The long yellow buses would start lining up in front of the school around 2:30, with their route numbers pasted to the window. Bookending that line were the Short buses. The one up in front was for the kids with mental or physical disabilities, while the one alllll the way in back at the end of the line, was – the Hebrew School bus. Even if it was only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for an awkward seventh grader it just added insult to injury. I had no choice but to take it. The bus and the abuse. I wasn’t really even aware I was growing up as a Jewish kid, and not just a kid, until getting on board the Short bus became its own form of juvenile segregation. I’d been going to Hebrew School since the third grade, and like catechism class for my non-Jewish friends, it’s where I learned the rituals, traditions, history, and culture of what it was to be an American Jew.
The main goal, from the beginning, was really to prepare me for a Bar Mitzvah - that transformative day in a thirteen-year old boy’s life when, according to ancient customs, he miraculously becomes a man. Puberty-stricken or not, my ceremony was taking place four-days prior to my actual thirteenth birthday. In Hebrew School, we were taught to both read and write in Hebrew, but never taught to understand it. Translation wasn’t part of our curriculum. We could read it, but had no clue what it said. We could pronounce it, but had no idea what we were saying. We weren’t being taught a language. We were being taught to understand that these letterforms made a particular sound, and like symbols, their meaning was merely to be felt. Usually the text had the pronunciation spelled out phonetically so we could read faster and correctly. It was all rote. Not religion.
By the time I was called up on the bimah it was too late. Another four more days wasn’t going to make a difference. I wasn’t ready – for my Bar Mitzvah or to be a man. I had memorized the phonetics of the beginning and ending prayers, but for the main event, my haftorah, I only knew a little more than half. I was about to go up to the podium and recite it in front of a congregation comprised of my entire family, business associates and friends of my parents, the Rabbi, the Cantor, and Mr. Hassenfeld. He was the usher in charge of keeping my twenty friends from goofing off during the service and heckling me. The only fight I’ve ever been in, was during that last year of Hebrew school when I decked Mr. Hassenfeld’s son. Standing there in my moment of truth, this round I was no fighter. I was scared to death. Taking a moment, I made eye contact with my proud grandparents and discerning Uncle Jim (whose parents were Holocaust survivors). These were the people I knew would be reading along in their prayer books as I chanted my portion from the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible. I could have stopped before I started and confessed, but standing there, dressed in a dull tan suit to match my pale freckled complexion, I opted to step right up and face the inevitable.
The idea of coming of age on a stage wasn’t new to me. I was born in a teaching hospital with a small audience of the doctor and his interns snickering around my mother’s vagina to witness the birth of a teenager's baby. It was cold, the lights were too bright, and I could hear people laughing at me, as I was pulled into the world by forceps gripping my temples to guide me out of the birth canal. Reaching the halfway point of my haftorah, there were no more phonetics for me to rely on, no place to hide, and nobody to turn to for help. With all the confidence of a virgin skydiver, I took a deep breath as my parachute opened, only to realize I was falling with no place to land. I knew the beginning, but not the end, so I just started over and read only about as much as I had left. I had no idea what I was doing or saying and when I finished, neither did anybody else.
Standing there, trying desperately not to make any eye contact, I knew everyone knew what I didn't know. This time, there were no great temple forceps to pull me out. The rabbi came over, put his hand on my shoulder and wittily told the congregation, "Well, we should have known Michael would do it his own way." Again, everyone laughed when I just wanted to be smacked and cry. The Men's Club President was the first one to tell me, "Michael, today you are a man." He handed me the customary gift of a kiddish cup following my performance, but I felt more like a pulpit culprit waiting for the authorities to come. "Nice try son, but we're so sorry, the transformation didn't take hold. You're not a man after all." But no one ever said a word. No one.