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Return of the Nonexistent

Can a son’s failure to have a bar mitzvah be a mitzvah?

Marco Roth
June 21, 2007

One of these Saturdays, last week or this week, marks the twentieth anniversary of the bar mitzvah I never had. This non-event stands as a record to my father’s pervasive ambivalence on all things God and his unambivalent disgust at most things about rich New York Jewish life. The combination was more than I could stand as a 12-year-old, and I sensed I’d lost a great test of will, or rather that I’d failed to find any will at all, that I was, as Mathew Arnold put it during his crisis of faith, “stranded between two worlds/One dying, the other powerless to be born.”

There was a time when I wanted to get up and chant the Torah as my father had done, and his father, and his before him, and back, and back, and back to the father of us all. Unfortunately, I first had this feeling, quite strongly, when I was seven or eight. It flared again, very briefly, when I lived in Paris after college, plotting ways to relieve my sense of utter loneliness. I imagined that I’d be taken in by a family of Hasidim—I had one in mind; their head was the owner of an old bookshop on the rue des Rosiers. He would lead me through the streets crowded with models and their photographers, past the Picasso museum, and into a quiet old hotel particulier. There, I’d be raised in the ways of peace and paths of righteousness, marry one of their daughters, disappear utterly, change my name to Eliyahu or Gershom. I would speak French, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Put on my tzitzit, not even looking at the body in the mirror, my flesh, white, ghostly, fed on the pastrami they called “le pickel” and Glatt falafel. Gradually, I’d shed the trappings and anxieties of the contradiction-ridden, modern, and enlightened world, transform, once and for all, into a Jew. I would “return,” as they say, and, by returning, become, at last, a stranger to myself. Staring into the bookshop window, holding a copy of Plasseraud’s La Lituanie Juive I’d just bought, along with Lévinas’ Totalité et infini, it seemed no more likely that I’d turn around and invite myself for Shabbos dinner than that I’d become a Catholic, an apostasy of which I was incapable.

I’d first raised the subject of my bar mitzvah with my father when I began 7th grade. Every week seemed to bring a handsomely lettered invitation to services at Central or Park Avenue or Temple Emanuel, the bastions of Upper East Side Jewry, followed by promised parties at The Pierre Hotel, Ivy League college clubs, or Tavern on the Green. All this was an unknown world to me. We’d never gone to synagogue as a family. We didn’t go to lavish parties either; our entertainments were concerts at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, or in our living room. “You can have one, if you want,” my father said, “if you really want one. It’s a lot of work, you know. I’m sure that a lot of those boys up there don’t even know what they’re saying. Do you want that? It would be better if you knew the words. We’ll have to find somewhere you can study. I just ask one thing: Don’t do it for the money.” Then he told the joke about the boy who says, “Today I am a fountain pen.” I thought about it. I didn’t thrill to the idea of adding more hard work to a life that seemed to promise nothing but a future of study: all the usual school subjects plus extra French lessons, violin lessons, orchestra on Wednesdays. Study and practice: I’d never give up my weekend touch-football games or my own reading for the sake of another subject, one that seemed of dubious value and yet could only be taken with the utmost seriousness. September became January and I did nothing. Eventually the date approached, grew ever closer, passed.

Had I made my decision by not making one? Was it mere laziness, or something else? Maybe it was just the feeling of insurmountable and unpronounceable difficulty, as though I had a choice between lifting an enormous rock pinning me down, or tunneling out from under it. Back in September, we’d gone far enough to discuss Hebrew Schools. According to my father, the trope taught at Park Avenue synagogue was ugly, Temple Emanuel was disguised Protestantism and run by snobbish German Jews. Closer to home we had the Orthodox Spanish Portugese Synagogue, housed in a neo-Romanesque splendor on 70th Street and Central Park West, and the Reform Stephen Wise around the corner. We would never be Orthodox, and, as for the Reform one, my father only wanted services in Hebrew; also, he didn’t want to feel pressured to attend services so close to home. He’d lack excuses. Anyway, he’d only recently fallen out with the rabbi there who used to be his friend.

My father was turning into the joke about the Jew, who, alone on a desert island, builds two synagogues—so he can have one that he’d never set foot in. On his island, there were many synagogues and they all had something wrong with them. Perhaps without fully understanding, and not for the last time, he presented me with a peculiar dilemma. Was I strong enough to turn my bar mitzvah into an act of disobedience? Or, if it was only a matter for my own autonomous will, neither opposing nor opposed, how much should I account for my father’s own wishes, his apparent disinterest or absence of pride in what I did or didn’t do? My atheist and yet steadfastly Jewish father had actually imposed a Calvinist and Puritan test of faith: Did I feel a calling? Was I one of the elect? Would my latent and natural religious intuitions rise up in me and pour forth, sweeping away all obstacles, like a lion roaring out of the desert? Could my faith redeem his own lack of it?

Another punch line: “Let’s get this straight, son. There’s only one God and we don’t believe in him.” On its own, this feeling, shared by many of the Jews who turned up to synagogue and bar-mitzvahed their children, might not have prevented anything. But my father didn’t really believe in the Jewish people either. Only very recently, coming across a letter of Hannah Arendt’s to Gershom Scholem, did I find the sentence that best articulated his kind of Judaism: “I do not love the Jews, nor do I believe in them, I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.” Jewishness was our nature, our history, but not, for all this, a necessary sphere of action. Why study Torah when you can study biology or literature? Why act out the belonging that merely is and make a fetish of authenticity? Arendt did temper her seemingly cold-hearted, existential account of her Jewishness with an acknowlegement that “there is such a thing as a basic gratitude for everything that is as it is; for what has been given and not made….” Arendt is right to some extent: We should be grateful for certain basic conditions of our being, but how and to whom? Where was this gratitude, then, in my childhood?

As a minimum, it seems, a family’s decision to bar mitzvah its children could have been one such expression of gratitude, regardless of actual faith. Even my thoroughly unreflective and already secular grandparents were capable of it. My father, however, clearly wished to hold me back, as if a bar mitzvah were, for him, akin to the sacrifice of Isaac. He would not deliver me up to the God he didn’t believe in unless I went willingly, head bowed, to be bound. The impossibility of the choice is self-evident: To whom should I be grateful? My father or his fathers? By siding with one, I could only betray the other. And wouldn’t my father have felt as though he were betraying me, if he surrendered me to all the institutions and practices of New York Jewish life he already felt so removed from? It was a more crucial choice than either of us had imagined.

Marco Roth is a founding co-editor of n+1 magazine, and the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.