A Bar Mitzvah Story: From Boy to Man
August 22–23, 1947
Blue and red shadows from the blinking Carta Blanca beer sign on the top of the building kitty-corner from his flashed across the ceiling and walls of his bedroom. Indistinguishable voices speaking in Spanish and the sounds of laughter came through the open, sliding wall of carpet cleaning plant three stories below. Screeching breaks, clanging streetcars… and the heat.
Twisting on the sweat-dampened sheet, Got to get to sleep! Tomorrow’s the day and I’ve got to get to sleep!
If he pulled the window shade down to block the flashing light it also blocked whatever slight breeze there was, and in that heat closing the window was completely out of the question. Turning on his stomach, the boy momentarily solved the dual problems of sound and light by putting his face onto the pillow and folding it over his ears… for about ten seconds, until the heat of the feather pillow became unbearable, then he turned onto his back again.
Maybe, if I think I’m cool and don’t think of nothin’ else, maybe I’ll fall asleep. Composing himself, lying with his arms and legs spread so air could circulate the length of his body, closing his eyes, Mitchell thought, I feel cool! I am not hot! Then he thought of nothing, literally nothing… Nothin’! Don’t think of nothin’! …except for thinking of not thinking. It didn’t work and his mind returned to tomorrow.
Okay, so he couldn’t read Hebrew, at least not enough to get through the entire Hebrew phase, but he had that covered, and surprisingly—no, it was not all that surprising when he thought about it, as a matter of fact—it was Rabbi Berkovitz’ idea…
“So, Lipensky, you know how to read from the Talmud?”
It was the first of four review and instruction classes held forty-five minutes before the start of Hebrew school for that month’s Bar Mitzvah boys. No one was in the room but Mitchell, Donnie Weinberg and Rabbi Berkovitz.
“So? So read already!”
“B-b-ruch, a-ata,” haltingly, but trying, “A-d-onai…”
“Lipensky, come.” Berkovitz motioned to him.
Rising from his front-row seat, Mitchell walked to his desk.
Turning his book in the boy’s direction, sliding it across the desk, pointing with a nicotine-stained finger, “Read!” the old man said.
“B-ruch, a-ata, uh, A-do-onai… emm?”
“Lipensky, you got your Bar Mitzvah in five days, und you can’t even yet get by the first void, yet? So tell me, Lipensky, tell me vhut you learned, besides…” he suppressed a smile, “how to fall in a toilet?”
Donnie Weinberg, who didn’t know much more than Mitchell, snickered.
Leaning his head around Mitchell, Berkovitz glared at the other boy. “You vait, boychick,” pointing a stern finger, “it’s your turn next… So, Lipensky,” coming back to Mitchell, “read to me already!”
Trying again, “B-bruch, a-ta, A-do-nai…”
“Lipensky, you know ven your mama und papa brought you here—und they should have done it years ago, but den, God forbid, I vould have you in mein class for years—it vas so you vould learn to be a Bar Mitzvah. Vell, Lipensky, I ain’t gonna disappoint them, und you ain’t gonna disappoint them, too!” Opening a drawer the old man removed a mimeographed piece of paper and handed it across the desk. “Lipensky,” whispering, Berkovitz moved his head closer to the boy’s, who crinkled his nose at the old man’s putrid onion, garlic and tobacco breath. “I vant you should be a Bar Mitzvah for tree reasons: Von, a boy is tirteen only vonce. Two, Torah says you become a man, und should be a Bar Mitzvah ven you’re tirteen… Und also, I vant you should be hout from mein class!”
Mitchell looked at the paper. It was in Hebrew and English, and read phonetically: Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, eh-lo-hei-nu meh-lech ha-o-lam, bo-rei p’ri ha-ga-fen.
“Lipensky, I vant dis should be our secret!”
Oh, thank you, God! Mitchell had thought, In English! I got it in English, and all’s I gotta do is memorize it.
“Hokay? No von should know but you und me!”
“Yes, Rabbi! Believe me, I won’t tell no one!”
The next day was Mitchell Lipensky’s Bar Mitzvah.
Coming off the bed, he went to the window, sat on the floor and looked down through the open wall of the carpet cleaning plant three stories below.
The carpet was unrolled onto a concrete deck. First hosed with steaming water, the workers, wearing high rubber boots, pushed electric scrubbers back and forth leaving thick trails of soap. Occasionally one of the workers, passing from one end to the other, would run and slide across the foamy carpet.
Kind’a looks like fun, Mitchell thought, except for all that steam. Yaght! He watched a minute longer, then went back to bed.
Now I gotta sleep! His hand moved to the band of his shorts. Maybe if I… Maybe it’ll relax me… No! Not tonight! Not the night before my Bar Mitzvah! He looked at the Baby Ben on his dresser. Almost the day of my Bar Mitzvah. His hand went to his chest… then down again, this time, though, poking through the fly, the tip of his finger caressing his glans, Oh, God, he thought, why’s this always happen to me? And, as if by magic, the fly to his Jockey Shorts parted and it sprung through and, knowing it won’t, Maybe it’ll go away, he further thought as, forcing his hand up, crossing both hands behind his head, staring at the flickering, multi-colored ceiling, concentrating, whispering, he concentrated on, “Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, Eholo-hei-nu mel-lech ha-o-lam,” Dropping to his stomach, “br-rei p’ri Ha-ga-fen.” his index finger circled his navel. “Beloved parents, relatives and friends.” Now, holding the warm, hard protrusion. “Uh, today, emmm,” his hand moving, “Today I am,” faster, “emmm, a man!” faster… “Oh, God!”
