Thursday, November 1, 2007
Prince's Bar Mitzvah
Place: Chattanooga, TN
I had my bar mitzvah in September, three months after my thirteenth birthday. The summer before, I had weekly bar mitzvah lessons at our cantor’s house. He lived about half a mile away from my house; close enough for me to ride my bike there and back.
Cantor Louis Rothman was a short man with a round belly and large fishlike eyes. He was a concentration camp survivor. During the summer, you could always find Cantor Rothman and his wife napping in lounge chairs next to the Jewish Community Center’s Olympic-sized swimming pool. Wearing only black swim trunks and a black yarmulke on his balding head, you could clearly see Cantor Rothman’s black numbers on his forearm. He never tried to cover them up.
The first time I went to Cantor Rothman’s house for a bar mitzvah lesson, I took our family dog, Prince, with me. Prince accompained me on all my bike rides. When Cantor Rothman saw Prince, he was furious.
"Your dog,” the Cantor rumbled, “he is a German Shepherd!"
"Yeah,” I replied, because he was.
"I don't like that kind of dog," said the Cantor.
If I had been clever enough, I would have explained to Cantor Rothman that Prince was an American German Shepherd. They're nice and friendly. They lick your hand and roll over on their backs to get their stomachs scratched. Prince wasn't anything like the German German Shepherds that Cantor Rothman knew, the ones that growled and barked as they helped the Nazis herd Jews into cattle cars headed for concentration camps.
Instead, I explained that to take Prince home and then come back would blow that day's lesson. I'm not sure if it was Prince's wagging tail and big goofy dog grin or the idea of missing the first day's lesson that convinced the Cantor, but he relented and let Prince stay.
It was a warm June day, so we had the lesson outside, sitting on cheap lounge chairs on the Cantor's back porch. While I mangled my Haftorah portion, Prince napped at my feet. His good behavior must have impressed the Cantor, because at the end of the lesson he told me that it was okay for Prince to come back.
Once a week, I rode my bike back to Cantor Rothman’s house and sat with him on his back porch for my bar mitzvah lesson. Prince came with me every time. The Cantor’s wife always brought us glasses of iced tea, and a bowl of water for Prince. Gradually, the Cantor became more comfortable with the dog’s presence. One day, as Prince and I were about to leave, the Cantor patted Prince’s head. I could tell from the Cantor’s smile that he was mighty pleased with himself for his small act of bravery. Prince wagged his tail.
As a teacher, Cantor Rothman was a real hard ass. He loved to point out how incompetent I was.
"Perhaps the dog should have the bar mitzvah instead of you,” the Cantor would say, “He knows it so much better."
I caught myself glaring jealously at Prince every time the Cantor made that joke. I swear he was looking at the Cantor with complete devotion and love. Stupid dog thinks he’s so smart.
When my bar mitzvah day came, I managed to recite my Haftorah without making a complete fool of myself. During the reception after the service, I was standing with Dad when Cantor Rothman came over to congratulate me.
Cantor Rothman put his hand on my shoulder and said to Dad, “He did all right, but now maybe it’s time you brought in the dog so he can have his bar mitzvah. The dog knew the Haftorah so much better than the boy.”
The Cantor laughed and walked away. Every time I saw Cantor Rothman, he repeated his joke about Prince’s bar mitzvah. The way the Cantor kept insisting that Prince have his own day on the bimah. I began to wonder if maybe the Cantor wasn’t joking.
I tried to imagine what Prince’s bar mitzvah would have been like. Prince would wear a doggie yarmulke between his ears and a doggie tallis around his neck. He would bark out the Shema Yisrael and howl the Mourner’s Kaddish. Most bar mitzvah speeches began with the words, “Today I am a man.” Prince’s bar mitzvah speech would begin with the words, “Today, I am a dog.”