Why Bob Needed Two Bar Mitzvahs

Adult bar mitzvahs are not all that uncommon among American Jews these days. But two bar mitzvahs for a single person? That certainly doesn't happen very often. But here's one unusual, interesting instance when it did.

On November 24, 1945, I attended the first bar mitzvah of my friend Bob Friedman, at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, a conservative synagogue on Manhattan's west side, with a lively party there the next day. More than 150 other friends, neighbors and relatives were there. So were more than a few clients of his father, an accountant.

The only person missing was Bob.

The 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy had come down with his parents' worst nightmare. The eighth-grader got the flu and couldn't come to his own celebration. B'nai Jeshurun's internationally famous Rabbi Israel Goldstein had to travel eight blocks to Bob's family's apartment to induct him into full membership of the Jewish community without benefit of Torah, bimah or other trimmings.

Despite their absence, Bob was officially bar mitzvahed at home. And he did get more than one fountain pen -- the standard gift for bar mitzvah boys in those days -- and even a new-fangled ballpoint that leaked. But no synagogue; no party. That bothered him ever after. Bob waited a long, long time to make up for that loss -- seventy years, to be exact. But a few weeks ago, he finally made up for it.

On the eve of his 83rd birthday last month, a Friday night in late November, Robert Friedman M.D., only recently retired as a professor of pathology and chairman of the pathology department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, was called to the Torah at Temple Emanuel in nearby Kensington. Dr. Friedman has trained more than one-fifth of today's military combat physicians since he came to the university's department chairmanship 33 years ago, after a 21-year-career as a laboratory chief at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. Still not fully retired, he continues to conduct cancer and other research at the university.

As is customary, Bob studied for his second bar mitzvah for a number of months. His training was conducted by Temple Emanuel's Cantor Rosalie Boxt, under the general supervision of its rabbi, Warren Stone. Although he always had a transliteration available, Bob did not use it. Instead, relying on 70-year-old Hebrew school training, he read the long, vowelless Torah passage from the Book of Genesis called Va'yeitzi with hardly a slip of the tongue.

This is the Biblical story that tells of the patriarch Jacob's dream of a glorious ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels traveling up and down it. In the dream, God promises the land around the sleeping Jacob to him and his descendants and vows to protect him. When Jacob awakes, he marks the area with a stone that denotes it as a sacred place.

After reciting his Torah portion, Bob explained to the congregation why he missed his first bar mitzvah and chose his 83rd birthday for a second one. He went on to point out that the Psalm 90 in the Hebrew Bible lists a normal human lifespan as threescore and ten years, that is, to age seventy. He said he'd been lucky enough to live an additional 13 years beyond that, and so found this the appropriate time for another bar mitzvah, this one with all the trimmings.

They included a party for about 100 people, which followed at the synagogue and included the best large birthday cake I've ever tasted. Plus, Bob got a big bonus for any observant Jewish boy, whatever his age.

Three weeks after his second bar mitzvah, Bob and his wife, Harriet, were invited to a special ceremony at the synagogue. Years ago, Temple Emanuel had commissioned the copying of a new Torah scroll to replace the principal one it had that was many years old. The new scroll was prepared by a woman scribe, and it was virtually complete, except for a few closing letters. On Dec. 10, three weeks after his bar mitzvah, Bob and Harriet were invited to inscribe some of those few final letters in the brand new Torah, an honor open to very few congregants. A new Torah must be perfect. If the scribe makes a mistake, the entire document must be redone. So the scribe very carefully guided Bob's and Harriet's hands when they put in those final letters.

There were no mistakes.

At the service that night, the new Torah was paraded around the synagogue by the rabbi and cantor. Four members of the congregation held a chuppah, a canopy, over the new Torah, similar to the chuppah under which observant Jews are married. It symbolized the marriage-like relationship between the congregation and their new holy book. Bob Friedman, who was in the congregation, found it a deeply moving experience.