Fifteen Minutes of Fame
In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.
Whether or not the longtime arbiter of pop culture was right or wrong, most of us have at least one remembrance of our own fifteen minutes of fame. My own fifteen minutes happened years before Andy Warhol even said those words
Marty Feinstein and I were bar mitzvah partners, and ours would be the first bar mitzvah at the newly constructed Temple Ahavath Sholom – aka the Avenue R Temple -- in Brooklyn. The old temple, built in 1909, had been torn down to make way for a modernistic replacement, complete with a beautiful gym where my friends and I played pick-up basketball games.
The day of our joint bar mitzvah was September 6, 1952. Marty was a fairly good Hebrew student, but I spent most of my two years writing over and over and over again: “I must not talk in class.”
Not only was learning Hebrew immensely boring, but I was especially poor at learning foreign languages. Still, each one of us needed to learn enough to be able to perform adequately at our bar mitzvah. Like most other temples in Brooklyn, this one was reformed, but even these guys had standards.
On beautiful fall and spring afternoons, I’d sit restlessly in Hebrew class, just looking out the window. Why couldn’t I be outside with the other kids playing stickball in Kelly Park, or just hanging out on my block?
My mother had insisted that I go to Hebrew school for the obvious reason that every Jewish boy needed to have a bar mitzvah. Who could argue with that kind of logic?
My father agreed that a bar mitzvah was very important, but he thought that Hebrew school at a reformed temple would be complete farce. Little did he know that even the low standards of the Avenue R Temple were far beyond my capabilities.
We would need to read a passage in the Torah, which of course, was in Hebrew. And to make matters still worse, Hebrew is written without vowels, so you needed to know the pronunciation of each word you would be reading.
A few months before our bar mitzvah, Marty and I were given our haftarah passages. He was able to read his flawlessly within a few weeks, but without vowels, I was completely lost.
Marty had a great idea. He persuaded the rabbi to give me what we called a cheat sheet. It was my Torah portion with all the vowels. The plan was for me to memorize this and then just breeze through my reading.
On the day of our bar mitzvah, I was all set. I would pretend to be reading, but I actually knew it all by heart. For the last few weeks of August and the first week of September, Marty and I would run through it. We were a team.
The service that day went on and on. I was even more bored than I had been in Hebrew School. But I knew that I was extremely well prepared. When Mr. Shooter – that really was his name – would hear me reading from the Torah, even he would be impressed.
My parents, who must have been sick of hearing me practicing – well, maybe even they would be proud. As Marty and I were called to the bima, or lectern, I saw them looking on hopefully. I would not let them down.
Marty and I would take turns reading. He’d read a few lines, and then I would read. We’d each get four sets.
Marty read his first lines flawlessly. I took a deep breath and began to recite. How did I do? I am forced to admit that I matched his reading – and maybe even then some.
Marty did even better the second time. The entire congregation seemed to be in awe. Again, I did at least as well.
And so it went, through our third reading and Marty’s fourth. But then disaster struck.
I had not realized that Marty had finished his reading. I was looking out at the congregation, thinking about how I would wow them with my last reading.
There was an awkward silence. The rabbi knew immediately what went wrong. Marty bumped my shoulder with his. Seconds later I realized my terrible screw-up.
I tried to recover, but it was too late. Everybody knew what had happened. I’d never be able to live it down.
After I recited my last lines Marty and I took our seats facing the audience and would not utter another word until the service was over. Soon we were singing Adon Olam. I had always loved singing that song because it concluded every Sabbath service, which had always bored me as much as Hebrew school.
A minute later, Marty and I were both mobbed by our families and friends. Everyone was shaking my hand, patting me on the back, and congratulating me. They were all smiling.
But I knew they were just being polite. This was the most important event of my life and I had embarrassed myself. And then, finally, my father walked up to me. There were tears in his eyes. I realized how ashamed I had made him.
First, he hugged. Then he held me at arm’s length. I knew he wanted to say something, but he appeared to be too upset to speak. Finally, he said, “I have never heard such a beautiful haftarah!”
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