congregants merrily pelted at him colourful, cellophane-wrapped, soft candies. Hands raised to protect his face, Jerry looked tense and worried, as a dozen or so children gleefully picked up the candies strewed on the floor by the bimah and stuffed them into their pockets.

“Jerry seems overly anxious about reading his D’var Torah out loud,” Irwin thought. But moments later he asked himself, “Why am I so afraid of my son embarrassing his parents, grandparents, and himself? Why can’t I just enjoy Jerry’s achievement? Sit back! Relax!” he commanded himself, wondering, not for the first time, why he was so strict, and so demanding of his son and of himself.


A short while later Jerry was standing up on the bimah, all alone. “Stop worrying and enjoy what’s unfolding,” Irwin angrily rebuked himself. “Weeks ago I helped my son edit and rewrite his D’var Torah. And in a few hours, Jennifer and I will be hosting a large celebration at our home. Jerry will be standing by the door, welcoming, hugging, and shaking hands with relatives, family friends, and half a dozen of his classmates. Nothing intimidating, nothing terribly demanding,” Irwin reminded himself, to allay his anxious worries.

Irwin eagerly watched his son stuff his hand into his pocket and pull out his printed D’var Torah, seemingly calm enough to read it perfectly. Eyes focused on the high ceiling, Jerry seemed to be praying for inspiration to descend upon him.

A high school teacher inured to grading poorly written and inarticulate essays, Irwin had marveled at his son’s precise and self-confident delivery as he’d practiced at home in their living room. He was pleased and prideful that Jerry was about to read the speech he’d rewritten, several times, with only minor editorial suggestions by his father.

“Today,” Jerry at long last uttered, “I won’t be commenting on the Torah itself, but on a political topic that is of great concern to us Jews.”

Irwin winced as if he’d sighted a viper about to pounce. The D’var Torah he’d helped his son rewrite came directly from the Torah, revolving around Abraham, whose faith God had tested for reasons Genesis had neither explained nor commented on.

“In our times,” Jerry now eyed the congregation, “divine tests are no longer needed. Tests like Abraham’s were relevant before the Holocaust, when faith in a loving, benevolent, and caring God was widespread and intense. But these days,” Jerry raised his soprano voice, “after millions of Jews were exterminated like fruit flies, the testing of one’s faith has become unnecessary, perhaps even redundant.”

Now facing the congregation, Jerry gazed at the empty space for a while, as if still searching for stronger and more precise arguments. Irwin wished he could have gone up to his son and bluntly told him, “Don’t fool around, son! Just read the commentary you’ve worked hard on for half a year!”

Moments later, in a soft, barely audible voice Jerry began to address the congregation. He didn’t read what he’d written, but seemed to be improvising as he went along. “As practicing Jews,” he declared, “we must examine the fate of a million Palestinians who live in squalid quarters. They may not be starving to death, but their feelings of humiliation, despair, and helplessness may affect the decisions they make, and the actions they carry out.”

“Why in God’s name is Jerry not reading the D’var Torah I’ve helped him with,” Irwin asked himself, feeling that he was to blame for something he couldn’t put into words.

“Divine tests, such as Abraham’s,” Jerry continued, his voice thin and tremulous, “may have been relevant for centuries, but in our time,” Jerry confidently raised his child-like voice, “the testing of one’s faith has become a frequent event.”

Though furious about Jerry’s performance, Irwin marveled at his son’s in-depth thinking. He couldn’t, however, accept that Jerry was not reading what his father had helped him with.

Jerry now gazed at the ceiling, as if on a search for strong, more convincing arguments. Irwin wished he could have bellowed, “Don’t, son! Just read what you wrote! And please, please don’t embarrass your grandparents and parents! Just read what took you half a year of hard work to create!”

After a brief pause, Jerry continued, “As practicing Jews we must keep in mind the fate of the Palestinian people because their seething humiliation may lead some of them to kill as many Israelis as possible.”

The congregation was now so deathly silent that Irwin could hear people sitting near him breathe in and out. He was astounded by his son’s disrespect for millenarian traditions and customs, but decided not to react – not right now, he furiously told himself. In that moment Irwin recalled how he’d heard of Jewish teenagers drawing swastikas on books and walls, to draw their parents’ and teachers’ attention to their angry, rebellious feelings.

“As for the Palestinian refugees,” Jerry raised his voice, “every sincere Jew ought to share some of the responsibility for the suffering and pain the Palestinians have for seven decades been struggling with.” Irwin’s face was now scalding hot from the fury consuming him. But, before he could decide how to deal with his son’s provocative speech, Howard Cohen, a tall, burly, almost entirely white-haired man stood up and cried out, “The only reason I won’t tell you, Jerry, what I honestly think of you and your presentation today is that I’ve been a friend of your father for thirty years! I’ll do all I can not to let my contempt for you upset him! And I won’t say a word here about your political beliefs, since I might use offensive language no one should ever utter in shul!”

Somehow encouraged by Howard’s words, Irwin asked himself why his son was preaching self-pity to the congregation. “What in God’s name do politics have to do with D’var Torah on Shabbat,” Irwin angrily asked himself. And no less perturbing was his son talking to adults in a condescending tone, as if they knew nothing at all about the suffering of an entire nation.

After a moment of silence Jerry looked pale and shaky as he stammered, “There are now…a million refugees living in utter squalor, they– ”

Here Albert Schwartz, an active member of the congregation, jumped to his feet red-faced and evidently unable to contain his fury. In a deep baritone he bellowed, “At the time, there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Could you, Jerry, name one – just one – Palestinian activist who condemned the expulsion of so many Jews from Arab countries?”

Seemingly frozen, Jerry now stood up ramrod straight on the bimah, wondering why some of his ideas had abandoned him. He looked hurt and helpless, a little boy dressed up in adult clothes; and the oversized prayer shawl draped over his narrow shoulders felt like a mockery of grown-ups’ incapacity to solve the moral and political issues perturbing Jerry.

Shalom Camenietzki

About the Author – Shalom Camenietzki

obtained his doctorate in psychology from the University of Kansas in 1970. Since 1981, he has been in private practice of psychology in Toronto. So far, ten of his stories have appeared in Canadian literary magazines. In 2006, Thistledown Press of Saskatoon published his collection of stories titled “The Atheist’s Bible.” In 2020, the University of Regina Press published his memoir of bipolar disorder called “Out of My Mind: A Psychologist’s Descent into Madness and Back.”

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