Friday, December 23, 2011

In the beginning, God created smug teenage boys

Posted By on 12.23.11 at 08:00 AM

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  • Konstantin Goldenberg/Shutterstock
As it was for my brothers, my bar mitzvah portion was "Bereishit," or Genesis 1:1. You know, creation, Adam and Eve, snakes and apples. The whole deal. My parents had reserved this portion for all four of their children, which, at my synagogue, was tantamount to going to Wrigley Field and buying up all the seats on the first-base line for four seasons straight.

Though I had a distinct advantage over my peers and classmates—I speak fluent Hebrew, thanks to having grown up in bilingual conversation with my Israeli mother—the training for my bar mitzvah was grueling. My teacher was a pompous, stentorian, bearded Israeli man who claimed that he eats honey directly from beehives and shot the wheels off a British Army vehicle when he was five years old. Despite my ability to read my Torah portion flawlessly very early on, he and my mother were relentless in my training. I often had to sing the same line eight or nine times in a row, and the significance and meaning of my portion was battered into me by my teacher.

He would say to me, “You must realize, you are singing about the creation of the universe, the beginning of existence. More than any other young man or woman, your portion is the most important passage there is. You must sing your parsha with conviction and strength.” Every time I sang, it was never loud or powerful enough, never possessed of the requisite courage and benevolence for reciting the story of the creation of the universe. Finally, two days before my bar mitzvah, alone in the sanctuary in which I would officially become a man, I sang the loudest, deepest, most sonorous Hebrew I could muster. When I finished, I looked over at my teacher: He had a rosy-cheeked smile, and his eyes were watering. He said, faintly, “You are the finest student I have ever had.” (Not too long afterward, I found out from friends and classmates that they had virtually the exact same experience.)

That Saturday, I walked up to the bimah and opened up the hallowed scrolls. Using a heavy metallic pen, the tip in the shape of a hand with its index finger pointing in a delicate curve, I gently tapped the start of my portion. After a relative of mine ushered the blessing before the Torah, I loudly sang:

“Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets. (In the beginning God created heaven and earth.)”

I made sure to stand extra close to the microphone, normally loud enough for the most timid of children. I was pretty sure that an elderly gentleman in one of the front rows had his fingers plugged into his ears.

Because I had practiced my portion so much, I could sing without reading directly from the text. Concordantly, I frequently peeked out into the crowd to gauge people’s reactions; I had worked so hard, after all, and I was singing so loud—I was sure people would be impressed.

Instead, I mostly saw a crowd of middle-aged adults, looks alternating between barely concealed snarls and eye-rolling incredulity. But I had worked so hard, for so long: Why weren’t they impressed with all the hard work I had done? So for my next portion, I sang even louder, and the faces only increased in contortion. And I was singing so loud at this point that I could have sworn I heard the synagogue’s gigantic windows rattling.

After the service, many people approached me with violent handshakes and overpowering obsequiousness. “You sang so well!” they said, “I hope my kids sing their parshas half as well as you do!” But as I walked away from them, on to the next stop in a tour of vacuous flattery, a slowly quieting trail of contemptuous murmurs followed me. My parents were right: All that hard work was worth it.

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Read more from Testament Week:

"Testament Week: Salvation terminator," by J.R. Jones

"The Woman's Bible," by Sam Worley

"Testament Week: the Book of Jim & Artie," by Ben Sachs

"Testament in Rogers Park," by Kate Schmidt

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