Poem of the Week 3/21/2017
Rite of Passage
The day after my Bar Mitzah, my father took me
to the Sunday morning meeting of the men’s club
at our temple, Shomrei Torah.
I was a man. A short, skinny, squeaky-voiced man
who joined the jovial wise-cracking elders
in a feast of bagels, lox, smoked whitefish,
and pickled herring in cream.
We stuffed our faces while they discussed
the spring trip to a Yankees’ game,
which turned into a debate over who
was the greatest Yankee ever.
I stole away to the synagogue,
where, the day before, I chanted Kings 3:16
in Hebrew, without screwing up.
The great rite of passage fulfilled,
the rest of life seemed to wait
for me to stroll on through.
The big wooden doors
opened into the dark sanctuary.
Daniel Abramowitz, the liquor salesman
who lived around the corner from us,
came out of the shadows.
He walked up to the bema, his head bowed, whispering.
The glow from the eternal flame
flickered around him.
I was glad he did not see me,
and ashamed that I was glad.
He was one of those my parents talked about
with a hushed reverence, a survivor
of that terrible thing I was just coming to understand.
I was afraid of them, these survivors,
whose presence seemed immense and holy,
the Holocaust alive inside them.
He turned and walked down the aisle,
saw me there, and my eyes met his.
Sitting down beside me, he smiled,
and patted my cheek.
That was the first time I realized
a smile could be sad.
So you are a man today – he said
– Do you feel like a man?
I looked down, and shook my head.
Nothing had really changed, except
I could read from the Torah,
which, as it turned out,
I never did again.
I was surprised that he replied
– Good. It’s too soon to be a man.
Be a boy. Manhood will find you soon enough.
His voice sounded kind and very serious,
I felt the distant moans of some chained horror
beneath his words.
He patted my head and left.
His expression never changed.
I went back downstairs to the men’s club.
Apparently, DiMaggio had won again.
I went to his grandson’s Bar Mitzah
thirty years later, five years after
Daniel had died.
The breaking voice of the nervous boy
chanted a passage from the holy scroll.
As his parents beamed with pride,
he became a man.
The reception was at the best of halls,
music played, liquor flowed, the shrimp ran out.
The boy and his friends were in their own world
of laughter and dancing and fumbling flirtation.
I sat beside Barry, the Bar Mitzvah boy’s father,
not quite an old friend.
We had the table to ourselves,
everyone else was doing the Electric Slide.
Maybe it was the drink,
the memories of my own passage;
I told Barry about the encounter
with his father so many years ago.
We clicked glasses and drank to the man.
Then the son of the survivor told me,
with the same sad smile as his father,
that Daniel was in Treblinka
the day he became a man.
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