A Welsh Bar-Mitzvah in North York

The Bar-mitzvah was only meant to be a small occasion, but these things tend to take on their own momentum. When I married Diane fifteen years before, I had promised her father, as we were negotiating our wedding in his Conservative synagogue, to bring up the family as Jewish, no small promise from someone who was brought up in Zaire of Welsh Evangelical missionary parents. The wedding itself had been something of an event. The assembled relatives and friends, on Diane's side, from Ottawa, Winnipeg and the nether reaches of Florida, were juxtaposed to my friends, an assorted group of poets, academics and Celtic layabouts, almost all of whom had never been near a synagogue. My brother, Evan, who is head of a Missionary Training College in Tasmania, was best man, and the `ushers' (a term I had never heard before, having never been `properly' married in an earlier incarnation) were suitably dressed in pale blue. They consisted of a Dutch poet, an Irish Rhetorician, a rock musician from Kitchener, and my brother-in-law. The maids-of-honour (in their frilly yellow dresses), were either relatives of Diane or people with whom she had been to school. It was a sparkling occasion. A South African Jewish dancer took centre-stage at the reception with her versions of Xoxa music and the Hora, while the Jewish guests slurped Old Bushmills, and the Celts politely drank the Carmel Hock that I had found in the Vintage Wines Store, as opposed to the Manischewitz syrup which all Diane's relatives thought of as wine. My fifteen-year-old daughter danced with my brother and wondered about the seriousness of the whole event.

But, as I was saying, the Bar-Mitzvah was meant to be a low-key affair. We were, after all, leftish. Diane is President of a major feminist organization, and I am a man of many passions, but organized religion (for obvious autobiographical reasons) is only a small part of them. Neither of us wanted to do a Mel Lastman folie de grandeur at the Royal York. We had decided that the children should have a religious education, primarily because if we did not provide an ethical and literate foundation for making discriminate choices, no one would. The problem was not Judaism as religion, but Judaism as politics. All of the synagogues in Toronto are dedicated to the State of Israel, getting the Jews out of the what was then the Soviet Union, ultimately supporting the American fix on the world. We tried the Reform Synagogues, but they were even more Zionistic than the Conservatives, and we were certainly not ready for the Chassids, whose stance, though anti-Zionist, is even more anti-feminist than the others.

We found a small Reconstructionist synagogue in North York, housed in the B'Nai Brith building on Hove Street (the Darchei Naom, Paths of Pleasantness). It had an emphasis on Hebrew as integral to ritual, a sense that Judaism had to be rethought in the light both of new conditions and connectedness, and that sexism had no part in any religion (at the time, the Rabbi was a woman). Above all, it was not particularily Zionist. Also, having spent my youth in small gospel mission-halls and Baptist churches, I did not fancy the big, ostentatious cathedrals that dominated Bathurst Street. Accordingly we enrolled Justin in Hebrew classes. From that day on the event-to-be took over our lives. Would he learn the Hebrew in time? How many people should we invite? Should we give him carte-blanche to ask all his friends (all hundred of them?) What about my relatives? How would born-again Evangelicals cope with not only the Judaism, but also the evident secularism? What kind of music? Where to have the dinner, house the `out of towners', hold brunches?

About six months before the day, we realized that we had a big event on our hands. There were two-hundred names on the invitation-list, and that was managed by savagely cutting down on invitations to friends, and unlikely relatives (would Uncle Haydn living in the Gower, South Wales, now eighty and becoming deaf, really come?). Diane scoured the city for restaurants, I for DeeJays, VeeJays. We discovered that the synagogue allowed us to construct part of the Bar Mitzvah service ourselves. This was an added bonus for us to put our stamp on the proceedings, but it required thought and hard work. We certainly could not, would not include Evangelical stuff, but why not something that came from our own sense of the world? Justin had to deliver a sermon (the D'var Torah): it had to be written, and based on the reading of the story of David and Jonathan, a story taken by many Jewish gays (with the Song of Songs) as their script. What angle would Justin take? The hormones were becoming active, but surely not those hormones.

And then there was Justin's Dad, with hardly a word of Welsh or Hebrew but a cult of the Hebraic, derived in part from an affinity for Cantorial music, prophecy, Russian songs sung by Welsh choirs, the Quabbalistic Marxism of Walter Benjamin, folk songs by Ewan McCall and A.L. Lloyd which all derive, more or less, from the Book of Psalms, Black music about the rivers of Babylon, and the books of Daniel and Job. This Dad was more Hebraic than the Hebrews, he kept saying to himself. For him the sense of being Hebrew was more alive than in those Jews who had colonized Paradise and called it Israel. It was a Hebraism of the mind, the body, the soul, the world. Above all, it was a Hebraism of the Book, which had taught him, and many others, to read and keep on reading. It was a West Indian Hebraism, a Zairian one, a Welsh one. "Guide me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah," he kept singing to himself, "pilgrim through this barren land." This pilgrim's progress had led him now to a meeting with real Jews, in a real synagogue, with the liturgy sung in real Hebrew. It was the greatest challenge of his life, greater than trying to sing "Cwm Rhondda" in Welsh in a Swansea chapel.

In the event, he didn't quite blow it, and most people who came saw it as one of the most moving, serious events that they had ever attended. But that, of course, was not due to him, but to the Jews that surrounded him. The most important of these was Diane, whose sense of a balance between the Jewish and the Hebraic was finely tuned to recognizing that wild Celtic imagination and experience had to be coordinated with a sense of the here and now. People, she kept on saying, do not live only in their heads: they live by their connectedness, and her husband, frozen as a cerebral voyeur, was compelled to talk, not only to the Jewish clan, but also to his relatives and friends, with whom he had no serious conversations, ever. As "Cwm Rhondda" kept rolling through his head, he talked to Jewish Uncles and Aunts, Welsh sisters and brothers, sons, daughters, friends, if only by phone. Diane became the Great Jehovah, the "J" script of the book of Genesis.

