The Prodigal's Bar Mitzvah Speech
By Henry Alan Paper
I was on the front lawn just coming down from a dangerous drug when my parents passed by in their formal dress and reminded me of the speech I was to give in a couple of hours. They continued across the, lawn and, with the swoosh of my mother’s gown, entered the family car.
I looked down at my suit, then gasped: When had I put it on?
My parents had clearly spoken in that combined tone of expectation and admonition that wasn’t any easier to dismiss after my two years’ absence. No, it wasn’t difficult to assume that there was something I had forgotten.
But what was it they expected and what was it I had forgotten?
I looked up, just as an unspeakable realization began to emerge through the layers of psychedelic dread:
My brother’s bar mitzvah speech.
My brother was being bar mitzvah’ed that morning and I, no doubt with a first-born’s unfailing fidelity, had promised to give a speech honoring him.
I rode over to the synagogue in the back seat, pressed between my corseted aunt and my coarse-suited uncle, feeling trapped and scared. The countless hairs on the car’s upholstery stood up like a tropical forest somewhere in which I was desperately lost. I who, just a short while ago had looked forward to the long trip home (the trip!) with an innocent’s anticipation (yes, I remembered, I had even written down my brother’s bar mitzvah at the top of my itinerary). But now my amusing vision of endless talk and jumpy music and funky relatives was had been transmuted into something terribly and dire: a speech.
What would I say?
I had decided not to drive over in my van. I knew that under present circumstances, such driving might indefinitely postpone my arrival.
On the other hand, at this very moment I could be in Jersey City.
I had to admit: I was desperate. And desperation was fueling my delirium. Of course there was always confession. But to confess that I wasn’t ready with my speech was too close to confessing the dangerous drug I had taken on the lawn two hours earlier – yes, when the cock had crowed and I should have been polishing my speech, not to mention my shoes. I looked across at my uncle’s still and placid cuff, and then beyond:
The chromium window handles looked like those of a coffin. (Get a grip on yourself, I thought. Ha ha.)
No, I would have to overcome all distraction, find my center, set my thoughts in order; I would just have to wing it. After all, I had always been known for my silver, sharp-edged tongue, I, the older brother, the one who, always talking, went away to be a writer and wound up, still talking, working in a book store. Yes, I was good at giving speeches. Well, there should be a lot of time to compose this one: a lot of time existed in a synagogue service. Surely I couldn’t ask for any more time than that.
But suddenly it came to me: the car was traveling all too quickly, too smoothly, toward the synagogue. A more circuitous route – some side streets or a traffic jam – would have given me precious time to think. On the other hand, the speech hadn’t happened yet. There was time. And it could not be denied that in the always infinite here-and-now, it might never happen. Was not each moment beautiful and entire unto itself? Was not everything beyond it the merest illusion?
I looked down at my too loud tie: a favorite I had without thinking (in the moment!) reached for: fire engine red and bursting with yellow featuring Colonel Foghorn Leghorn. I was surprised my mother had let me get away with that, or perhaps she had said something about it earlier when I had gone inside for those four glasses of orange juice and that corned beef sandwich. (Could one ask for a better meal? The last meal!)
Riding to the synagogue to deliver the speech he hadn’t yet written, a fantasy comes to him. His father is standing beside the family Cadillac. His father is all dressed up. And he, the son, is all dressed up, standing beside the father. They are both daydreaming. Suddenly his mother swooshes up in her satin gown, shouting something at his father, looking straight at his heart, like an arrow homing unerringly to its target. “What did I tell you about that tie?” she shouts at him, she shouts again and again. She disappears and comes back. He and his father are still standing beside the Eldorado. Before either of them can react, she douses them with a pan of water like Niagara. “Now straighten those suits, both of you,” she says, and turns on her heels and with a swoosh is gone. The water is cold and humiliating. The son turns to the father with a look that says: How can you put up with this? The father smiles meekly, takes a chamois sitting on the roof of the Cadillac, and slowly begins to rub his suit.
No, clearly I will have to give the speech. Forget strategy exits. Indeed, already the car is approaching the synagogue: so white and austere, so imposing. No, I will just have to “magic” my way through it, like the Hebrews through the Red Sea, and the desert of adversity.
The car stops and my aunt kisses my cheek, my uncle distractedly pats my knee. I get out and leave my stomach on the seat.
But the air, the open space, revitalizes me. It is, after all, a beautiful day. No one, not even God, can deny that. The moment is with me – full, rich… But then, going up the steps beside my father, entering those dark portals, a number of questions descend upon me like avid birds of prey. I turn and ask my father some preliminary questions: When will I give the speech? How long should it be? Is it really that important? Won’t I simply be interfering?
My father smiles benignly, all the while nodding to the crowd. “Don’t worry,” he says, “you’ll be fine.” But then he does turn to me, as though actually remembering me, and places a hand on my shoulder. “Remember, it’s your brother’s occasion. Don’t overdo it.”
I immediately go to the tables already set up for the end of service and pour myself a drink. No sooner do I down it – its warmth cushioning me – than I hear a familiar swoosh come up behind me and my mother is shouting: “What are you doing? What is he doing? Drinking before the service? Can’t he wait?” Her heavily mascaraed glance falls on my chest. “And look at that tie – that tie is too loud. Where did he get that? What is he doing?!”
My head is reeling. I feel dizzy and would definitely fall down if it weren’t for the fact that my head is also coasting near the ceiling above the crowds.
Through some mercy, some resource I cannot lay claim to, I hear myself saying evenly what my old self no doubt would have answered: “Just getting myself ready, Mother, and wishing us luck. This is my good luck tie, you know. Wishing all of us all luck. I am giving the speech, you know. Well, I must go see some friends in the gallery now. Mother, I will join you all shortly.”
Through some circuitous route that disappears from memory as soon as it’s traversed, I at last find the gallery, which is mostly empty, and choose my seat. I am, by force of time, all single-mindedness now. I must have no distractions. Get this little speech out of the way and then I canenjoy this bar mitzvah with its smorgasbord of pleasures. Just like any other congregant with soft heart and iron-clad stomach. After all, just a little speech. Nothing deep. Nothing elaborate. Nothing too personal. Just a simple sentiment.
The gallery is cozy. It is suited to my task. And furthermore, if I lean back I cannot be seen from the proceedings below. Most of the gallery is now filling up. A couple of the older boys have hidden highballs under their seats. A hubbub and rustling rises up to me, and then a gradual quieting of conversation that tells me people have taken their places in the pews, and then, finally, a stillness. I don’t look down. I can feel the cantor and the rabbi mounting the steps to the bima.
I begin taking notes just as the choir sings out below. The cantor’s voice rings out. The congregation joins in, the entire weight of Jewish litany forestalling my debut, staving off history, buying me time. I write and write, but all too soon the matchbook is covered from top to bottom on both sides, all but obscuring the driver education ad. Desperately I look about me. I lean down, luckily find a magazine someone has left behind under the seat, and continue on. But I need an idea! These are just notes, they don’t cohere into anything, and then the blue ink doesn’t stand out so well against the black of the picture. And then, in my frenzy, the slick magazine page begins to shred. The mournful, yet also bright hopeful, over-loud strains of the Shema rise up to me. I must get myself in hand. Concentrate. I need an idea. A real crowd pleaser. But what? I tear a white ad for jockey shorts from the back of the magazine – I decide to begin from the beginning, from the bottom up so to speak (ha! ha!). Yes, indeed, everything is going to be all right now. Things are going to come together. Already a positively brilliant idea for the speech has come to me! An idea that takes its departure from the commonplace (always a good beginning, that). I will wish my brother – in the warmest and, just suggestively, wittiest regard – that we have on this occasion of his majority not the traditional fountain pen (ha ha!), but instead (it is getting warm up here) a new tie (I’m not really sure of the tone of this yet) that perhaps our father pass on to him, with the older brother’s blessing (is this a touch too frivolous?), one of his own glowing longstanding ties that he has long worn in business and of which he is so deeply proud. (Is it a matter of topic, or of tone? Or both? Yet I can’t stop writing.) For on this occasion, this day of days (is this a Biblical expression?), on this occasion of occasions, why must we wear ties in synagogue? The answer is: the tie is the symbol of majority, of public status, of uprightness, integrity, and dignity, etc. etc. The tie is the tie that binds (indeed as it is binding me so tightly now), that richest of emblems binding the outer man to the inner – but then I look down and realize Iam not wearing a tie – I have somewhere along the way taken it off – my bobbing Adam’s apple most certainly providing self-mockery of the speech upon whose sincerity I had (despite all warnings) been carried away. No, this will not do. It was a bad idea. A dry run. Oh, where is my tone, where my topic? Between disappointment and relief, I realize at last that I must be serious, not frivolous. An important lesson has been learned here. Learned, if not yet applied. (“Adam’s apple” – could there be something in that?)
