Man’s second bar mitzvah proves inspiring to watch

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Rebecca L. Brown

Why? Why? Why?

Those were the three opening words of Cal Levin, a 76-year old bar mitzvah.

Why would a 76-year old guy decide to go back and do over what had been done 63 years ago?

And what would drive five other women – all in various stages of motherhood – to become bat mitzvah?

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As I settled into my front row seat in the Am Shalom sanctuary for their b’nai mitzvah, I thought I knew. A 37-year old bat mitzvah myself, I’d stood where they were about to stand. Eager for an intellectual challenge, I, too, had been motivated by motherhood and inspired by children of friends I’d watched experience the rite of passage. I expected to feel nostalgic as these five women would no doubt recount the difficult balance of weekly Torah study and child care; the recorded prayers that played endlessly in cars with the hope that Hebrew would magically be ironed into memory. I expected to feel a shared commitment to something that couldn’t be seen or touched, but would nonetheless guide me through the perils of parenting and beyond.

And I did.

What I wasn’t expecting was a 76-year old bar mitzvah in the group of women.

My first thought?


Thinking back to the five women in my b’not and our study with Rabbi Susan Talve I had a hard time imagining a man in this very female mix. What similarities would we have shared in our discussion of Vayetze? And what about the discussion in the temple lobby before our weekly meetings? Surely this man, with his mop of white hair, wouldn’t have been interested in thirty-something female banter … chasing kids, celebrity Botox, the tastiest frozen foods at Trader Joe’s.

But from the moment Cal took to the bima I knew I was wrong.

They were lucky.

And so was I.

Cal became a bar mitzvah at 13. His most vivid memory? The blue-and-white bar mitzvah napkins. No epiphany of manhood or weight of responsibility of an independent Jewish identity. He didn’t even have a service. Or read Torah.

In 1960 Cal became the custodian of a Torah from Russia passed down through the generations of his family. He treasured it and eventually concluded that reading from that Torah, as a true bar mitzvah, was the ultimate way to honor his legacy.

And read he did.

From the Torah he inherited 50 years prior.

His voice rang out in the sanctuary with the enthusiasm of a 13-year old and the insight of his 76 years.

After the service I learned that Cal hadn’t originally planned to participate in a group service and only days before the ceremony had a devastating loss, perhaps, causing him to reconsider moving forward on that day at all. On both counts, I feel blessed that he did.

That day I walked out of the sanctuary with this message: In life we don’t always get it right the first time whether it’s because the timing is off or we have simply fallen short. But if we are vigilant and look for opportunities, sometimes life gives us a do over. Like a bar mitzvah 63 years later.

And for someone like me looking through the lens of a life sprinkled with more than a few broken promises, shortcomings and regrets, that’s a pretty hopeful message.