Looking back on my Bar Mitzvah, 50 years later
OpinionFrom Where I Sit

Looking back on my Bar Mitzvah, 50 years later

Reflections on a Jewish right of passage, in the summer of a turbulent year.

Dave Schechter

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Fifty years ago this month, I became a man – according to Jewish tradition, anyway.

The anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah would have passed unnoticed had I not found a prayer book given me to mark the occasion.

The Reform congregation north of Chicago was large enough to require a Bar Mitzvah partner. I was paired with a junior high school classmate with whom I was friendly, so that was a relief.

I stood on the bimah and looked over the extraordinary sanctuary; the  windows that peeked at Lake Michigan, the ceiling that soared over   pews that could seat 1,000 (though barely a few dozen that morning).

Looking down from pulpit, I saw my parents, two younger brothers and two younger sisters, my mother’s parents, my father’s mother and her sister, assorted family friends, and a handful of my friends.

My role in the service was far less extensive than what my three children would experience at our Reconstructionist congregation. I read just three lines from the Torah, with the blessings before and after, and three lines from the Haftorah, with the blessings.

In a voice that had yet to mature, I delivered a speech that I doubt included anything memorable.

There was no party. After lunch at the house I went with a few friends  to see the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The gifts I received included a couple of hundred dollars (mostly in savings bonds) and, yes, a pen-and-pencil set.

Looking back, it feels like an unremarkable day – in a wholly remarkable year.

My Bar Mitzvah was a year after Israel’s victory in the June 1967 six-day war, a stunning strike launched against Arab forces massing on its borders.

Whatever apprehensions or apathy American Jews might have felt about the 20-year-old nation had been replaced by a euphoric pride and communal resolve to support Israel in whatever way possible. Zionism became a tenet of Jewish life in America.

But like many of their fellow citizens, American Jews were increasingly skeptical about the Vietnam War. The 16,592 lives lost would make 1968 the deadliest year of the war for American personnel.

The trust, even reverence, that Americans had invested in institutions such as the Pentagon and the White House was being questioned as never before.

A counter-culture movement that went well beyond sex, drugs and rock ’n roll was pushing against the mores on which life in America was grounded and challenging organized religion.

University students, who found their voice opposing the war (then men benefitting from draft deferments), were rebelling against the rules and assumptions by which they were expected to live.

The civil rights movement that sought equality for black Americans – in which Jews had played a supporting role (though tensions between them were developing) – was inspiring women and other minorities to mobilize.

The Kerner Commission reported in 1968 that America “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal” – a forecast prescient in identifying issues that persist today.

The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 and Robert F. Kennedy on June 4 were body blows to the hopes that many held for improvement in race relations and an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Later that summer, I watched on television as, a 45-minute drive away, the anti-war movement and counter-culture ran head-long into the nightsticks of Chicago police outside the Democratic National Convention.

America, it appeared, was tearing itself apart.

One measure of the resistance to this upheaval came in November, when Republican Richard Nixon was elected President, defeating Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey (who received an estimated 81 percent of the Jewish vote), and segregationist George Wallace.

Standing on the bimah on that July morning, I was fixated on not messing up, in English or Hebrew. Jewish tradition aside, I was still a boy, aware that I lived in turbulent times, though it would be years before I understood how transformative they had been in reshaping the world I inhabit five decades later.

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