Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Jewish Closet

“The Cantor is from Brooklyn, he’s really great,” she said, throwing out Cantor like it was common term. It was a common term except for people like me. Cantor? What the hell is that? Even though I didn’t get Cantor, I was fully aware of the Brooklyn reference: Brooklyn lent him credibility in this world and gave her a little street cred for knowing him. Despite being in the dark, I acknowledged that all the great Cantors were from Brooklyn. Brooklyn? He must be good. She was wearing a sash. There would lots of sashes at this event

We were in Fresno for a Bar Mitzvah and I should’ve Googled Bar Mitzvah and brushed up on the terminology, but I didn’t. Like all things I don’t understand, I nodded, giving off that I was in the club, in the know, stopping short of winking. I had no idea what she talking about, but I would extoll his greatness, if it came down to that. And I was a little worried about being labeled an anti-Semite because of my cultural ignorance. You never know at these things.

We arrived early to get a good seat. I was the Godfather of the Abraham, the Bar Mitzvah boy and, since he was a great, well-mannered, polite, cool kid, I wanted everybody to know that I was just a little more special than them. How do you know Abraham? Oh, I’m his Godfather. Back off.

Yarmulkes lined a table that lead to the Temple. My wife grabbed 2 for Wolfie and I. Anytime I’m doing something Jewish, I never know whether I’m supposed to wear one or not, but I always do because it covers my bald spot. The yarmulke alone is reason enough to choose Judaism over Christianity. Jews should use this as a recruitment tool.

A pew in the third row was open. We sat down and I surveyed the room for familiar faces and similarities to churches. Immediately, I noticed “the Jewish Closet” behind the Rabbi’s area. It was hard to miss and had a Price is Right feel, like the Rabbi would ceremoniously open it and there would be a new car. I knew something good was behind it.

Besides the Jewish closet and the lack of a hanging, semi-clothed Jesus, it kinda looked like Christian church: pews, stained glass, folders for prayer/hymn books (no foot rest, though) and well-dressed people to fill the pews.

The Rabbi, a rotund, red-faced man in his 60s, with a Janet Jackson/Madonna microphone headset, addressed the crowd, chronicling the ceremony from beginning to end. I like the timeline approach, as it gives us something to look forward to - the end of the ceremony. When my parents dragged me to church as young boy, I would take my father’s watch and practice holding my breath - anything to relieve the boredom of church. By the end of the sermon, I was able to hold my breath well over one minute without passing out. I can thank Christianity for my lung capacity.

As the Rabbi came to the last point in the outline of the ceremony, it was easy to decipher what he was really saying: “You gentiles, it’s gonna be a long-ass ceremony. Prepare yourselves. Trust me, I’ve done this a thousand times.” While chuckling, he announced that most kids would not be able to sit through the ceremony and that there was library filled with distractions where they could go to wait it out. He also announced that Abraham would be reading in both English and Hebrew. This last comment was for guys like me – guys that would lean over to their wives and say, “Jesus, Abraham’s speaking another language - Jewish or Arabic or something like that.”

Let the ceremony begin.

Abraham read from the Jewish Prayer book. We stood up, sat down, stood up again and sat down. I pretended to be following along with the Hebrew, reading from right to left, but I was lost. Halfway through I put the book down and didn’t look back.

The Cantor stood on the other side of the stage from Abraham, the Rabbi and the Lady Rabbi, who was dressed in a stylish pantsuit. She turned out to be his Bar Mitzvah teacher – something like that. The Cantor had his own podium. With a short ponytail and barrel chest, he looked like a present day Steven Segal without the grimace. He stood erect when he sang, pressing his acoustic guitar against his diaphragm. If I hadn’t deduced that he was the Cantor, I would’ve thought he was a local opera singer. He was a pro and elevated the Bar Mitzvah from ceremony to concert. I was half expecting him to sell CDs after the show.

This had to be a good gig for the Cantor. I imagined him sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn, with his Cantor friends, talking about the impending Bar Mitzvah:

“So, they’re flying you out to California?”


“And they’re paying you?”


“And they’re putting you up in a hotel?


“Where’s it at?”

“Temple Beth Israel in…Fresno. It’s near, uh, the beach.”

“Wow, can I get your agent’s number?”

