Wednesday, March 22, 2023 Mar 22, 2023
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The bar mitzvah of Josh Cohen

A kid would be crazy not to want a bar mitzvah. It’s an investment. He may not, at age 13, get to drive a car, marry, buy liquor and cigarettes, join the Army or vote. But he gets money. He gets presents. He gets new clothes and parties to which he can invite girls. He gets accolades; people toast him. And he gets to be responsible. Instead of having to be told four times to make his bed-if he takes his new maturity seriously-he now will only have to be told twice. 「 A week after Josh Cohen turned 13, his bar mitzvah was celebrated at Congregation Shearith Israel, 9401 Douglas. He received $2,000 for his piggy bank, a calculator, records, books, a radio he can jog with, gift certificates, a solid gold coin and lots of pens, some with clocks in them. 「 Bar mitzvah means “son of the Commandments.” It is a special ceremony for Jewish males on the threshold of religious maturity. A Jewish tradition at least 2,000 years old sets a boy’s age of responsibility at the day after his 13th birthday. Abraham rejected his father’s idols at 13. Jacob and Esau, at 13, went their separate ways. The celebration of bar mitzvah dates back at least 600 to 700 years. A Jewish girl becomes bat mitzvah, or “daughter of the Commandments,” on the day after her 12th birthday. But due to the sexism of ancient religions, bat mitzvahs have only been publicly observed within the past hundred years. Now, the formal observance of a child becoming bar or bat mitzvah is incorporated into regular Jewish worship services on Monday, Thursday or Friday night, or Saturday morning.

The religious rites of Josh Cohen’s bar mitzvah will be on a Saturday morning, leaving plenty of the weekend free for parties. Only in recent times has this been possible. Previously, the Jewish Sabbath -from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday-was considered too sacred for bar or bat mitzvahs.

The celebration of Josh’s bar mitzvah will last three days, from Friday until Sunday. He will not receive a car, a motorbike or a pinball machine. Some boys do. Their parents go into debt to do the rite of passage up right -unless they are wealthy enough to have no need to borrow. Even among Dallas’ Jewish poor, says Rabbi Mark Goodman at Temple Shalom, “when it comes to a bar mitzvah, because of the kind of ceremony it is, a milestone in a young Jew’s life, families will do the very best they can.”

But the ceremony, like Christmas, isn’t what it once was; it too has turned commercial. “Used to be,” says Josh’s father, Barry Cohen, “you’d take your son down to the synagogue, say a blessing over the Torah and everyone would have a drink of whiskey, and that was it.” The Cohens will spend about $6,000 on Josh’s bar mitzvah, and that doesn’t include the family dinner at his aunt’s house or a Sunday brunch at the Sheraton-Dallas Hotel – relatives will pay for those. The price tag for new clothes will be about $1,500. “Normally,” says Sandy Cohen, Josh’s mother, “you pick up the phone, and you call a caterer. Then you pick it up again and call the florist and then you pick it up again and call the woman who drapes tables at $20 or $30 a table. I can come in with a couple of friends, my mother and sister-in-law and do all that. We have come up with some creative ways to decorate. We have tried to be as economical as possible with Josh’s bar mitzvah.”

The celebration will run from a simple lunch, a kiddush, at the synagogue after the bar mitzvah, plus a party that night, to a catered lunch at $25 a head and a big blowout at a country club. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, Sandy Cohen admits, that you are planning a bar mitzvah, not a wedding, and that all 13-year-olds don’t enjoy black-tie affairs.

What some parents don’t realize, says Rabbi Goodman, is that a bar mitzvah isn’t even necessary. A boy automatically becomes a Jewish adult the day after he turns 13. The special ceremony is just a formality, an occasion for him to publicly accept his new role.

Sandy Cohen has told Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer at Shearith Israel that hers is not a typical Jewish family. The Cohens don’t go to synagogue on the Sabbath. Neither do they observe the Sabbath at home, except for sitting down together for dinner on Friday nights and talking about the world. It seems paradoxical, then, that a wing at Shearith Israel was built with Sandy’s grandfather’s money, and that she taught Hebrew in the religious school for five years. Her four children all attended Hebrew school from the first grade. All have been bar or bat mitzvah, and two continued their religious training long enough to be “confirmed” in the 10th grade. This isn’t typical? What she means, Sandy Cohen says, is that they are religious, yet not religious. They swear by tradition. Tradition is a way to keep the family together. That is why they have had bar and bat mitzvahs.

All the family will have roles in Josh’s bar mitzvah. It will come during the week of Sukkot, or Feast of the Tabernacles, a joyous fall festival not unlike Thanksgiving that commemorates the harvest and the Israelites’ wanderings after the Exodus from Egypt. The synagogue courtyard will be decorated like a sukkah, or hut, reminiscent of the ones built in the fields centuries ago at harvest time.