The other Jew who helped him was the Bar-Mitzvah boy himself. Justin Morgan Davies (Yakov Mordechai Bed-David to you illiterate Goys), had been named after a grandfather, a grandmother (Morgan was her maiden name) and a play (his father liked to think that he was the "Morgan" in David Mercer's script of Morgan - A suitable Case for treatment). His seven-year old brother Benjamin Norman had been named after Walter Benjamin and Norman Bethune (and you could not get more ecumenical than that). Like all other boys of his age, Justin is an expert on Nintendo games (I'm sure he could beat Salman Rushdie at Super Mario). He has dabbled in Rock Music (with his Dad, he went to Liverpool once, in search of the Beatles) and has three guitars which he plays infrequently. But, above all, he has grown to become a great writer, with a vivid sense of style and character. After being asked to draft his sermon, he read various newspaper articles, and hit on the idea that the story was partly about Saul who promises everything at the beginning of his nomination as King, then slowly realizes that he has betrayed the trust put in him by the people (a model for Mulroney, Bush, Thatcher, Gorbachev) and about the two friends who believe in giving Brotherhood and Peace a Chance (John Lennon lives!). Saul gets manic, consults economic necromancers, and becomes a Godfather figure who would even kill his own son in order to perpetuate the lineage. Bingo! We have a story which is Justin's own version of Hebrew scripture. Recontsructionism is alive and well. Justin is beginning to think about political ethics.

Propped up in this way, Dad thinks that he is ready to face the multicultural event. In spite of their support, he is wrong of course. Only six weeks before the great event, two things happen that change the entire complexion of what it will be. The first is that his father, now eighty-six, having moved to New Zealand thirty years before, decides that he is coming,with Justin's aunt Megan, whom only Dad has met, and also that brother Evan who was best man at the wedding, will be in Philadelphia and will also come with his wife. Suddenly what might have been a multicultural event takes on the possibility of becoming an inter-faith one. The fact that his father is coming puts the bejeebers into Dad. This is the father whom he last met five years before in Auckland at a Charismatic Baptist chapel, the congregation of whites, Maoris and Polynesians singing rapturously and dancing in the aisles. The same father in the nineteen-fifties published a book called This is That about an evangelical (Penticostalist-style) revival, of which he was a leading actor, in the Belgian Congo in a region that was later declared the Marxist Republic of Eastern Congo. This same father's biography he had tried to write, but gave up mainly because he was not sure he could write it for the audience for which it was intended. This was the same father around whose life he had started to write a novel, which did not get much beyond the fifth chapter, mainly because it was taking on a scatalogical and very heretical turn. So the Reverend Ivor Davies, very well-known in certain circles, wider circles than his son could claim, was coming to the Bar-Mitzvah. In tow would be some of those from the Davies clan who took the sense of mission seriously. Were they coming to check up on whether the Black Sheep was doing well? Or because they felt there was something missing in their own lives? Or, simply, as everyone kept telling him, because this was an important event that would bring the family, scattered as it was to the four winds, together for a brief moment? Maybe, all three? It did not help him in his agitation, particularly as the second event followed hard on the heels of the first.

He had been waiting for an invitation to visit the Soviet Union, for reasons which were peculiar to his Hebraic sense of Marxism. Simultaneous with the announcements from Auckland came a phone-call saying that the Soviet trip was on, as long as he could get ready to go in a week. Tabernac! Everything was dropped, the phone lines rang, Visas were acquired, plane tickets paid for. He had also wanted to go to Poland (to interview spokesmen for the few remaining Jews) and Prague (for the first Helsinki European conference). FAXes to Moscow: may I go to Central Europe first and come to you a week later? Of course, but that meant getting home one week before the Bar-Mitzvah. Did he dare go, arriving back one day before Father arrived from Auckland and before Justin had got his sermon ready? He dared. The rest is Ecumenical history.

There are many ways of seeing the next three weeks: Mum's, Dad's, Justin's are obvious ones. But so is Benjamin's, and also the relatives from Australia and New Zealand, the relatives and friends who came from Winnipeg, the Ottawa Valley, Kingston, and Florida. Most of their versions were told over a long period, so the reader will have to indulge the author in his account of his own recollections about what it all meant.

What Mum was doing when he went away was not only keeping the home fires burning, but ensuring that the organization of the restaurants, the hotels, the little details were taken care of, as well as in her work, which consisted of finding jobs for the thousands who were being unemployed by the savage Free Trade deal that Mulroney had foisted on an unsuspecting public. Where was she going to put them? Training courses, interviews, counselling sessions consumed the day from eight to six. It was Roger and Me, over and over again, except the Rogers were never accessible having sold their businesses to faceless men in the Bahamas. And then, back at home, coping with the kids' homework, phoning the two restaurants to make sure that the arrangements for the dinners were going as planned. Why did he have to go to Russia now? She knew that the trip was important, in the crazy way that he worked, but she could not help feeling that Gorbachev might last another six months or so, and that would make a Spring trip much more sensible. Her mother was in hospital, after yet another stroke. Gone was the fun and the laughter, the daily phone-calls, the incessant attempts at trying to give to all those she loved. Her father visited daily, for four or five hours. How, at eighty, could he keep up the momentum of caring? But it was going to be a marvellous occasion. Justin's Hebrew was so much improved. And how handsome he looked! This was surely the occasion that everyone had waited for.

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