Tomorrow marks an auspicious anniversary for me. A staggering number of years ago, I was bar mitzvah’d, which, for those who don’t know, is a rite of passage in the Jewish religion for a 13-year old boy. (Or girl.) Strange as it sounds, mine was on TV. (This, about five decades before YouTube.) Stay tuned, as I shall explain.
The bar mitzvah is the culmination of three years of studying Hebrew. But, for my friends and me, most of the time was spent refining the art of covertly consuming sunflower seeds. It wasn’t until my bar mitzvah was only months away did it dawn on me that I knew alarmingly little Hebrew.
I was more concerned with baseball, i.e. was I going to make a little league team? Or, would I grow to be over 5 feet? (Given that many of my relatives barely had.) People often refer to Jews as “the chosen people.” Yes, chosen to be short, bald and have high blood pressure.
As my bar mitzvah date got closer, I had a puzzling conversation in the kitchen with my mother, who happened to be on the temple board. “How would you like to be bar mitzvah’d on TV?” she asked feigning innocence.
“What’s for dinner?” I responded matter-of-factly.
In way of background, in the late 1950s, apparently rabbis in Los Angeles were concerned about a lack of Jewish religious TV programming. They successfully lobbied KTLA and it was decided that a bar mitzvah would be the ideal ceremony for TV. (As opposed to a bris, for example. If you don’t know why, Google “bris.”)
The rabbis searched their upcoming schedules to find the right bar mitzvah boy. I was selected, ironically enough, because I didn’t look “too Jewish.” Oy.
My reaction to my mother’s proposal was, “No way, but what’s for dessert?” She said she “respected my decision” but I would have to inform the rabbi myself. Our rabbi was 6 feet, 3 inches tall, had a booming voice and, as far as I was concerned, was God’s right hand man. I was 5 feet and had a voice like Mickey Mouse.
Later that week in rabbi’s office, he outlined my choices. I could do my bar mitzvah on TV and “help promote understanding between religions,” or not, it was entirely up to me. Some choice. God, rabbi, and my mother on one side, and Hitler’s ghost on the other.
Given my bar mitzvah was going to be on television, over the next month I received intense tutoring from our cantor. Finally I was ready. And, on a sweltering Saturday, I was bar mitzvah’d. To understand the stress you need only watch “A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers’ movie. The tension on the bar mitzvah boy’s face was so real it gave me flashbacks for weeks.
Sunday, at 7 a.m., my father, my mother and I drove to KTLA Studios. But rehearsal began with the unsettling news that my speech needed “minor changes.” The studio had decided that a portion of the audience might get lost in some of the religious terminology, as it was a little … “too Jewish.” (I kid you not, as they say.)
When I developed a case of nerves, they introduced me to Tom Hatten who played Popeye on a popular kids’ show. What Hatten was doing there at that hour, I have no idea. I recently tried to get the Kinescope from KTLA but to no avail.
Popeye (Hatten) gave me a “you can do it, kid” pep talk. I was just relieved that he didn’t whip out a can of spinach. In any event, the “the show must go on,” and did.
The only glitch involved my Uncle Benny. Normally, a grandfather carries the Torah over to the bar mitzvah boy. But my grandparents had all passed away before I was born so Uncle Benny was given the honor. Actually, I’m not sure “honor” is the right word. Perhaps “burden.” You see Uncle Benny was barely taller than the Torah. As he wobbled under the weight, I thought he was going to wind up on his back, pinned under the Torah.
Also, Uncle Benny had never been on TV before. So, when he saw himself in the monitor (something we were told NOT to do), he froze with curiosity. He even made faces into the camera. The exasperated director was on his hands and knees, arms flailing wildly to get Benny to move. For me, it was the only truly fun moment of my bar mitzvah.
Afterwards, my mother rejoiced. Relatives as far away as San Diego had seen my bar mitzvah. Personally, I was exhausted. Within the past 24 hours I had become a man and been baptized (excuse the expression) into show business. At least now I could get back to baseball and sunflower seeds.
When he’s not wondering how he got so old, Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.