My Bar Mitzvah in a church

What was it like growing up non-Orthodox, but Jewish, in America? Let me tell you things that I remember. Opinion

Tzvi Fishman ,

Fishman Bar Mitzvah
Fishman Bar Mitzvah
Tzvi Fishman

This week in Israel, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed found himself in the center of a controversy after having participated in a theological discussion with a woman rabbi of the Reform Movement. A widely-respected Torah scholar and author of some twenty books on Jewish Law, Rabbi Melamed explained his decision, saying that while the Reform Movement was to be condemned for rejecting the commandments of the Torah, on a person-to-person basis, it was important to maintain a brotherly connection between Jews, not-withstanding their personal beliefs. Without taking a stand on the issue one way or the other, allow me to recount a few recollections of my childhood and my early years of Jewish education, taken from my book, From Hollywood to the Holy Land.

What was it like growing up Jewish and non-Orthodox in America? Let me tell you things that I remember. Come Christmas time, we had a fresh-smelling Evergreen Xmas tree in our house like everyone else, decorated with colored glass balls, red-and-white candy canes, streams of silver tinsel, and a shining star at the top. My parents didn’t want my brother and me to grow up feeling different from the goyim, so we lit Chanukah candles, played with the dreidel, and rushed eagerly downstairs on Xmas morning to discover the gifts which Santa had brought in his bulging sack while his sled, led by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, waited up on the roof. Just like it says it the song, we had stockings filled with candy, hanging from the fireplace, and I would go outside at night, the whole week of before Christmas, singing carols with the kids of the neighborhood to spread the spirit of brotherhood and joy, “Peace on Earth and goodwill to men!” Even today, I still remember the words to the songs: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…’’ and, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin, mother and child…” and, “We wish you a merry Xmas. We wish you a merry Xmas. We wish you a merry Xmas and a happy New Year!”

I knew the songs were about the Christian messiah. I also knew that it was all a big lie, like Santa Claus, because that’s what my parents told me, or my grandmother, or my Jewish friends. Somehow the word got around, so we knew the Christmas story was make believe, and that the brotherhood business was phony because look and see how many millions of innocent Jews were slaughtered over the centuries in the name of their savior. But when most of the pretty girls in school are Catholic and Christian, and when your parents are friendly with all the Gentile neighbors, and when everything for a month on TV is filled with Christmas love, and Christmas decorations illuminate all the streets and stores, I would be lying to say that I wasn’t influenced, and that my attachment to Judaism wasn’t weakened. Not only was it weakened – it was smashed. Not that I believed all the Christmas hype. I didn’t. Even though I didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary, America’s nationwide celebration of Xmas made Chanukah seem like little-league baseball at best. If you were a Jew, you were a minority, a second-class citizen, despised and untrustworthy people who had killed their hero on the cross. So I tried to look and act the least Jewish that I could, so I could pass myself off as a Gentile like everyone else.

Easter was the same. We always had a Passover Seder and read from the Haggadah. Our matzot were probably chametz, but we broke one in half and put a piece away for Afikomen. Being the youngest of two kids, I would recite the “Four Questions,” and I loved the song, “Dayanu,” but when Easter came, we had colorful Easter eggs and chocolate bunny rabbits, and always watched the Easter parade, as if to say to our neighbors, “Hey, we didn’t kill your god. He was a Jew! It was the Romans who killed him, not us!”

Wanting so hard to be like all of my Gentile friends, of course I hated Hebrew School. It was the bummer of bummers! I had to go three times a week, twice in the afternoon after regular public school, and once on Saturday morning – the exact times when all the sport teams at school had their basketball, baseball, football, and hockey practice and games. In America, unlike in Israel, sport is the number one pastime. For a kid, it’s everything. Every season of the year has its particular sport, and teams are organized with great seriousness, with fixed practices and schedules, and keen competition with other schools and towns.

Because I had to go to Hebrew School, I couldn’t be on any varsity team because I had to miss two of the practices every week, and sometimes even a game when it fell on Saturday morning.

