‘Es vert gepaskint in Shulkhun Arukh, Hilkhis T’fillin, siman Khaf-hey s’if Aleph….”
So began my bar mitzvah pshetl (bar mitzvah boy’s Talmudic discourse delivered in Yiddish) 50 years ago.
The setting, a basement shteible (small shul) in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
The congregants were Holocaust survivors speaking in a wonderful cacophony of Yiddish dialects, the women relegated to an adjoining room with only a small one-way mirror to view the davening in the beis medrash.
It may have been the Summer of Love, the summer of Woodstock, but that little shteible provided a remarkably effective sea wall to the swirling cultural storm of the late ’60s and I was only dimly aware of the outside world.
The one exception was the Apollo space program, which I closely followed. That the Apollo 11’s massive Saturn 5 Rocket took off for Man’s first lunar landing on my 13th birthday (July 16, for you non-Trekkies) continues to be a source of great — if utterly undeserved — pride.
My family could not afford both summer camp and a bar mitzvah, so I spent the summer alone in a sweltering borough with nothing much to do other than sneak into air-conditioned movie theaters for daytime matinees and prepare for my bar mitzvah in the evenings.
In memory’s flickering light, I lained my Torah portion, my father beside me as assistant gabbai (sexton), then chanted the haftora, followed by a small kiddush that began while prayer services were still in progress, then my pshetl, which lasted about two minutes before the congregation, anxious to return to the cholent, started singing “siman toiv umazl toiv” to signal the end of my pshetl and with it, my bar mitzvah.
Apollo 11 returned to Earth and so did I.
Like a Linda Ronstadt song, memory embraces heartbreak and hope. It maps the paths we’ve taken and tells us who we are. If only because there is so much more of it as we age, memory becomes more vibrant, the past more present. I attend the funeral of a dear friend and return to the funeral of my late wife, Rifka Rosenwein, whose column once graced this space.
On Rosh HaShanah, we partner with God and meet in memory. We pray for our future by confronting our past. Not for nothing is the holiday also referred to as Yom Hazikaron, Day of Remembrance.
In the Rosh HaShanah Musaf service, the Order of Memory is positioned in the center, between Kingship and Shofar. For much of the year, it is we who are charged with remembering, be it Passover or Yom HaShoah. On Rosh HaShanah, we turn the tables and ask God to remember, to remember the forgotten, to uncover the hidden, to remember us. Prayer becomes a rite of remembrance and memory itself becomes a Divine attribute that allows us to transcend time and approach the Divine.
Plus, it’s just plain cool to remember the long and winding road that led us to where we are. Many mornings, I can be found on my orange bike pedaling to my Downtown law office, the Hudson River glistening on my right, the magnificent New York skyline to my left, and I am filled with gratitude to God for being alive and well at this time and in this place, at least until an Uber cuts me off.
Three years after Apollo 11, manned missions to the moon ended and with them, the sublime grandeur of the space program. Apollo 11 landed on Tranquility Base, and these times, like the late-’60s, are not tranquil ones. Looking back over 50 years, there is sadness as well in an increasingly dystopian landscape.
The great political tragedies of my lifetime have been the assassinations of two of my heroes, Bobby Kennedy and Yitzchak Rabin. In many ways, our country and our homeland have yet to recover from these terrible crimes. Yet I continue to believe that a more civil society will be restored to both and that peace can be achieved.
Half a century after my first bar mitzvah, a somewhat different service: My daughter and I share the same Hebrew birthday and Torah portion, and we alternated Torah reading in a large suburban synagogue where the congregants don’t speak, much less eat, before services conclude.
As I look back and reach toward a fretful, watchful 13-year-old, I recognize myself in him. And I hope he would recognize himself in me and conclude that all things considered, things turned out OK. That while, unlike the Apollo 11 astronauts, I never did have a ticker-tape parade up Broadway in my honor (at least not yet), my life has had adventures, discoveries and wonder of its own and is blessed with a loving wife and family, a down-to-Earth Tranquility Base.