The ceremony didn’t get interesting until they opened the Jewish closet. Sitting on the edge of my pew, wondering what the hell was in there, the Rabbi nonchalantly opened the doors. I was hoping he would conjure David Copperfield or at least add a little pizazz, possibly smoke, but all we got was a short tug on the door, revealing something that reminded me of a medieval arms closet, a place where actors at medieval tourist restaurants – the ones where they joust - go to suit up for the dinner shows. I don’t know what I was expecting - an old man with a scraggily beard chipping at a rock? I was a little disappointed.

Back dropped in crushed red velvet, the Jewish closet featured 5 different sized Torahs on pedestals of various heights that formed a backward “V,” the largest on top and the rest sliding down the imaginary arms. I was unaware they were Torahs at the time.

The Rabbi grabbed the largest Torah like a large baby, struggling to bump it off its pedestal. He presented it to the crowd like an offering. Unsure of whether to clap, I sat on my hands and waited. No applause. He returned it to its new resting a place and removed its top, a gold crown ala Burger King and Chef Boyardee and placed it on what looked like an abridged Menorah near the Cantor. It tilted precariously.

Now exposed, I got a good look at the Torah. It was part Hoover vacuum bag, part hookah, part bagpipe and it probably could churn butter with a few adjustments. And it looked heavy, like the vacuum had sucked up some rocks.

The Rabbi called to the stage two women from the church .They would be the first of many people to participate in the service. Gently peeling back the Hoover vacuum bag, the women moved away from the Torah, revealing a scroll. The wooden arms that I mistook as the tenor drone of a bagpipe, the shaft of the hookah and the arm of a butter churner, held the holy ream of paper. They brought it over to Abraham and he read from it in Hebrew.

During the ceremony, the Torah was passed from great grandparents to grandparents to parents and then on to Abraham. Abraham’s Hebrew teacher, the one in a business pantsuit with heels, exulted Abraham’s attributes, going a little too far, saying she really enjoyed their “off-topic conversations during his private lessons.” It was a little creepy.

The Rabbi earnestly spoke to Abraham about representing the Jewish people, doing good for the Jewish people and working for the Jewish people. This was a little too Jewish for me. Abraham is such a good kid, the kinda kid that gives adults hope that all teenagers aren’t douchebags, and he should be shared with all humanity, not just the Jewish people. The Rabbi and I were on the outs after this. Selfish bastard.

After all the good words, Abraham took the Torah on a tour of the Temple. Like everybody else who came in contact with the bulky Torah, Abraham awkwardly paraded it from pew to pew. The real Jews touched the Torah with the Book of Prayer and then kissed the binding of the book. As Abraham came closer to us, Wolfie, my son, and I pushed out to the aisle with our books. As he passed, Wolfie touched the book to the Torah and so did I, but I also kissed the book, pandering to the religion. As I did, I looked around, smiling, seeing if anybody was looking at me. I was proud of my kippah and the kiss I just planted on the book.

Near the end of the ceremony, the Rabbi called my family to the stage. Abraham’s parents told us were part of the ceremony, but didn’t explain what we’d be doing. I was hoping it didn’t involve reading in Hebrew.

The Rabbi positioned us on one side of the closet; the other side was close friends. I positioned myself closest to the handle, in case it involved opening the door. With a little prompting from the Rabbi, we opened the door together and then closed it a short while later. I don’t remember the significance of opening and closing the doors, but it was late in the ceremony, so I assume we were putting the big Torah to rest. I was a little heady from being so close to the closet.

The Cantor sang and the Rabbi pronounced Abraham a man. We got up, stretched and moved to the adjacent room, where the ceremony commenced.

I made small talk with people I kinda knew, knew and had no Idea who the hell they were. I had lots of questions: What is a Cantor? How heavy is the Torah? Do you pay extra for using the largest Torah? What’s the deal with the Jewish closet? Lady Rabbi was was kinda pretty, don’t you think? These questions were reserved for people I knew. Most chit chat centered on the ceremony and Abraham.

At the end of the evening, while I explained to Abraham’s dad in the parking lot that getting a DUI on his son’s Bar Mitzvah wasn’t a good idea, a straggler from the party approached. His car was next to mine. Not getting his fill of small talk, he said in passing, “How about that Cantor? He’s from Brooklyn, you know,”


  1. "The yarmulke alone is reason enough to choose Judaism over Christianity. Jews should use this as a recruitment tool." Best line ever. There were several chucklers in this one. Thanks for making my morning.

  2. Thanks for the nice words.. The event left me with so many unanswered questions. I might write about the reception, which was mighty interesting too.