My name is Jonah Gold. Like the apples except my parents named me before we found out about the apples. But this has nothing to do with the rest of this story. I just like to get that out of the way in case it should come up by chance later on and you’d think I was holding back from telling you a better story.
Anyway, this story is about being Jewish and having a bar mitzvah. It is also about my family. I had a bar mitzvah at which I had a good time. I got $1,200 in gifts, which my parents kept to pay all the bills, and a leather briefcase, which I got to keep. I think I should have gotten to keep some of the cash. But, so what.
The collation after the ceremony was in the basement of the synagogue. There was herring in cream sauce, sliced sturgeon, tomatoes, baked salmon, cucumber salad with onions and parsley, kugel, and other things. And there was a giant Challah bread and people took my picture slicing the bread. Have no idea what they ever did with those pictures of me and the bread that cost them 45 cents each to develop.
I stood next to my mother and father on a receiving line in front of the sliced bread, exchanging a slice for envelopes. My father put the envelopes into his jacket pocket, which bulged a lot by the time my uncle Stewie and his wife, came up and handed me the briefcase. After they walked away with their slices, my father dumped the envelopes into the briefcase.
‘Schnorrer,’ my father said, watching Stewie walk away to talk with Uncle Fred, who was the dentist we all went to and who lived in a big house in Brooklyn. He ‘made a good living’, he would tell you, and he was also the highest-ranking medical professional in the room. No small honor.
‘My brother’, my father said, ‘the big shot macha CPA. He can’t part with a fifty?’ The kid’s thirteen. He needs a briefcase yet?’
My father and Stewie didn’t get along so well. It was something about how Stewie got to go to CPA school even though my father was older and should have gone first but then there was no money for my father to go.
Stewie’s wife, Brenda, was beautiful. A shiksa with a PhD and real blond hair, so my mother hated her. That’s like at least four strikes against her. The fifth one could have been when they once came to our house for dinner and my mother cried after they left because she said my father kept looking up at Brenda when he was eating his soup.
I learned the words of my haftorah. I did not understand a single word, not one, but I liked to repeat some at dinner and under my breath in algebra. Alienu, malchenu, lazman haseh. No Idea what they meant but I couldn’t get them out of my head.
According to my mother, her cousin Ida, who was married to Burton, a chiropodist and the second-ranking almost-doctor at the party, won the Mink Olympics, wearing a silver mink stole. My mother said she looked lovely and that it was ‘tasteful’ but not showy.
Tasteful was important to my mother. It was a sign that you had made it. Another sign that you had made it in America was how far you had come from struggling and poverty and the old ways.
You could tell, for example that cousin Harold had come a long way from the shtetl because he could say words like shul to mean the synagogue and no one would think that was the way he really talked. See, mother told me, if you actually called it a shul in normal conversation you were just like all the long-black-coat, white shirt, Jews living in Boro Park because that’s the way they really talked and not to show that that’s not really the way they talked but could use the word to show how ‘Jewish’ they were when talking with others who had made it in America just like them.
I told her I understood, but I don’t think I really did. It might be that it was just easier to say shul in Scarsdale eating bagels at a bar mitzvah than to go to a shul everyday under watchful eyes back in the shtetl in Krakow or Lublin.
Uncle Gilbert, my mother’s brother, a lawyer, who she didn’t talk to, because he was 14 years older than her and who married Bella, who no one in the family liked for no good reason, pulled me aside after the meal and handed me an envelope and a book with my name in it and told me how I now must read the torah each day and I should especially read the Mishnah commentaries in the margins which were written in very small letters but had all of the answers to life’s questions. I liked the book because it was heavy and smelled important like a dictionary and it had floppy leather covers that drooped over your hands when you held it.
Gilbert’s breath smelled of onions. He was tall and had a deep, deep voice. He said that to be a good Jew you had to know how to argue. That is what it meant to be a man. That every question had many sides and many answers to it and you had to know how to find the one golden sechel of hidden wisdom that proved your point and that then people would know you were ‘learned’ (he said ‘learn-ed’). Not only that you had a mind but that you used it. And that, he said, was the most important thing of all. It finally all made sense to me. I think