RITES OF PASSAGE
by Steve Goldfinger
I spent about two months learning to chant strange sounds in a way that would meet with the rabbi’s approval. It was my Torah rendition for my bar mitzvah at temple Pri Eitz Chaim, the ultra-orthodox synagogue on Ocean Avenue. The chant came off well enough, but my grandfather was not in the congregation to hear it. He was in an oxygen tent set up on his bed in his small apartment.
My grandfather Emil Goldfinger was a pillar among the elders of Pri Eitz Chaim and the reason for my six years of Hebrew school torture in its airless, foul-smelling basement four afternoons a week plus Friday nights and Sunday mornings. My parents only entered the synagogue on high holy days. The rest of the year, they never so much as lit candles on Friday night. But for my grandfather’s sake, they sent me to Hebrew school.
My resentment was evident in the classroom.
I was painfully slow in speed reading Hebrew during competitions. I never even tried to understand Mr. Ben-Ezra’s instructions to the class, spoken in Hebrew–except perhaps shev ba kiseh, which meant “sit down in your seat.” I sometimes confused the holidays and never understood Tisha b’av. Plus, I gave Hadassah Cohen murderous looks when she ripped out the page with the nude picture of Adam and Eve before passing out new textbooks.
My Hebrew name, Simcha, means “Joy,” and there were quizzical looks on my teachers’ faces when they called upon “Simcha” to answer their questions.
My parents remembered me sometimes sitting on the curb outside the synagogue with a forlorn look just before going inside for my ninety minutes of confinement. Little did they know that I had 40 cents in my pocket for a pastrami sandwich at Ruby’s which I would bolt down before arriving at Pri Eitz Chaim.
A tiny victory came at last, in my final year, when Rabbi Turk called me into his office and suggested I take off one day a week.
I did manage to graduate…with a 29% average. Recently, I chanced upon a faded copy of the graduation program, which said it all. Of the eleven of us at that crowning ceremony, ten received prizes of one sort or another.
However, they did spell my name correctly.
But surely it was the bar mitzvah, not the graduation, that was my rite of passage.
Emil Goldfinger’s rite of passage came five days later with his final breath…
Chanting was again heard.
After a long career in medicine, Steve has been exploring his artistic side. At BOLLI, he has taken writing courses, been active in the Writers Guild, and even tried CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) where his imagination made him a singular player!
2 thoughts on “STORIES FROM STEVE: RITES OF PASSAGE”
Having grown up in Brooklyn, My early Jewish education was very similar to yours. My parent’s only attended the temple on high holidays yet I had to go to Hebrew School 2 days/week and then Sunday morning. In retrospect, I was sent for a Jewish education because it was the cultural norm and my parents were respecting their parents long traditions.
I was not a happy camper about this.
At one point, my Hebrew school teacher, Mr Shuter, asked in, in front of the class, whether it mattered to me whether I passed or failed. I told him “No, it didn’t matter”. He demoted me!.
This was the only time in my life that I failed at anything academic.
Finally I attended a reform temple for a year, once week and was bar mitzvah-ed.
Steve, your story resonates with me. I was asked to leave class because I forgot my kippor (? yamalka) when I was 9, and never returned to Hebrew school. For the next 65 years,I never felt a part of the religious jewish community.