To the memory of David Loebl (1956-1993) on his 63rd birthday and the 50th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
I was eight years old when my mother and I attended the bar mitzvah of my cousin Ernst
Wertheimer (later Worth). During this Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, thirteen-year-old
boys and girls are called to the Torah. They read a portion of the text, interpret it and
present a speech. In addition to reading, celebrants also make and complete a pledge to perform a significant good deed for the community. A joyous party is usually twinned with the religious service.
The event took place took place in Frankfurt, Germany, in January 1933. It was within days of Hitler’s rise to power, a move in which his goal was to effectively extinguish the life of Germany’s two-thousand-year-old Jewish community.
I forget the religious portion of my cousin’s bar mitzvah, but I remember the party, a
dinner for about 50 held in my Aunt Erna’s gargantuan apartment. I wore a smocked
yellow silk dress and felt as if it were my societal debut. And in fact, I actually had a starring role: I recited a long poem, composed by my mother and dedicated to her favorite nephew.
Erna had seated the oldest next to the youngest, so I occupied a place of honor next to my
great-grandmother Mathilde Mayer. I danced with my cousin Ernst, and declared to anyone willing to listen that we had become engaged and were to marry when we grew up. I don’t think that I ever again was as high in my life as I was then. Then, in the midst of my euphoria, somebody decided it was time for me to go to bed! I refused, insisting that I would only do so if Ernst and his sister Edith would also retire. Surprisingly they humored me. I am still ashamed of having been such a brat and wonder at the idiocy of sending me to bed.
Most of my family escaped Germany during the following years and settled in England
and America. I met another Ernest and did marry him. We had a daughter and a son. One day when he was about eleven, David informed me that I “had better get ready for his bar mitzvah.” The request was a pleasant surprise.
Ernest Loebl and I enrolled David in the appropriate classes at the Hebrew Tabernacle in
Washington Heights. Like me, Rabbi Robert Lehman and Cantor Ehrenberg, who studied with David, were transplanted German Jews, familiar with our background. As was usually the case with his studying, David had to be urged to work on his Torah and Haftorah portions, but when March 15, 1969—our wedding anniversary—came around, he was beaming and ready. Some of the same people who had been at my cousin Ernst’s bar mitzvah attended David’s. Among them: my mother, my sister, my great-aunt Selma, my mom’s cousin Martin and his wife Anne (the latter had been a new couple in 1933).
We held David’s party at home. Unlike my aunt Erna, I included my son’s friends—a
noisy bunch of 20 or so. When I looked at my potential guest list it numbered close to a
hundred. Even our grand old apartment on Riverside Drive, with its 16-by-22 foot living
room, would not hold them! Fortunately I managed to borrow a neighbor’s large apartment for David’s friends. I took off a week from work, cooked and organized. David’s food requests included his favorite: stuffed cabbage. I told him that I could not make stuffed cabbage for a hundred people. But then of course, I changed my mind. I made oodles of cabbage rolls, froze them, and stored them in the borrowed apartment. Suddenly, as all the guests were seated, stuffing themselves with salmon and roast beef, I remembered that I had forgotten to serve the stuffed cabbage! When I fetched them a couple of weeks later they had defrosted during an electric blackout and were spoiled!
David’s bar mitzvah was the biggest and most glamorous party I ever threw. I cherish its memory.
Frankfurt’s glittering Jewish world has long vanished, but somehow our smallish family
has survived. On a cold Saturday in February we gathered to celebrate Noah Cooper, my
second cousin twice removed, who was old enough to be called to the Torah at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. By now I was the matriarch of the Mayer clan. The world
had changed in so many ways. A woman, Molly Kane, was the officiating Rabbi. Services, too, were more relaxed, but the ancient words and melodies shrunk the decades.
Like my David, Noah enjoyed the entire ceremony. His readings of the Torah and Haftorah portions were flawless and his speech very sophisticated. In addition to friends
and regular congregants of the temple, the audience included about a dozen of Mathilde’s and her husband Isaac Mayer’s descendants. To me, Noah seemed so much younger than my cousin Ernst or my son had been. Today we forget that way back when the Jewish traditions were established, a thirteen-year old was about to go to work.
Noah’s party was child-centered. He and his parents had spent months choosing the music for dancing, the videos and the delicious foods. I had a good time visiting with
family and friends, happy to still be around celebrating another generation. Just within
the last month, Tori, Noah’s aunt, gave birth to another one of Mathilde’s great-great-
great-grand daughters. May the world itself come to its senses, so that its children can
continue to thrive.