by Brett Harrison
Sometime after my 12th birthday, my parents asked me what I planned to do for my Bar Mitzvah. I answered that I would probably recite the “Haftorah” (a section of the Old Testament in Hebrew) at the shul (synagogue) and then have a party that night at the Sheraton Hotel.
They replied that although dancing the bunny hop with relatives I was just meeting was a nice idea, it would be so much nicer to go to Israel.
After all, not only would I be celebrating such a momentous occasion in The Holy Land, but I was giving my family a chance to see something they had never seen before.
Guess who won?
I was never a huge fan of family trips. Even when they were fun, too much went wrong. I grew up with a severe stutter, but with the help of three summers of speech camp, I had gotten to where I could speak with just a mild stammer. The only times I had difficulty were when I was tired or stressed out.
The next year I worked my tail off with both the rabbi and my Uncle Jack to make sure that when the big day came, I would not only speak fluently; I would absolutely shine. As with most family trips, there were problems. I was bitten on the big toe by what was probably a horseshoe crab in the Mediterranean. And a rabbinical convention in Jerusalem meant we had to double up in our hotel rooms. But somehow I made it to the big day.
Although many Jewish boys in my situation ended up at the Wailing Wall, the travel agent knew a small orthodox synagogue that would provide a more intimate setting.
So here I was, wearing a suit bought in New York just for this occasion with my family watching me in separate sections for men and women. I was nervous as heck, but surely God would smile on me as I was sure he smiled on all Bar Mitzvah boys on their big day.
If he smiled on me at all that day, it quickly turned into a chuckle. I was sitting in my designated seat waiting for the rabbi to commence the service when a very nice, very old man picked that exact moment to start a conversation.
“Where are you from?” asked my new best friend in heavily accented English.
I would have rather not answered him, but that was hardly an option. It would have been rude. “W-W-W-Williamsport, P-P-P-Pennsylvania” I responded in a stutter. I was nervous, after all.
He meditated on my answer the way a scholar meditates on a new piece of information. Then he responded, “Ah, Montreal. I been there many times. It is quite a beautiful city.” I thought either he was hard of hearing or he was confused by my stutter. But the “why” paled in comparison to the “what.” Quick thinking was in order.
“Yes it is,” I said, hoping that was the end of it. I figured there was no point in correcting him. At least then, I managed not to stutter.
He smiled in satisfaction and let me get back to my anxiety attack. Despite my anxiety, I totally aced the Haftorah.
If you’ve ever witnessed a Bar Mitzvah, you know there are usually speeches at the end of the service congratulating the young man for a job well done. Since the rabbi spoke little or no English, however, this job was left to a Mr. Bamberger, the synagogue’s president.
“Brett,” Mr. Bamberger began, “We would like to thank you and your family for sharing this blessed occasion with our small but fiercely proud congregation. We hope that you take this memory back with you to your friends and other family members in the United States as you begin an important new chapter in your life as a Jew and as a young…”
A little boy who couldn’t have been more than 7 scrambled up to Mr. Bamberger with a sense of urgency on his face usually reserved for impending catastrophes. Mr. Bamberger handled the interruption with uncommon grace as he let the boy whisper into his ear, raised his eyebrows just a little bit and sent the boy back to his seat.
Naturally, the boy had to be sent by my new buddy, the historian. Thinking I was from Montreal, he didn’t want me to be embarrassed. A little late for that, but he meant well.
“I am so sorry. What I meant to say, Brett, was that we hope you take this memory back to your friends and family back in Montreal, Canada”
As before, there was not a lot I could do but roll with the punches. In the eyes of my religion, the synagogue and my family, I was now a man. So I chose to act like one and let it roll off my back and not correct the gentleman. And since my family was just happy I was celebrating my Bar Mitzvah in Israel, Mr. Bamberger could have said I was from Bulgaria, and no one would have cared.
Brett Harrison is a freelance writer who has lived in Philly for more than 30 years. At various times he has written film reviews, humorous pieces and light journalism. He is currently working on a loosely autobiographical play. He was a finalist in Philly Pitch in 2006, where he got to pitch his screenplay, “Mark of the Loser,” to a panel of industry pros.