What’s in a Speech? By David Katznelson

For the last few months I has desperately tried to find my Bar Mitzvah speech….

I have no idea where it is and I can’t remember it. That being said, I can’t remember my torah or half torah portion either, which makes a little more sense since I could only orate the Hebrew back in 1982, reading the letters, chanting along, but not knowing the language enough to be able to translate anything.

But I read my speech in English and I wrote it pretty much by myself.  Yet I cannot remember it, and I cannot find it.

By looking for it, I DID find other aspects of my year of becoming a man.  I saw my first concert that year, thanks to my brother Steve who took me to see The Greg Kihn band at the Greek.  I found my top 10 song list for that year, which featured the Clash, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and yes, The Human League.  I watched my first 49er Super Bowl win…when they were still destined to be the actual SAN FRANCISCO 49ers for decades.

But the speech where I wrestle with the Torah for the first time in a public setting? No where to be found.

I DID find my Bar Mitzvah certificate, by chance taped in my scrap book on the other side of my Town School certificate of Merit for my entry in the learning resource center bulletin board contest.  But I could not remember or find my Bar Mitzvah Speech.

In doing some research, I did open some doors to my memory.  Hebcal.com offers a service to figure out what any portion of the week is for any year.  It was from that site that I remembered that I was blessed with two portions…B’har and B’hukkotai…for those of you who have ever wondered how we cram 54 torah portions into 52 weeks.  There are always a few 13 year olds who take the lunar calendar hit.

And clicking through, I was reminded that my torah portions contain no plot. I got no familial sexual relations, no destruction of the world, humans turning to salt, whale swallowing, plagues. Nothing but rules of how to live….rules chanted by a seventh grader on how to live in pre-temple times.

I got the eye-opening truths about what would happen if I do not take this manhood thing seriously, and follow the rules set down by my father, grandfather and forefathers.  And with it, I did get some mighty biblical speak.  As my portion reads:

“And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. 22 I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle.

“And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me, 24You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands, and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes. I will spurn you. 31”

God must have been truly worried about me to bless me with such a portion.  And while I have not followed the 613 commandments (did you know there were that many of them) as closely as I should, I have developed a major taste in Zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic sci-fi sagas.  Could that be the gift of my Bar Mitzvah?

To wax torahetically for a minute, now that I have a son and daughter, that one line truly disturbs me: eating the flesh of my sons and daughters.  I realize the rational.  We needed as a people to be kept in line.  But what sick mind other than that of Goya would think this line up? And how is a 13 year old supposed to truly digest this?

So I might not have found my Bar Mitzvah speech, but I had definitely located the topic for it, if I was to have preached it today. And maybe THAT was the gift of my Bar Mitzvah.

Or was my gift the simple yet epic satisfaction of merely completing the Bar Mitzvah…studying for it with the elder cantor Israel Reich and the legendary Rabbi Saul White? Was it remembering the pride beaming from my parents and grandparents, and doing the Hora with friends and family members, many of whom are no longer on this earth.  Maybe the gift was being an important person for a day, in the community of my relative youth.

But becoming a man?  I was not close.  Maybe that really was not the point of this type of maturity.  Maybe it was a marker to go back to….to remember and cherish…and to constantly question and redefine.

I would like to thank my family, my friends, my Rabbi, Cantor and Temple board members for making this Bar Mitzvah possible.

David Katznelson is a Grammy- nominated producer, independent– record label head, and problematic vinyl collector. He is the cofounder of the San Francisco Appreciation Society and the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. He is also director of strategy for the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation.