by Leonard Kress


1. My favorite episode of Jill Soloway’s tragi-comic Transparent focuses on the family’s youngest daughter, Ali Pfefferman, who at age 13 refuses to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah. This is no small matter, since her mother has spent thousands on preparations—food, invitations, reception, booze, etc., and she’s both horrified and humiliated by the prospect of canceling. At first, it’s unclear why Ali reneges. Clearly she has her doubts about G-d, encouraged by her atheist professor-father, about the role of tradition as well as the thoroughly bourgeois social status conferred by such a ceremony. In spite of these qualms, though, it probably would have been easier for her to go through with it. After all, we find out later in the episode that she had already fully committed to memory her Haftarah portion, long passages from the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible which she would have cantillated at her service, to everyone’s profound approval.  Years later, however, when her refusal comes up in casual conversation, several people castigate not Ali but her parents: “What kind of parent lets a thirteen-year old cancel her Bat Mitzvah?”

2. What kind of parent lets a thirteen-year old cancel her Bat Mitzvah?” Indeed! At first I wasn’t sure that I agreed with the outrage. Well, I thought, the kind of parents who allowed their child to refuse to become Bar Mitzvah (in my case) were both sensitive to the needs and wishes of their child and fully aware of the hypocrisy of participating in an initiation ceremony whose tenets they no longer believed in or accepted. This was no theoretical question because at age twelve, right when my Bar Mitzvah training was about to commence, I announced to my parents that there was no way I was going to do it—meaning spend a year studying Hebrew and then standing up in front of strangers and chanting some long, meaningless three-thousand year old complaints and excoriations from Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah. I wanted no service, no party-reception, though I would have gladly accepted the not-so-small amounts of money I would have “earned” by going through with the whole thing. My parents immediately agreed—why I’m not sure, though they probably knew that if they had commanded me to become Bar Mitzvah, I would have made their life miserable through my constant complaining. They had already dealt with my intransigence when it came to the trumpet, my avoidance of practice, my lack of preparations at my lessons, my purposefully abrasive honking style that let them know how much I despised the trumpet, and them for insisting I play it.

3. Several years ago I was in the hospital having my aortic valve replaced. The operation was less traumatic and debilitating than expected—I was fortunate enough to have minimally invasive surgery—and I was stalking the halls after two or three recumbent days. At first I kept myself amused by watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order and then a John Wayne movie marathon, so my recovering consciousness and awareness of the world was suffused with huge does of meted-out justice and stoic masculinity. The only book I brought to the hospital was Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene, his long, dense historical novel about the life of Jesus. Asch was a peculiar choice—he was part of that great generation of eastern European-born Jewish writers who wrote in Yiddish, along with Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, Chaim Grade, etc. Yet Asch was always viewed upon with suspicion by the Jewish community. After all, he had written highly sympathetic historical novels not only about Jesus but also about Mary and Paul of Tarsus—and wasn’t that a betrayal of sorts? Or at least heretical?

4. And here I was, stuck for a week in the hospital (named after Saint Luke), reading about the life of Jesus. Having just had the valve of a pig stitched into my leaky heart! Apparently, on being admitted, I had written “Jewish” on the patient form, not wanting to bring attention to myself by putting down something like my usual designation, “Buddhist/Jewish/Pagan/Russian Orthodox/Atheist.” This meant that unbeknownst to me a Rabbi would drop by for a friendly pastoral visit. Regarding my implanted pig valve (Edwards Prima Plus stentless aortic valve, “made of a preserved pig's aortic root with features that make it easier to implant”) he simply shrugged his shoulders. “In this case,” he said, “Kashrut does not come into play. Maybe it’s Kosher, maybe it’s not—what choice did you have?

“They could’ve used a bovine valve,” I said, “but the surgeon thought it would be too large.” The Rabbi was silent, though I was hoping he’d say something like “Bovine, shmovine, what’s the difference?”  He also had no opinion about the novel I was reading, and I suspected that he really wasn’t familiar with translations of Jewish literature. Why should he?
When he mumbled something about Maimonides and the role of diet in heart-health, I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to a tractate by the medieval Jewish philosopher or the renowned heart and vascular center in Brooklyn, his previous home.

5. For a very brief time when I was in high school I thought about moving to Israel. This was during the six-day Arab Israeli War, when Israelis launched a series of pre-emptive air strikes against Egypt and invaded Gaza and overwhelmed the neighboring Arab armies. To be clear, this was a time when the West, America, my suburban Philadelphia town seemed to have nothing but effusive praise for the attack and victory. Or at least, that’s how it seemed back then—Israelis were the heroic victims courageously defending their homeland. So when my friend Barry (who was Bar Mitzvah!) suggested in all seriousness that we volunteer to fight alongside our Middle Eastern brethren, well, it sounded good, it sounded feasible. To us, fiercely opposed to the Viet Nam War and the draft, and wildly enthusiastic about national liberation movements throughout the Third World, the Israeli cause was somehow in sync with New Left politics we supported and promoted. We would hold vigils at the local draft board, invite grad students from Penn, Temple, and Ursinus who came from Kenya, Namibia, and Angola to visit our World Cultures class and talk revolution. Although now I don’t know how we ever managed to link joining the Israeli Defense Forces to Che Guevara, but we did. Needless to say, I didn’t go, nor did Barry, though I suspect that the current Israeli President, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was attending the high school in our neighboring town, burning up the soccer field with his combative play, did return to his homeland to fight.

6. Home from college for the High Holidays, I succumbed to my parent’s insistence on attending at least one service at the newly renovated synagogue. Their ostensible reason was that Milton Shapp was a new member, sure to attend services since he was going to be the Democratic candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania. Shapp had, after all, been the architect of the Peace Corps and was an important advisor to Kennedy. The soon-to-be Governor did show up, and along with the rest of us, listened to a long sermon by the new young Rabbi from Cincinnati absolve the suburban congregants for leaving their old city neighborhoods behind, where many of them still owned businesses—delis, hardware stores, furniture stores. “Don’t feel guilty,” he said, “don’t think that you are abandoning your communities. It’s not about the changing nature of your neighborhood—West Oak Lane and Mount Airy, Strawberry Mansion and Germantown. Yes, those neighborhoods are undergoing a fundamental transformation. But you are not racist for moving, you are only trying to do what’s best for your families, and that, I insist, is an essential Jewish value, the most essential Jewish value.” He never used the word Black, or Negro or colored.

7. If I had decided to become Bar Mitzvah (or if my parents had insisted) I would have to study with the congregation’s new hire, Rabbi Fabian. I would have to go to his apartment two afternoons a week for Hebrew lessons, taking precious time away from pickup basketball or touch football or chess. Rabbi Fabian was a sour old man, short and squat, slightly hunchbacked, blotchy-faced and beardless. He had a thick accent that seemed to drip onto his lap or the floor when he spoke, never looking directly at me. I sensed that he would be a demanding, impatient, mocking, and severe teacher, and that I would also have to deal with his stringy-haired, suspicious wife, who, I heard from others he tutored, insisted on grabbing your coat and forcing you into a sweater of her own knitting. And hovered around the kitchen study table constantly refilling her husband’s tea and glaring.

8. I was, in fact, repulsed by Rabbi Fabian and his wife and everything related to religious studies at Sunday Hebrew School. I was always causing trouble in class, disrupting it while attempting to turn biblical lessons into Three Stooge skits whenever I could. Besides, I couldn’t even manage to get past his weird name, Fabian. For me, Fabian was the name of a teen idol singer from South Philly—a successor to Elvis, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson. In fact, though I was still too young to be part of their Dick Clark Bandstand fan base, I did hear that the daughter of one of my parent’s friends, Rita, had won a chaperoned date with Fabian in a contest. It was her lipstick imprint on a cocktail napkin that was chosen to be the most kissable.

Many years later I learned that Rabbi Fabian and his wife were survivors of the Bergen-Belson Death Camps.




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