I bend, all earnestness, to the task at hand. But then I happen to look across the yawning of God’s great space and am struck by… a revelation! There on the other side of the gallery: Dinah Silverberg, former Hebrew school classmate and object of my Hebrew school lust!
Poignant memories of Saturday morning services rise up to me: sitting hulked down in the pew under cover of partaking in thick-textured litany, taunted by lusty images of Dinah Silverberg: O agony and apogee of my soul! Apparently Dinah has never left town, not even, perhaps, the synagogue. How long ago that was – yet how little times have changed! O Dinah, had we but time enough you could have reformed me. I could have corrupted you. Oh, how different things could have been had you but answered my lust – but you never even let me carry your siddur! And now see how far apart we are. Separated once more by the unbreachable synagogue space – you all the way on your side – I on mine. O can not you see how different things could have been!
She turns her head, with its sophisticated white-veiled hat, toward the goyishe football player-now-insurance executive on her left who has a question about the program, as they share together this brief moment of suburban piety. We have taken different paths, you and I, Dinah Silverberg! Oh, too clear – you have made your choice.
I hear the Shema beginning: panic in me runs rampant, forcing me to re-channel my libido. I can no longer afford the burden of Dinah Silverberg. I have my own humble, ingratiating task at hand – the people await! O heaven of hosts! I need your help. Where is some old-timey toastmaster like Eddie Cantor or Georgie Jessel when you need him most? Where is the soft-shoe shuffle of my old friend, synagogue-janitor Bill?
But then my libido finds its constructive earthly expression and I have a stroke of genius – daring, ingenious, etc. It is true – yes, Dinah, I grant you this – nothing can withstand Jewish ingenuity!
I will start as might a Palestinian airline hijacker: “Ladies and gentlemen – I see so much jewelry out there – please to place all of it on the floor and you will not be harmed!” Shock in the congregation, true enough, but then laughter, relief would be followed by a religious parable of the jewel whose valuable substance and, more important of course, allegorical legacy I would wish to pass on to my brother – that jewel of tradition gleaming in all its facets, so highly regarded, yet threatened from all sides by the inherent dullness of modernity, by Palestinian hijackers.
But then I see in the congregation – shock, disbelief, stillness…
Some refinement is necessary.
I think I must reconsider the basic premise of what this speech is all about. Some focus is needed. What is this speech about? My brother, of course! I see my brother before me resplendent in a gray Brooks Brothers suit, some immaculate purchase from the window at Bloomingdale’s, somewhere inside of which resides mytrue brother, my long-lost brother, with whom I at last make contact. Yes, a real communication, through the layers of guilt, resentment, and the yawning abyss of time! Oh, too blinded have I been by my own current anxiety; really it’s so simple. I must concentrate not on myself (indeed has that not been the problem of my entire life? Ah, but no time to dwell on that, not when so many are waiting below). Yes, I must concentrate on my brother, and on the audience: all those people out there, my relatives. What do they want, what are they expecting from me, indeed from life? (Not that I am necessarily equating the two… but then… I am – that’s it!) In their moment of expectation I must convey to them precisely what they expect – and might receive – from life. Now, if I can only tie (there’s that word again!) it all together.
I must think. Why is my hand shaking?
What’s that? Already the Torah service has ended and Musaf has begun! Is that my brother’s high tremulous voice I hear, leading the concluding service? So soon! So soon!
With my shaking hand I write feverishly – writing without knowing exactly what.
I write and write. Time no longer flies above me but does a skid landing in my stomach. Indeed, I hardly finish when I find myself rising. Without looking, I make my way across the aisles. I can feel it: all eyes on my brother down below as he completes the service. Oh, may those blessings extend to his very next of kin!
I make my way down the stairs and re-enter the congregation from the rear. I proceed down the aisle. Ahead I see my brother stepping down. I can tell by the rustle of satisfaction in the audience that he has done well.
Yes, at least one-half of the family issue has acquitted itself honorably. One out of two isn’t bad.
After today, I realize, it may be impossible for me to remain at home.
Walking down, I can see the place they are clearing for me in the center of the bima.
The more jolliness and assurance I can muster the better.
Calm confidence must be the tone.
One streak of relief in the already tarnished fate descending upon me. Yes, one grain of foresight in a drought of planning – to plow one final metaphor, beside this one here, into the ground – my notes, at least, are large and accessible. No shuffling of papers here or dropping of jockey-shorts ad. My relatives who have come in their finest gowns and furs should expect nothing but the best. Confidence: bravura. Of course the coherence of those notes entirely eludes me.
I pass the front pew on my way to the podium. My parents are scowling at me. “Great service,” I say. My mother mouths, “Where’s your tie?”
This speech must be a tour de force.
I mount the steps. I sense the congregation at my back: their silent expectation.
The rabbi welcomes me – an embracing smile separating the tangle of his grey beard. I find I cannot look at him. He comes forward and offers me the benediction of a handshake. O, innocent rabbi! The cantor, as befitting his status, and perhaps interest, is standing off to the side, diffidently awaiting his cue for the next note. Old men surround the Torah, the daydream of Hebrew mystical letters in the far-off glaze of their eyes.
I approach the podium and turn. I stare out onto a sea of faces: family, friends, relatives, barely distinct but recognizable – an entire childhood history facing the prodigal son!
And there in the front row my family: perpetually hoping for the best, always prepared for the worst.
And here I stand, mesmerically looking out, all possibilities in the moment!
I gaze down at my notes, look up.
“Ladies and gentlemen” – I feel words bypassing my brain, leaping directly to my mouth – “I see so much jewelry out there. Your jewelry. I am indeed reminded of what a shining occasion this is, what a glittering event!” I continue to stare out, transfixed by the sea of pale oval faces. “I am also reminded, in the history of human circumstance – as frail and unpredictable as that history is – of the place the jewel has come to assume as an allegory of the spiritual life of humankind. For the jewel is not only a rock, but the very window of the soul! A glittering, and beguiling, entrance to another and better world!
“Of course the jewel is a material rock, with a material value. Man seeks jewels to adorn his worldly achievement, to communicate the value of his place in society. But there is something in him that makes him suspicious of the merely material. For – dust to dust – he knows materiality will fail him.”
(What is that rustling? Is the audience taking this negatively, as a criticism of itself? As a cue to leave?)
“And so what happens when materiality fails him? The world turns and turns and turns; and through it all, humanity remains the same. As a person reaps humility in this world, he invariably finds that happiness is not to be found in the possession of a jewel, nor in any material possession. And as his hopes shrink smaller and smaller, as his expectations shrink to their proper – a close-minded person might say cynical – perspective, so does, hopefully, his own perception become reduced (under the pressure of his condition and circumstance) to what is truly valuable, truly and forever his own: his origin in tradition, his friends and family, his inalienable value as a human being, his joy in existence itself! For, if the sages contained (but not confined!) within this many-jeweled Torah can be relied upon, he who shrinks smaller and smaller in this world, also thereby becomes the more refined by experience. So freshly polished and open, his perception many-faceted, yes, shrinking smaller and smaller until he comes to assume just the very size, the fittingly appropriate contours and firmness of the jewel he once so coveted merely as a bauble – a jewel whose gleaming facets now provide his spiritual transubstantiation, and that now transfigures him gloriously into another world!
“I wish my brother – in his journey through life – many material jewels of success in this world, but also the realization which we who have come this far all share: that the real worth, the real light, is always and forever within. I believe on this day – as I look at him, indeed as if for the first time – that he partakes of that light, just as I am sure that one day he will reflect it.”
There is silence. A long silence. Then there is a distinct rustle as it slowly spreads and breaks out into audible sighs. People are suddenly nodding briskly, shaking their heads, daubing their eyes. My parents are beaming! and, miracle of miracles, briefly and yet eternally, and certainly excruciatingly, I, from the center of these spreading ripples, feel at long last, for one brief shining moment, that I am home.