In 1965, the phrase “special needs” hadn’t yet been coined. I felt just like the other 15 students — excited about our Bar Mitzvahs, but bored by the four hours of preparation each week.
Boys Will Be Boys
We found various diversions to get through each class: attempting to finish the Hebrew alphabet in a single breath, or winning the race in reciting the Ashrei prayer. Then there was Richard (the names have been changed to protect the guilty) tried to manually move the hands on the electric clock ten minutes ahead when our teacher Mr. L. briefly stepped out of the room. Mr. L. returned and blamed Irv, whom he noticed trying to repair the damage. Fighting for justice, we wrote on bulletin boards in empty classrooms, “Irv didn’t do it!!!!”
The Fine Art of Chanting
Two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, I rehearsed the Friday night Kiddush for the rabbi. “You need to produce pear-shaped tones,” he advised. No doubt he was explaining the fine art of chanting, but I felt criticized. What if I produced apple-shaped tones, or (heaven forbid) banana-shaped tones?
The Bar Mitzvah Day
On May 21, I nervously but correctly completed the Kiddush through the final amen. The next morning, I had butterflies in my stomach. Just as my older brother had predicted, the butterflies disappeared as I recited the “Ein Kamocha” service for taking out the Torah. My father and I had practiced the moment, so I confidently left my braille Silverman prayerbook on the lectern, received the Torah and walked with him to the table where it would be read.
I imagined the exact moment of becoming “Bar Mitzvah” as my aliyah — being called to the Torah and reciting the introductory and concluding blessings. Then came the hardest challenge—the Haftarah. No one had yet invented braille Haftarah cantillation symbols that could facilitate chanting. Instead, I chanted the words from my Braille text to the melody memorized from Mr. L.’s recording.
Like Bar Mitzvah boys throughout the ages, I chanted triumphantly when I reached the Haftarah’s concluding blessings. I wasn’t aware of the mistake in my chanting, until my “friend” Gary mentioned it.
At the celebratory lunch, I felt like a runner who had completed a ten-mile race. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the band leader’s “funny” song about me.
I cowered with my friends, who understood my chagrin. Everybody except my Christian friend Paul traded off-color jokes. “How can you act like this on such a holy day"? Paul asked.
A Well-Earned Rest
The next day in Bradley Beach, my parents didn’t bother me with chores, or remind me of the many “Thank you” notes which I would be compelled to type daily after school. I was totally immersed in reading Arthur C. Clarke’s “A Fall of Moondust,” one of my favorite gifts.
The Right Kind of “Special”
Later that afternoon, I dove into “Numbers, Fun and Facts.” Then the Orthodox shul called, looking for a tenth man for a minyan (quorum) for services. My father had always advised, “When the shul needs you, you drop everything and go.” I walked the half block to the sanctuary.
The minyan (average age 75, at least as I perceived it,) congratulated me on my Bar Mitzvah. That’s when I felt most special — being counted as the tenth “man” in a minyan.
As Jews with disabilities prepare for and celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I hope that they are not just trotted out to recite a few prayers or verses. Let them “suffer” through hours of preparation, bond with other students and co-exist (mostly) peacefully with the teacher.
May they experience the moment when their Jewish community recognizes them as increasingly responsible members and seeks their ongoing participation and contributions.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him.