Ivan approaches the bimah

Family photo (1983)

The rabbi gave me an audiotape with instructions to memorize my portion. I quickly learned the first five lines of text. The rabbi trusted that with practice, I would learn the rest. On the big day, after exhausting my five-line repertoire, I improvised guttural noises to a Torah-y tune. The rabbi tapped me on the shoulder. I was done. 

“Your brother did much better than you,” said Aunt Fanny. I heard she didn’t read English. She shopped for Breakstone’s butter by looking for the red-and-white label. Great-Aunt Fanny lived in The Bronx. We’d visit and she’d keep feeding us. Saying “Eat! Eat!” in a heavy Polish-Yiddish accent. Each kid would get a $20 bill as we left. When she died, her nieces found $20 bills hidden everywhere, between the dishes, in the furniture, hidden from the Cossacks.

Aunt Fanny’s older sister was Aunt Rachel. At the luncheon at our house following the service, she scolded me: “Don’t open the checks in front of everyone!” I cashed in nicely, bought some computer stuff. The bar-mitzvah was the finish line for the Jewish thing in our family. Except for the food, that’s forever.

* * *

No more temple, backward books,
Saturday morning, cartoon networks.

* * *

Logline for a fantasy-horror film, The Bequest:

A family inherits an ancient book of powerful magic. Soon, a series of scary assaults reveals sinister forces afoot: Everyone who’s seen the book, or who may have read the book, or whose ancestors touched the book, is marked for death.

Now, each family member has to make a reckoning: Flee? Hide? Ignore it? Negotiate? The mysterious pursuers have ancestral bequests of their own, and they will not yield.

“In a world. Of magic. And Evil. One man. Fights for love.

“THE BEQUEST. HANUKKAH 2017.”

* * *

All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Poland. They had 20 grandchildren between them, including me. I’d guess at least half of the 20 grandkids now put up a Christmas tree every year. As far as I know, only two of the 20 have any connection to today’s Jewish community as adults. It’s just me and my brother.

What’s that Bedouin tribal saying? Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world.

* * *

This Saturday, I’m having my re-bar mitzvah. Not the whole thing with the speech and the ceremony and the DJ and the cake. Just getting up at services to chant a couple Torah portions, that’s all.

It took me about a month to learn the traditional cantillation techniques of the Eastern European Ashkenazim. Cantillation combines learning a language and singing in public. It’s fun. On and off, I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for about 20 years. Why not spend some time with my own culture?

I realize that not everyone, least of all my own family, wants to follow me on this trip. But I’d still like to share a little bit of what I’ve learned about the Torah. That’s why, in lieu of the traditional bar-mitzvah speech, I’ve reinterpreted my Torah portions for the week as a kosher rock opera: It’s Shoftime!

The lyrics of It’s Shoftime! are loosely based on the “Shoftim” Torah portion (Deuteronomy 18:14-22) to be chanted this Saturday. Where appropriate, I have interpolated commentary and exposition with contemporary lyrical and musical idioms for a modern audience. My intent was to keep the emotional sense of the text consistent with the original.

Please, don’t murder me.

* * *

Musical notes:

“These Goyim” starts with the lyrics sung with cantillation, the musical tropes evoking the ancient tradition before introducing electronic beats and layered electric guitars. The next stanza goes ratatata-ta-ta / boom-boom, the laconic vocal of the parallel rhymes (think Kim Gordon meets Gordon Gano) punctuated by the shouted “Goyim!”

“Like a Moses” raps over a breakbeat.

“In Horeb” sung peppy with major-key arpeggios, like a simple Smiths song.

“Like a Moses (reprise)” picks up from the first version, and then devolves into instrumental feedback, synth sawtooth, metal machine music.

“My Word” is a loose cover of P.J. Harvey “50 Ft. Queenie.”

“Presumptuous Prophet” takes it Yeezy with the “eh” and the “uhhh.”

* * *

It’s Shoftime! 

These Goyim

These goyim, these goyim.
(You’ll inherit from they-im.)
These goyim, these goyim.
Don’t listen like they-im.

Soothsayers sooth ‘em. Goyim!
Astrologers chart ‘em. Goyim!
Fortunetellers fortunetell ‘em. Goyim!
Diviners divine ‘em. Goyim!

But you!
Don’t listen like they do.
No psychic crystal-gazers, animal-bone breakers
What’s your sign? Keep it to the funny papers.

Like a Moses

A prophet! One of you.
You know you should listen.
A prophet! It’s your brother.
You know you gotta listen.
A prophet! Like a Moses.
You know you’re gonna listen.

In Horeb

On the day of the assembly
Remember what you begged me.
On the day of the assembly
Remember what Horeb means.

I don’t want to see the fire,
Great fire, don’t want it
I don’t want to die
Don’t make me look on it.

Oh you begged and you begged
And you begged and you begged
And you said, no more
With the voices in my head

I don’t want to see the fire,
Great fire, don’t want it
I don’t want to die
Don’t make me look on it.

That’s the right thing to say.
Hip hip Horeb
Hip hip Horeb

Like a Moses (reprise)

A prophet! One of you.
You know you should listen.
A prophet! It’s your sister.
You know you gotta listen.
A prophet! Like a Masha.
You know you’re gonna listen.

My Word

My words
His mouth
He’s just
My mouth

Why’s that, King of the World?
You make me sing your song?
Why make a mess of me?
What, is there something wrong?

The words
Put in
Speaker
Leak ‘em.

Hey now, King of the World?
You make me sing your song?
Why make a mess of me?
What is there, something wrong?

My words
Her mouth
She’s just
My mouth

I’ll tell them all
On to them all.
I’ll tell them all
On to the mall.

Presumptuous Prophet

I speak for the Lord.
This word is the Lord’s.
I speak for the gods,
This word is the gods’.
[x2]

Die-dayenu
Tear you a-new
Die, die, a-hole
Say, what? We know.

If you say in your heart,
If you talk to your heart
What’s real to you
Can’t tell it apart.
I’m asking my heart,
I ain’t so smart.
What I believed
In my innocence
Doesn’t make sense
In the present perfect tense.

So you want to be a prophesizer.
An early-rising professor of proselytizers.
Approximating symmetry with crossed-up eyes
The lies you tell, like a fertilizer.
Get it wrong, ehh! Good day and good-bye sir.
Presumptuous prophet, hanging from his neckties UHHH!

Die-dayenu
Tear you a-new
Die, die, a-hole
Say, what? We know.

 

One thought on “I faked my bar-mitzvah. 

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