Above: Happy Parents (from the look on their faces, Sidney must have chanted his H’af Torah well!)
Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
Saturday morning services under normal circumstances were a great tribulation to any young boy, the more so on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. Our synagogue was Orthodox, which meant that the services, which lasted a good three hours, were conducted entirely in Hebrew. In summer the un-airconditioned shul was hot and in winter it was worse, due to the eccentricities of the steam heat. The walls, though peeling, had once been painted in pastel colors, predominantly blue and peach. I used to amuse myself during the services by spinning fantasies about the symbols for the tribes of Israel, which were painted on the walls above the pews, and about the eagle (or hawk) which spread his magnificent wings across the breadth of the ceiling. At the very front of the synagogue in a raised alcove next to the Ark sat the president of the congregation and the rabbi. How I used to envy these men because they had padded seats with arms—my first lesson in the perquisites of high office. Eight or nine rows from the front was a huge creamy marble reading platform to which the Torah would be carried during the service. Behind the platform were twenty or more pews, and at the end of the room was a large board to which were attached bronze plaques with the names of deceased congregants. Running around three sides of the room was the balcony where the women sat. This balcony was usually empty except when there was a Bar Mitzvah.
The high point of any Saturday service for me was the moment that the Torah was taken from the Ark to the reading platform. A special prayer was said as the scrolls were removed. The person holding the Torah would face the congregation and raise the scrolls straight up over his head, probably in ritualistic imitation of Moses. To my youthful eyes, the Torah looked immense and each week I waited in dread anticipation for the day that some poor soul would drop it. I knew that if this happened it would mean bad luck. In my mind, I anticipated all the special prayers and supplications that the rabbi no doubt held ready for the occasion. How would the man who dropped it feel when he got home from prayer? What could he possibly say to his wife and children? Fortunately, it never happened.
When the Torah was carried out on June 19, 1954, it was a special time for me. I had to remain especially alert for the words “Y’a mod ha bocher ha’bar mitzvah… and step up to the reading stand. I had seen too many of my friends before me become laughing stocks when, unaware that they had been called, they were shoved violently from their seats or summoned by the reader with a “psst!” This wasn’t going to happen to me.
Getting to the reading stand and up the three or four steps was like walking the last mile. I was shaking to beat the band and hoping that nobody would notice since my suit was so generously cut. Again, an event occurred which I remember vividly. The reader grasped a long brass pointer, shaped like a human fist with the index finger protruding, and tapped a specific world in a sea of illegible black scrawl on a sea of parchment. Here was where I was to begin.
I didn’t read directly from the Torah. My Ha’f Torah was printed in a slim paper bound volume which I carried with me. Beneath each word in the reading was a set of diacritical marks which stood for specific vocal intonations. I had spent the past six months taking Bar Mitzvah lessons just to learn my Ha’f Torah. Three days a week, in the dead of a Brooklyn winter, I would stay behind with the other “Bar Mitzvah boys” after Hebrew class ended at 6:30 p.m. After a month or two, I had chanted the Ha’f Torah with such frequency that I knew it by heart. Va yish lach Jehoshua b’nun… I remember how I used to envy the other boys chanting their Bar Mitzvah lessons a year or so before my own, thinking that soon I too would be doing the same thing. From the second floor of the Hebrew school, the sounds would carry for half a block down Twentieth Avenue. My anticipation reached great heights. Nothing but death itself could stop me. And what if I died? What does G..d do about un-Bar Mitzvahed boys? And, now, at the reading stand was the culmination of it all. Today I remember nothing about the ceremony itself. My last clear vision is the pointer tapping the opening word in the Torah. And then the party—the reward of the just!