ULOB was not a religious man. During his adult life, he went into synagogues only for family rites of passage. And only if my mother told him he had to be there.
When he was a boy, his mother wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah. His father — my grandfather — renounced religion and didn’t care. But it was so important to Grandma. She wanted ULOB to be a man — a Jewish man –before G-d. Even though she was persecuted for being a Jew.
ULOB often talked of sitting with the foul-smelling rabbi learning to read Hebrew and practicing his Torah portion while the rebbetzin (the rabbi’s wife) washed the floor and did any number of back-breaking jobs.
I think his Bar Mitzvah was on a Thursday. I got the sense that it was mid-morning. My grandmother was possibly upstairs but definitely behind a curtain (michitza) and at least 10 old men were in the main room of the shtebl.
Grandma brought whiskey and some cake for the celebration afterward. She had to save to put out that meager spread. ULOB said the rabbi and the other men scarfed down the food and drink so fast that there were barely crumbs left. No one said a word to Grandma. She was invisible. But Grandma was proud.
ULOB never wanted to go back after that. Even more, almost every touch of Yiddishkeit and every tradition that a Jew learns by osmosis in a Jewish home seemed to drain out of his body over the years. The transition was so complete that he worked on Yom Kippur, ate ham and cheese on rye during Passover, and AROB and he celebrated Christmas.
Imagine my surprise when, as SOB and I were cleaning out ULOB’s apartment after his death, I found his tallis (prayer shawl) in a bag. He had kept that tallis for 73 years.
The one vestige. I bet he couldn’t let go of it because of what that day meant to his mother.