Plus the learning was so watered down, it wasn’t Judaism at all. Many readers of the Hebrew translation of this book may not be familiar with Reform Judaism because it is very insignificant in Israel. First of all, while the people who belong to the Reform congregations may be Jewish (many are not), what they teach and practice has almost nothing to do with Judaism. First, they don’t believe that the Torah was given to the Jewish People by G-d. Stemming from that, they don’t believe the commandments are mandatory, so they don’t do them at all. They don’t keep kosher, and they don’t observe the Shabbat. Reform “rabbis” don’t believe in the Torah, so they aren’t rabbis at all. But they insist on calling themselves rabbis, and everyone goes along with the charade.

Even though I was only a kid, and even though I didn’t know anything about being an Orthodox Jew, I sensed that being a Reform Jew was all a big lie – like Santa Claus and Christmas. In the eighth grade, as I was approaching my bar mitzvah, I could have made the starting team in basketball, football, and baseball, but I had to go to Hebrew School, so that killed my childhood and my chance to win the attention of some cheerleaders and the girls who liked jocks who were good in sports.

What battles I fought with my parents about not going to Hebrew School! I threatened not to get bar-mitzvahed. What did I care? It was meaningless to me. I remember the “rabbi” who was supposed to bar-mitzvah me, teaching our Hebrew School class about the Exodus from Egypt. He said there hadn’t been any miracle at all when the Jews reached the Red Sea. Rather, there hadn’t been any rain for months, and the sea was a dry sandbar which the Jews crossed easily on foot. Just when they reached the other side, and the Egyptians were still in the middle of the way, a thunderstorm started by chance, a sudden heavy rain which often occurs in the wilderness. The downpour, he maintained, caused a massive flash flood which returned all the water to the sea and drowned the Egyptians before they could flee. A chance accident! G-d wasn’t a part of the story at all!

“What nonsense!” I thought. “If this is Judaism, I want nothing to do with it.”

But my parents put up a storm, greater than the storm at the Red Sea, so, for their sake, I agreed to learn my Torah portion by heart from a record and to participate in the meaningless ceremony of entering Jewish manhood. But after the Saturday morning service in a church across the street from the Reform temple which was under construction, and after the lavish luncheon at the non-kosher restaurant which everyone drove to on Shabbos, and after I was the hit of the show by impersonating President John Kennedy, whose thick Massachusetts accent I had mastered, after that great, expensive farce of a bar-mitzvah, I didn’t continue to have any connection to Judaism whatsoever, until that fateful day on a beach in Santa Monica, when my friend, Daniel, asked me why I didn’t know anything about being a Jew.

As I mentioned, growing up Jewish in assimilated America is like having a bar mitzvah in a church. I didn’t want to be Jewish if it meant being different from everyone else. I wanted to be an American. I wanted to be as cool and unfeeling as Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. George Washington was my nation’s founding father – not Avraham Avinu. Washington D.C. was my capital city – not Jerusalem. My flag was red, white, and blue – not blue and white. I cried when I heard the Star Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem, and I didn’t even know if Israel had a national anthem of its own. If it did, it was probably “Hava Nagilla,” the only Israeli tune I knew.

My inoculation into America life and cultural brainwashing was so deep, I still remember all of its national hymns: “My country tis a be, sweet land of liberty, land that I love.” “America the beautiful, G-d shed His grace on thee.” “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, I will fight our country’s battles, on the land and on the sea.” “O, when the saints go marchin’ in, O, when the saints go marchin’ in…” “My eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the lord,” and all of the other lyrics that are fine for the Christians and Protestants in America, but poison for the Jews. But I didn’t know any of that then, and I didn’t care to. I wanted to be a red-white-and-blue blooded American like everyone else. No. That isn’t quite true.

Precisely because I was a Jew, I wanted to be better than they. I wanted to be more Gentile, more famous, more beautiful, more successful, more talented, more loved. Like the great Jewish writer, Arthur Miller, who married America’s most beautiful goddess, Marilyn Monroe. I wanted to be famous and successful like him!

Today, I certainly can’t say that I have become another Rabbi Akiva, but, either because of my exposure to the watered-down Judaism of my childhood, or in spite of it, I forged a lasting connection to God and to Am Yisrael, made Aliyah, and adopted a Torah lifestyle. I am endlessly grateful for that!



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