Still sacred after all these years

Posted: March 24, 2015 in Miscellaneous, music
Tags: , , , , , , ,

We’ve just returned from the bar mitzvah of our nephew, Jared, in Raleigh, North Carolina. This wasn’t just a rite of passage, this was an EVENT. The two rabbis who normally run the Shabbat (Sabbath) services must’ve understood the significance of the day because they called in a reliever to lock up the ninth inning: A rabbi from Winston-Salem.

Jared was a model of calm. He was letter-perfect in his chanting from the Torah and inspiring in his commentary on his Torah portion. As you can tell, I’m just a little bit proud of this guy. But at certain moments I was beyond nervous. This is because of the most radical change in Judaism since the day women were allowed into the same building as God: I am now the religious head of my family.

I didn’t ascend to this post through merit. My Dad, Run-DMIrving, has hit the age where travel is an insurmountable ordeal. All of his duties fell to me. I spent the weekend overseeing burnt offerings, blessing bread, wine, and whatever babies or babes were thrust at me, and tossing relatives into a nearby volcano.

I was also the first person called to the Torah on Saturday morning. This is the serious stuff. Normally, the first person to report to the front of the congregation for Torah duty is a descendant of the priestly class, the Big Dogs who ran the Temple in Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD. (I remember how disappointed I was, around the age of 8, to discover that my family was unwashed rabble, not secret royalty.)

On occasions such as bar and bat mitzvahs, the leadoff hitter is usually a family member, usually the oldest. The absence of my Mom and Dad meant that this was my turn at bat.

I knew the Hebrew bruchas (the blessings). I knew how to sing the tunes. Should’ve been a piece of cake, or maybe a plate of kugel. But it wasn’t. Though I remember very little from my own bar mitzvah, it seems that my body remembers. I felt light-headed in the on-deck circle. When I finally stood before the waiting congregation and the glory of the Torah, I executed all prayers as expected, but I wondered the whole time whether I might faint and if I did would I topple onto Special D, who was standing beside me, unaware that her husband was undergoing an internal core breach. She said I sounded fine.

You could call my experience the intersection of muscle memory and gut check. Let me tell you something about your innards: Old times there are not forgotten!

All hail Jared for his unfailing good humor, ebullience, and total confidence in dealing with adults. I can hardly believe we’re related.

Highlight reel!

  • The moment when all of the adults on the stage at the front of the shul stepped away and left Jared alone to chant from the Torah and lead the service.
  • The visiting rabbi, after delivering a lively sermon on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, thanked the congregation for their hospitality and then turned to Jared and said, “I enjoyed learning Torah from you.”
  • Once we got Jared aloft during the evening’s chair dancing, he took advantage of his new 10’ reach to surgically destroy a chandelier.
  • The dj Saturday night called all the enthusiastic but awkward 12- and 13-year-olds together to learn a group dance. Two 16-year-old girls – our niece, Isabelle, and her friend, Natalie – got up and joined them. The girls not only knew the steps, they improved on them. They looked like two swans in a pond full of angry ducks.

I dance just as good as I walk
Two of the songs we heard at the dance that night were “We Are Family” (Sister Sledge) and “Neutron Dance” (The Pointer Sisters), which fit into my new theme of black music of the 1970s.

“We Are Family” is one of those rare songs that are about the people singing them. The only other examples I can think of from the ’70s are “We’re an American Band” (Grand Funk Railroad) and “Ridgetop” (Jesse Colin Young). “We’re an American Band” celebrates learning absolutely nothing in kindergarten; “Ridgetop” celebrates you staying off Jesse Colin Young’s lawn. “We Are Family” celebrates family (the four sisters in Sister Sledge).

Even a snob like me would not dare to critique “We Are Family,” as it’s the third of the top three songs that are guaranteed to gravimetrically draw women onto the dance floor. (The first is ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and the second is Bananarama’s “Venus.” There are no songs that do this to men. We men don’t surge forward when we hear the opening notes of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or anything by Metallica.)

I must also remain silent and place my game-worn bar mitzvah yarmulke over my heart in memory of Willie Stargell and the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, who adopted “We Are Family” as their theme song. In fact we’re all going to remove our hats for 30 seconds of silence starting right now.


As you were.

The Pointer Sisters (they also had four sisters, but eventually downsized by 25%) were one of the few family acts of the ’70s who could stand against the Jackson 5 flood and not drown. “Neutron Dance” is actually from their break out album, cleverly called Break Out (1983). That breaks outside my ’70s topic. But the Pointers produced enough good music in that decade to make them a formidable unit, including “Yes We Can Can” and their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.”

That’s as religious as we get around here, except when I’m listening to Miles Davis. See you on Sunday when I hand down the law about black music of the early ’70s.


  1. seasidedave says:

    “You were always my favorite son!”

  2. Deborah Wessell says:

    Excellent recap, dude!

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