Perry Brickman leads by example. However, in December, he achieved a rare, and too often inimitable accomplishment. If there are other elders who have matched his recent milestone, we have yet to find them. At the venerable age of 88, during the raging pandemic, Brickman celebrated the 75th anniversary of his 1945 bar mitzvah by perfectly chanting his entire Torah portion and haftorah outdoors at Congregation Ohr HaTorah. This was while wearing a mask.
Brickman’s contributions to Jewish life in Atlanta and beyond are great in number and even greater in impact. The thread that unites his far-reaching accomplishments is that all address essential Jewish needs: support of Israel, community-building, rectification of injustice, funding day schools and launching university scholarships.
Perry Brickman was born on the first day of Chanukah in 1932, in Chattanooga, Tenn. His family called him their “Chanukah baby.” Perhaps he was destined to shine light where it is needed, emanating from his home and spreading beyond. Both sides of his family were active members of B’nai Zion synagogue, an Orthodox congregation established in the late 1800s. Perry went to its rigorous cheder (Hebrew School), and he took it to heart.
“I led a dual life,” he explains. “I attended a public elementary school until 3 p.m., crossed the street and got into a black sedan, which picked up more passengers and delivered us to our cheder across from the shul. After cheder, I walked eight blocks to my parents’ Dixie Coal Company yard and came home with them. One of very few Jews in my elementary school, I made many lifelong non-Jewish friends, yet I totally identified as Jewish. Being Jewish was a big part of my life and becoming a bar mitzvah was a natural religious step.”
Chattanooga Bar Mitzvah
Brickman’s Shabbat morning bar mitzvah celebration was typical of the era. The synagogue chazzan (cantor) chanted the majority of the weekly Torah portion, and he, like other bar mitzvah boys at the time, recited the blessings and maftir (the last portion) from the Torah and the haftorah (a related passage from the prophets). Brickman still has the speech he delivered, typed by his father on five pages of Dixie Coal Co. stationery.
“It was Dec. 1, 1945. World War II was over, and we were excited about the possibility of a new land for our people,” Brickman remembers. “There was a big crowd of family and friends. After the service, everyone walked downstairs to the social hall for the Kiddush. My great aunt Gertie Albert, a kosher caterer from Syracuse, N.Y., supervised the reception. In addition to the usual chopped herring and kichel, she prepared taiglach, strudel and other fancy desserts. Maybe the older men shared a ‘shehakol,’ [the blessing made over non-grape-based spirits], but I wasn’t aware of any special libations.”
Torah Reading Era
In the early 1980s, when Perry and his wife Shirley were members of Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Assistant Rabbi Marvin Richardson taught a Torah reading class, which Perry eagerly joined. A visit to Israel immediately following the Six Day War in 1967 had rekindled his religious commitment and learning the trope (cantillation) for the Torah and haftorah appealed to him.
“I had played clarinet and saxophone in my high school orchestra and band and could read music; therefore, I read the notes and learned the trope without much effort. The 38th anniversary of my bar mitzvah was coming up, and with Rabbi Richardson’s encouragement, I was able to layn [recite] the entire Torah portion and haftorah. My annual bar mitzvah readings began at Ahavath Achim, and over the years continued at Congregation Beth Jacob and followed at Congregation Ohr HaTorah.”
Since that time, Brickman has shared his skill many times in many settings, including the 2012 annual meeting of Alpha Omega dental fraternity in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was privileged to read Torah at four Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly meetings (New York, Washington, D.C., Denver and Atlanta.) He explains, “For me, reading Torah is like maintaining a direct contact with God.”
2020 could have been a year in which Brickman was unable to read Torah in a communal setting because of strict age limits on shul attendance, and he and his family were disappointed because they had been looking forward to the significant 75th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
“Three weeks before my ‘due date,’ I was walking for my daily exercise. My neighbor Daniel Wenger, Ohr HaTorah’s gabbai, oversees the Torah readers. He greeted me and respectfully made me an offer. ‘Rabbi Starr and I want you to know that, if you wish, you can read Torah on your bar mitzvah anniversary. We will observe strict rules to avoid COVID transmission.’ I readily accepted and was blessed to be able to read Torah in celebration of my 75th anniversary.
“My family was not able to attend the special service, but after services Rabbi Starr, Daniel Wenger, Jay Cinnamon, Hillel Glazer, Jonathan Sadinoff and others came by our house and serenaded Shirley and me with ‘Yismachu,’ one of my favorite songs from the Shabbat Musaf service.”
Even though photographs couldn’t be taken during the Ohr HaTorah bar mitzvah ceremony, the occasion was recorded in the Brickman family history. The close-knit family members preserve and share their experiences with each other and are building their own family archive of photographs and ephemera. Brickman concludes with this message about the importance of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum’s archives. “I urge everyone to collect family records and make them available to the community archives, as our family is doing.”
- Chana Shapiro
- Perry Brickman
- STYLE Magazine
- Bar Mitzvah
- Congregation Ohr HaTorah
- hebrew school
- New York
- Ahavath Achim Synagogue
- Congregation Beth Jacob
- Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly
- Rabbi Starr
- Daniel Wenger
- Jay Cinnamon
- Hillel Glazer
- Jonathan Sadinoff
- William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum