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My Special Bar Mitzvah Gift in the World of Yesterday

My Special Bar Mitzvah Gift in the World of Yesterday

It was a most unusual and special Bar Mitzvah gift.

Gifts often carry unique and special messages, and, in a sense, they are conversations that have the power to mold our character and beliefs. Such was the gift given to me by my parents on my Bar Mitzvah in years long ago in a  flowering synagogue called the First Hebrew Congregation of  Peekskill, New York.

My parents left a small shtetl near Pinsk, Russia--one of the great intellectual centers of Eastern European Jewish life -- in the wave of Jewish immigrants to America in the early 20th century.  They first settled in the crowded lower East Side of New York City. I spent my first four years there in a tenement across the street from Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement House, before we moved to Peekskill. 

But, first, a word or two about the Jewish community of this historic, working class town of Peekskill.  The Jewish community dates to 1896 when 10 Jewish families settled there and shortly thereafter built a simple, storefront synagogue that was to become the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill.  A substantial number of the first Jewish settlers were immigrants from the area of Pinsk--and many of these newcomers  still considered themselves "Pinskers" in this new America.  In the early 20th century, they built a small, self-standing, wooden, Moorish-type designed synagogue that would come to play a major influence in my life. It  was a synagogue that my parents helped develop and supported in all their lives--lives marked by the Great Depression, and a world gone mad in World War II that saw million of persons killed,  including six million Jews.  Days of our youth were spent in extreme poverty, relieved somewhat in the worlds of sports and synagogue life. 

The day or two proceeding my Bar Mitzvah, my mother, in a very brief and unassuming manner, told me that she and my father had a special gift for my Bar Mitzvah and for the congregation--a resplendent curtain/cover (called a Parochet in Hebrew) upon which would be inscribed the words "In Honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Paul Widem..." The use of a Parochet for the Holy Ark dates to God's commandment to Moses to build an ark within the holy Tabernacle --"You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yearns, and fine twisted linen, it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it ..."  (Exodus 26; 31-33).

Given the harsh economic conditions enveloping my parents, it was only later that I would fully appreciate their commitment to this spiritual overture.  Standing before this resplendent crimson Parochet, I chanted my Parsha of the week--LECH LECHAH-- which describes God's commandment to Abraham to venture forth from his home in Haran to the new land of Canaan-- the leaving of a home that I would repeat in a few short years. That Parochet would become a memory that would live in all my days.

Coverings occupy a unique role in the rituals of Jewish life. For example, we cover ourselves with the tallit; we wear a yarmulke, we use a canopy in our weddings, we shade our eyes over the Shabbat candles, we cover the Shabbat challah before sending our blessing, we cover the Sukkah ceiling with assorted fruits, and we cover the casket of our final journey with the flag of Israel. The beautiful HASHKIVEINU prayer in our Shabbat liturgy asks God to "spread over us the shelter of your peace". The Parochet can serve to remind us of our vulnerability, of the need for humility before God, of respect for our fellow earthlings, and it can tie us more meaningfully to our faith. 

That gift in a small town long ago helped to solidify my identity as a Jew. Among other meanings to me, it might be deemed a symbolic conversation of my parents entreating God to protect their son in his going forth. It would serve to remind this youth of his role in the Jewish community, and it would convey to him the beauty, the joy, and the peace that he would find in the world of the synagogue.

Paul Widem retired as a senior researcher/administrator at the National Institute of Mental Health (U.S. Public Health Service). He was also a senior health policy analyst and Acting Director of the Office of Policy, Planning and Legislation, U. S. Center for Mental Health Services. Prior to entering Federal service, Mr. Widem was a newspaper reporter/editor and later was a staff correspondent with the United Press. A member of Temple Emanuel, Kensington, Maryland, he has provided leadership in a number of Temple programs/ initiatives, including developing an administrative manual for Temple staff, co-chairing a semi-annual Retreat group of prayer and Jewish philosophy study, chairing a committee that developed the Temple's history, and administration of the Brotherhood's hospitality/sympathy notes program to Temple members. He has been a member of the Temple's Board of Trustees, School Board, and Brotherhood Board.

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Published: 4/28/2011

Categories: Jewish Life, Spirituality, Jewish Journeys, Reform Judaism
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