Sandy is using the harvest theme in her decorating. She can use the same burnt orange sheets she used five years ago at another son’s bar mitzvah. At the Farmer’s Market the pumpkins are big and fat, and Sandy tries to imagine how they will look in a setting of egg salad and caviar. Two hundred people have been invited to Josh’s bar mitzvah and to the kiddush in the synagogue auditorium. But anyone worshiping on a Saturday, when there is a bar mitzvah, is welcome to the kid-dush, too. That, Sandy knows, is making her husband a little nervous. If 400 people show, you have to feed them. Maybe it will rain. Maybe they will have pizza bagels instead of caviar.

She and a friend stuff 50 pumpkins and a load of fruit into the car and head back to the Cohens’ house in North Dallas. “You know,” Sandy says, “$6,000 is a lot of money. I take the children to Europe every year and that is a true pleasure. The money spent on the bar mitzvah is just a necessity.”

At the house, Barry Cohen is watching television, a football game. But he gets up from the set when Sandy says that he really isn’t a very religious person. He is religious enough, he responds, to feel guilty if he doesn’t give his kids a bar or bat mitzvah. “The bar mitzvah has no meaning to me other than its religious implications,” he explains. “It’s something you just want done. You don’t want your son to later look back and ask why he didn’t get a bar mitzvah. I really think every Jewish boy should have one because, hopefully, it affects his maturity.”

The Cohens have noticed some changes in Josh. “He’s no longer a little boy,” his mother says. “I think a lot of this is due to his intense study of Judaism these last few months and the fact that he’s been taught all his life that once he’s bar mitzvah, he’ll no longer be a boy. It’s been instilled. He’s been, in a way, programmed.” Adds his father: “He is looking after his room a little better.”

Josh will not suddenly become an adult. Says Rabbi Goodman: “The ceremony simply means that beginning with their adolescence, children will be expected to make more decisions on their own and to learn how to assume more responsibility. They merely take an important step toward adulthood.”

After his bar mitzvah, there will be few immediate changes in Josh’s life. But his new status will mean that he can do things in worship services that are reserved for adults, such as reading from the Torah or being counted among the 10 adults required for the minyan, or quorum, for public worship. He will be able to wear a , or prayer shawl, when he worships, and he will be expected to fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Barry Cohen became bar mitzvah in 1945. He hardly remembers the occasion, except for the excitement. He grew up in Gonzales in a family of Reform Jews. Barry’s father, a bookbinder, held Friday-night prayer services at the house; once a month, they went to synagogue in San Antonio.

Although Sandy Cohen’s father was an Orthodox Jew, she grew up in a Reform synagogue, and her family did not celebrate the holidays. Sandy’s grandmother Rebecca was born in Poland, lived for a while in Moscow, then came to Texas at age 16. Two years later, she married Solomon Topletz, a door-to-door salesman in Bonham. They moved to Dallas in 1907, after Solomon Topletz saved enough money to buy a store right off Main Street. Solomon did well with the store and did even better with several profitable real estate and investment deals. He died a rich man. His widow, Rebecca, died in 1980 at the age of 104.

In the late Sixties, Sandy designed a 7,000-square-foot house, and Barry had it built. The doorknobs alone, from England, cost $3,500. Later, the Cohens sold the house because they could not really afford it, and Sandy says she “closed the door on any acquisitiveness I had. My whole value system changed. I began to look to the significance of people and accept them for what they are. And this is what I’ve tried to instill in my kids. Their peers don’t have this set of values, especially in Jewish circles, because the emphasis is on clothes and what you drive and where you live. Boy, I don’t like that.”

Soon after her children were born, she says, “there were two things I decided I believed in. One is academics, and the other is a strong family life.”

Her son’s bar mitzvah service will last about two and a half hours. Rabbi Ofseyer, head of the 6,000-member Shearith Israel congregation, is amazed at how well a child can sometimes “pull off his ceremony. “The hidden agenda of this rite of passage,” he says, “is that a child has sufficient maturity and confidence to carry it out under all that pressure before an entire congregation.” There are several sets of melodies to learn, and within each set there are variations. The child chooses the ones he wants to learn, and the ego boost he gets from his success is an essential part of his coming of age. From August to June, Rabbi Ofseyer says, there is at least one bar or bat mitzvah a week at Shearith Israel.

It is an honor to be asked to participate in a bar or bat mitzvah. Josh has invited a handful of uncles and cousins to help with the Torah scrolls and to do the aliyahs, the blessings before and after the Torah readings. During the service, Josh will wear a tallit that his brother, Shaun, bought him in Israel. The tallit is long, with shiny fabric, tassels and a prayer embroidered with gold-colored thread. The rabbi has reminded him that wearing the tallit, like other things he can now do, is more a privilege than a responsibility.

“I feel more responsible,” Josh says. He is sitting on a living-room sofa, holding the tallit. “This is something big in your life, and you should get attention. It’s not really growing up. You’ve come to a state where you’ve learned so much, and you’ve done this special thing, that people accept you as a Jewish adult.”

He has learned his parts well; his tongue glides over the rich Hebrew sounds. “She-mah yis-rah-ale ah-do-nai e-lo-hay-nu ah-do-nai e-chahd. Bah-ruch sha-me ke-vod ma-chu-to le-o-lahm-vah-ed.” That’s the Shema, Josh explains. A prayer about everything.

On Friday night, the eve of his bar mitzvah, Josh’s family gathers at his Aunt Carol Brin’s house to congratulate him and share a cold turkey buffet. The candles to welcome the Sabbath are lit, and Josh’s grandfather, Isadore Goldstein, begins a blessing in Hebrew over the wine. It is a long prayer; he has candlelight on his face, and it is a time to reflect on tradition.

The next morning Josh stands at the door of the sanctuary. It is empty, but well-wishers are trickling into the hall. Josh is wearing a gray pin-striped suit and does not seem at all nervous. He beams like a young movie star at his first premiere as he shakes hands with an old man in a wheelchair. Josh’s mother is down the hall talking to a man she hasn’t seen lately. A black woman stands in a space by herself, waiting and obviously wondering what she is supposed to do next. The kid-dush, meanwhile, is being set up in the auditorium. The caterer, Naomi Sherp, and her hive of helpers are in the kosher kitchen cutting the noodle pudding, dressing the pizza bagels (Josh chose them because he doesn’t like little black fish eggs) and opening the caviar, which Sandy insisted on adding to the menu.

Josh’s brother, Collin, home from Stanford, lingers in a corner while a flock of Josh’s suited-up friends wag their bar mitzvah gifts and snicker as if they have all been to the same bachelor party the night before. Shana, Josh’s only sister, talks to a guest. Suddenly, a little man grabs up a handful of yarmulkes – skullcaps – and begins looking for the men who don’t have them. It is time to stand up for Josh and be counted.

He emerges in a floor-length yellow robe and a yarmulke and sits with his family in a pew at the front of the synagogue. The black woman sits right behind them. Her name is Maxine, and she works in the cafeteria at St. Mark’s, Josh’s school. She rode a bus to the synagogue to attend his bar mitzvah.

The service begins at 9 a.m. A man in a long robe stands at the pulpit and begins to read in Hebrew. Sometimes he chants the words. But no one, except a few older Jews in the back who also chant, shows any signs of settling down. The synagogue looks almost empty, as if the 200 people Sandy invited have forgotten to come. It isn’t raining. “Don’t worry,” says a red-haired woman with a cane, who is sitting near the Cohens. “Some people don’t like to get up this early. They’ll come when they want to. By the time this is over, the sanctuary will be full.”

Rabbi Ofseyer welcomes the Cohens and announces Josh’s bar mitzvah. He also invites everyone to the kiddush afterward. Barry Cohen sinks down in his seat.

Then, Josh and his parents climb the steps to the altar and face the congregation. Rabbi Ofseyer mentions the transmission of Judaism from one generation to the next. Barry Cohen turns to his son and, in Hebrew, says: “Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this one.” Sandy turns to Josh and, in English, says: “Blessed be the Almighty who gave us power to fulfill our duty to our son. We have prepared him morally and religiously for this day when the responsibility falls upon his own shoulders.” Together, Barry and Sandy put the tallit around their son’s shoulders. Now Josh must say the blessing over the tallit. Nothing comes out. Sandy automatically raises her hand and nudges his shoulder. The Hebrew comes pouring out: “Blessed art thou, oh Lord, our God, King of the universe….”

The older Jews in the back pews continue to chant and their voices echo in the sanctuary that, indeed, is now beginning to fill. Josh already has gained so much confidence that during one long passage he raises his voice to a very loud level so that no one, not even the older Jews, will give in to the monotony of the chanting. And, like the other men standing, he moves his body to and fro. It’s called dob-bing. It’s to keep the circulation going in the legs.

