Chapter 2. My Bar Mitzvah

My birthday is near the end of the fall season. This presented problems when arrangements were being made for my bar mitzvah.

I lived on a farm three miles from Mountaindale, New York about 80 miles northwest of New York City. My parents and two brothers lived in an apartment house in the Bronx. How could this happen? My grandfather owned a chicken farm (along with six cows and a horse) and a small kosher summer hotel (which could accommodate up to 70 guests). My immediate family lived on the farm until my older brother was accepted at New York University, Bronx Campus. It was decided that my older brother and my younger brother who attended elementary school should live with my parents and I would remain on the farm to help my grandparents until I graduated from high school. My father found a job in Manhattan where he could work eight months a year and have the summers off to be at the hotel.

We were going to have the bar mitzvah at the farm. Having the bar mitzvah at the farm would cost less than going to a regular synagogue. If the family used the town or a Bronx synagogue, there would be a fee or a donation, the rabbi would have to be paid, and there would be an obligation to provide food and drinks for the entire congregation at the kiddish. My grandfather owned a torah that was used at the hotel during the summer season. It would be used for the bar mitzvah. My grandfather would take care of arrangements at the farm.

His major problem was finding ten men for a minyon. The summer residents and many of the rooming house owners left in October. My grandfather, my father and my older brother were three. He now had to find the rest. No out of town relatives could attend. The winterized portion of the hotel had four small bedrooms and motels weren't invented yet. It was too much to ask our Connecticut relatives to make the round trip in one day.

He invited the Jewish year round neighbors and they all came. There was: One man, a retired New York City businessman, who owned a run down farm; One man, was a chicken farmer only; Three men, had rooming houses and/or bungalows and also raised chickens; One man, had a rooming house as his only means of income.

That accounted for nine men. My grandfather hired two men from town, one who could read from the torah and one to be the eleventh man. When he was asked why an eleventh man was needed, my grandfather answered, "So we won't have to stop praying if someone has to go to the bathroom." All the neighbors walked to our place. None of the neighbors brought a wife.

Preparing the food for the kiddish was divided between my mother and my grandmother. My mother baked a honey cake and a sponge cake, made gefilte fish, bought two kinds of herring and American cheese and brought everything to the country on Friday. My grandmother baked the challahs, made farmer cheese, made homemade butter and had non-pasteurized sweet cream and milk ready.

I read my portion of the torah very well and every one congratulated me. That was my bar mitzvah. No invitations, no party, no relatives, no big deal. Just a young man reading from the torah on a Saturday morning service as a rite of passage into adulthood. In that time and place and in that era it was a common occurrence.

I received several gifts. A set of tefillen, a tallis, a new yamulka, a fountain pen, a trip to New York City with my family and a visit to the Empire State Building the next day with my father. My father drove the family back to the city that same night.

My bar mitzvah was on Saturday but my birthday was on Sunday so it seemed appropriate to visit the Empire State Building on the latter day. We all woke up late Sunday morning. My father and I were going to go downtown by subway. I had never ridden on the subway and had never been downtown. I looked forward with great anticipation and expectations when we left the apartment. The subway cars were noisy when they ran on the elevated tracks and much noisier when it went into the tunnel.

All the buildings along Thirty-Fourth Street were large. The Empire State Building was huge. We were going to the Observation Deck on the Eighty-sixth floor. I couldn't remember ever going higher than the second floor of any building. Neither Mountaindale nor any other village or town in Sullivan County had any buildings taller two stories except for those in the large hotels and then you had to be a paying guest to get onto the grounds. My parents lived on the second floor of their apartment house.

The elevator going up to the observation deck went too fast for me. It felt as though my stomach was down at my knees. It was not better on the way down. At that time it felt as if my heart was in my mouth. The elevator stopped on the 86th floor. My father wanted to see the Statue of Liberty first. We could clearly see the Statue of Liberty, the boats on the river and New Jersey beyond. (I recently found a copy of the New York Times weather report for the day. It read "visibility unlimited"). There were people everywhere. They were looking at the places in the distance or looking down at the streets below; they were at the telescopes; and they were at the concession stands. Everyone appeared to be, if not happy, at least satisfied that he or she had reached "nirvana"- the Observation Deck. Then, someone said that the radio newsman just reported the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in the Philippines. It was Sunday, December 7, 1941.

It has been more than 60 years since bar mitzvah weekend. I can' t remember one that was more memorable.