Instantly depressed, feeling guilty, Mitchell wiped himself with a handkerchief, got off the bed, went into the living room and, as he still had the remnants of his erection, looking past the dining room, seeing that the lights were out in his parents’ bedroom, he tiptoed to the bathroom, urinated, then got back into bed.
I shouldn’t have done that! He yawned. God’ll punish me for doing that tonight! He did feel relaxed, though, as if the act of masturbation had drained him of apprehension and tension, which in fact, outside of his guilt, it had. Yawning again, Mitchell Lipensky closed his eyes…
“Mitchie,” Myra Lipensky called softly through the partially open door, “today’s the big…” Pushing the door open, “uh, day.” she quickly, quietly, pulled the door back to its previous position.
Stirring, “Yeah, Mom.” the boy yawned, stretched his arms and legs, and rubbed his crotch… where his hand lingered a moment on the pee erection that had, once again, pushed its way through the fly of his shorts, then, looking at the partially open door, he quickly pulled the summer blanket over his lower body. “I’m awake!”
“Walt? Mitchie, he, uh…”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking this day’s first cigarette, “Yeah, Myra,” Walter Lipensky asked. “Mitchell what?”
“Walt, just now when I went to wake Mitchell…” trying to think of a delicate way to say it.
“Myra, what in the hell’s the matter?”
“Uh, when I went to wake him, the, uh, door wasn’t closed all the way and Mitchell was lying, uh, sleeping on his back, and…”
“Walt, his… thing, his…” pointing to her husband’s crotch, “was out of his underwear and it looked like a man’s! You know, like you… when we, uh, make love.”
“Yeah?” Amused that she’d be so flustered over this. “So what? He probably had to make.”
“For Christ sake, Myra! Your son had to go to the toilet! You do remember what happens to boys when they have to make?”
Myra had bathed, changed and dressed her two boys often enough to know that when a baby has to urinate, sometimes his little penis erects. But the last time she’d seen Mitchell’s it was a small, cute, six-year-old penis, and she’d never given thought to it growing in size along with the rest of his body—and Mitchell was big for his age, standing an inch or two taller than any of his friends—so, this morning, when she’d seen him, “it” looked like a man’s and it had shocked her.
Blushing, “Oh, yes, Walt, how stupid of me.” she said. “I forgot.”
Remembering, still feeling an enormous sense of guilt, coming off the bed the boy stood, and the tan of his face turned a sickly khaki as, sitting again, he—whether it was caused by God as a punishment for masturbating on the night before his Bar Mitzvah, which was rather doubtful, or more the likely, due to guilt it was psychosomatic—he felt a sharp pain in his testicles. Standing again, supporting the weight of his scrotum in the palm of his hand, going to the window he looked skyward, “Oh, God, I’m sorry I did it last night, and I know you’re punishing me for doing it, but please, God,” Mitchell prayed, whispering the words because he felt a prayer would not be listened to unless the words were more than a mere thought, “don’t let there be anything wrong today! I’m sorry and I promise never to do it again! Honest!”
Standing her family by the front door, inspecting, wanting them to look perfect today, “What a beautiful family I have!” Myra said proudly, adding, “Mitchie, honey, you look a little… pale.” Meaning a little green. “You feeling okay?”
“Yeah, sure, Mom. I’m just kind’a, you know, nervous.”
“Sure. I don’t blame you, not one bit.”
“Okay.” Appraising her husband and boys one last time, just to be safe, “Are we ready to go?”
“Yes! Let’s get this show on the road!” Walter lifted three-year-old Lawrence, who had slumped to the floor, back onto his feet. “Ready to see your big brother become a fountain pen?” he uncharacteristically joked, giving Mitchell a rare smile, and an even more rare wink.
“Walter!” Myra said, feigning anger. “How could you?”
Just the evening before, Al Marcus had told the old joke about the Bar Mitzvah boy who was told that for his Bar Mitzvah he’d get all kinds of presents: a fountain pen and a sweater; a fountain pen and a wallet; a fountain pen and money, and when the boy made his speech he’d said, “My beloved parents, relatives and friends, today I am a fountain pen.” Thinking of Mitchell as an extremely handsome boy, but not necessarily an overly intelligent boy; worried her son would, somehow, make the same mistake, Myra had berated her brother-in-law for telling the story just the evening before his Bar Mitzvah, and she now scolded her husband for the same thing.
“Yeah!” Giggling, “A fountain pen!” Lawrence mimicked.
Holding back tears of joy and pride, “You’re all so beautiful.” Myra said once again. “I’m just so proud of all of you, and especially you, Mitchell. After all, it’s not every day a mother gets to see her son as a boy one day and a man the next…” Alluding to the Hebrew theory that a boy becomes a man on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, “Is it, Walt?”
Thinking his wife may have a double meaning to her question, referring to both the Hebraic belief and what she’d seen when she accidentally looked in on Mitchell earlier that morning, “Yes, Myra,” Walter said sincerely. “You’re so right! It’s sure not everyday a mother gets to see that!”