The service is not entirely serious. Sol Sanders, the cantor who has spent his voice on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, leaves most of the chanting to the two rabbis and the boy. But sometimes, when Josh sits beside him and someone else is chanting, Sol Sanders cracks quiet jokes about the crickets hopping across the floor and Josh laughs. Another light moment comes when Shaun Cohen gets up to say his part of the Shacharit, the morning service, and his voice breaks in the beginning of a chant. Chuckles float through the sanctuary, and the worshipers relax.

The most solemn moments come when Josh, his close relatives and the two rabbis approach a curtain in back of the altar. This is the Ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept. The people stand to the side of the Ark, not in front, because it is blasphemous to block the way of the Torah. Three Torah scrolls will be removed from the Ark during the service. At other times, the Ark’s curtain will be pulled during prayers. Sandy draws it back once, something women haven’t always been allowed to do.

Josh’s uncles and cousins occupy another front-row pew, and one by one they are called to the pulpit to do the aliyahs before and after the Torah is read. Only a few struggle with the Hebrew, and all their faces seem to glow with feelings for tradition. No one touches the Torah’s handwritten parchment. A pointer is used to find the words. Each time Josh reads, he kisses the tassels on his tallit, a gesture of love for the Torah, and he holds onto the Torah’s wooden handle, symbolic of the tree of life.

Collin Cohen also reads a part of the morning service, and Shana Cohen chants the Ashrei in Hebrew: “Happy are those who dwell in your house….”

In his “thank you” speech Josh uses English. “This is an important day in my life,” he tells the congregation. “I am ready to accept the responsibilities that come with this new role.” He thanks his out-of-town relatives for coming and wraps up his share of the bar mitzvah with “I hope Israel has peace with everyone and doesn’t have to go to war again.” He sits down. He has pulled it off in style, without a single slip-up.

Later, Rabbi Edward Friedman calls him to the pulpit to congratulate him in front of the congregation. “No one had to push you.” Rabbi Friedman says. “You did much more than was expected of you, and you did it so beautifully.” The rabbi names each of Josh’s siblings, says each has set precedents and adds that he expects Josh to soar even higher. Josh grins, and Barnard Levy, president of the synagogue, hands him a Torah book and a bar mitzvah certificate. Rabbi Ofseyer concludes the Saturday service with a sermon, to a now-full synagogue, on the equality of women.

No rain falls on the sukkah in the courtyard. Josh is hugged, patted and kissed, and people meet in the shadows of palm branches to drink wine to the sweetness of life. Finally, the crowd begins to flow into the auditorium, and the guests begin to stack their paper plates with the kosher offerings: creamed herring, lemon brownies, cheesecake, carrot cake, cookies, lox and cream cheese, rye bread, bagels, fresh fruit, chocolate brownies, egg salad and caviar. All the food has been prepared in keeping with traditional dietary laws that allow only kosher cooks in the kitchen. Naomi Sherp is one of the three kosher cooks in Dallas. “I’m not allowed to take anything that has already been baked into the kitchen,” Mrs. Sherp says. “They check everything before I go in.” She baked the entire day before Josh’s bar mitzvah. This kiddush is strictly dairy; it’s cheaper without meats. Still, the Cohens have spent $2,000 to serve the guests. At the end of the kiddush, Sandy and the rest of the family load the pumpkins, plants and 100 pots of mums into cars and take them out to Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club for the highlight of the evening, a Western party. That night, while a band named Harvest plays, everyone -including the aunts, uncles, cousins and friends – dances the Cotton-Eyed Joe and feasts on barbecued chicken, ribs, beef and potato salad. Josh wears his new plaid shirt, boots, hat and fringed leather jacket. Barry Cohen, not about to buy another new outfit, wears clothes he has had for a long time.

The celebration finally winds down at sunrise on Sunday, over Mexican omelets and broiled tomatoes in the London Room of the Sheraton Hotel. Aunt Carol Brin has found exactly the decorations she wanted for Josh’s final bar mitzvah party: white pots stuffed with peppermint candy; balloons; big, flat lollipops; a giant poster of Josh’s face; and, because Josh is assistant manager of his school’s football team, a football-shaped cake with “Assistant Manager” in icing across the top.

When the party is finally over and Sandy Cohen is ready to leave the hotel, she stops long enough to look at a couple of posters Carol Brin drew and tacked to the wall. One shows Snoopy saying “Hooray for parties!” The other shows Lucy countering with “You call this peanut butter sandwich a party?”

Six thousand dollars is a lot of moneyfor a bar mitzvah, yet others spend twicethat and more on this rite of passage that isstrictly optional. Was it really worth thehassles, the expense and the brief boost toa 13-year-old’s ego? Yes, Sandy says later,without hesitation. Yes. “I came awayfrom the whole thing with the strongestsense of family I have had in a long time. Itwas never as strong with any of my otherbar mitzvahs.”