By Zach Itzkovitz
A bar mitzvah ceremony usually is a young man’s opportunity to look to the future. Rarely is it a time for extended retrospection.
But when Bob May stands before friends and family on the bimah as a bar mitzvah, his eyes will have a different
kind of twinkle.
The 88-year-old father and grandfather will become a bar mitzvah Saturday afternoon, June 6, at Congregation Dor Tamid in Johns Creek.
“When I first called in, I said, ‘I want to talk to somebody about a bar mitzvah,’ ” May said, “and whoever answered
the phone said, ‘How old is the child?’ I said, ‘It’s for me.’ ”
May found inspiration in 2008 when his daughter, Laura, became a bat mitzvah as an adult. An older man became a bar mitzvah the same day, mobilizing May’s desire.
He was born Feb. 10, 1927, more than 2½ years before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. When he turned 13 in 1940, it was still a difficult time to have a bar mitzvah.
“We were moving from California to Florida,” May said, “and I guess, with the economics and everything, it didn’t happen.”
In his d’var Torah, May will reflect on his father’s work ethic and determination in the worst economy in American history.
“He lost everything,” May said. “He had a Pabst Blue Ribbon distributorship and apartments in Chicago — he was retired at 26 — and we lost everything. He picked us up and went to California.”
Rabbi Lauren Cohn has worked with May twice a week since March. She discussed his Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha, which introduces the 12 spies Moses sent to Canaan to evaluate the land’s potential for settlement.
“Ten come back and say it’s too scary, too many people,” Rabbi Cohn said. “Two come back and say it’s a beautiful land. The difference between the two sets of spies was perspective.”
A teacher learning from a student may be a cliché by now, but when an 88-year-old is taught anything, his teacher inevitably learns from him as well.
Asked what she learned from May, Rabbi Cohn said: “A lot of dirty jokes.”
May’s wry sense of humor does not distract him from his Torah studies, which he takes seriously, according to Rabbi Cohn.
“He’s a really hard worker,” she said. “This is so important to him.”
Many congregations include a l’dor va’dor (from generation to generation) segment, in which grandparents pass the Torah to their children and on to the grandchild becoming an adult. In May’s ceremony, his grandchildren will pass the Torah to their parents and then to him.
May finds himself much further down the timeline than most who undergo the coming-of-age ceremony. Maybe he will see the past when he looks out to a congregation of children and grandchildren. Maybe he’ll see the future. Maybe the difference between the two will disappear.