A Welsh Bar-Mitzvah in North York


Justin scurried to and from school, changed schools, got sick. His Hebrew classes were two or three times a week now. But he knew he was doing well. Didn't he? What the hell did the David and Jonathan story really mean? Why did Dad care so much? He wasn't even Jewish. But, if he cared, why was he in Russia interviewing some dumb poets and novelists? No postcards or letters arrived, and Ben was bugging him. But the Barmitzvah was obviously important. All his friends were having one, and they had some great times. Maybe, when it was all over, he could get a Sega instead of Nintendo, and a Compact Disc Stereo system. But his knees were knocking.

Dad saw the events in a quite different way. As he changed planes in Frankfurt he realized that this was the first time that he had crossed the Atlantic without a stop at Heathrow and a quick trip to Swansea to stoke up the old Welsh hiraeth. He was going straight to the heart of Hamletism itself, traversing the melancholic and oracular steppes of Pasternak, Babel, Dostoievsky, Yevtushenko, the Mandelstams. He was going to the lands of the Books without which no Celticism was even vaguely alive. Like any Welshman, he was going to be a tourist of the revolution, not The Revolution, which was over and done with, betrayed, forgotten, but the Hebraic revolution, which continued to consume itself. "The Time is out of Joint!" How many times had he read that in translation from the Russian. Thank God or Gorbachev that he was not the man to put it right. But thank Havel that he could go while the way was still clear.

In Warsaw he used a map that a Polish friend had given him. He took a walk along Mordechaja Amelewicka, turned along Zamenhofa, and again down Lewartow, right on Karmelicka. He passed fourty-year-old apartment blocks, schools, park-land. Children were playing in the streets, old people sitting on benches in the park, lovers strolling arm-in-arm. The buildings were ugly, but serviceable. Similar ones could be found in many parts of Poland, Hungary, Russia. Yet this was the site of the Warsaw ghetto. Two monuments stood as a record. All, except the street-names, had changed. From there he walked along Stawki, crossed Nowotki, along Muranowska, Konwokforska, right down Zakroczymska. He was slowly walking into an old medeval town until ultimately he reached what appeared to be the walls of a castle, and some old cobbled streets and a marketplace. Yet this was all authentic fake. Every building was rebuilt from scratch after the Second World War from old plans, stones and photographs. Further down the city, past Jerusalem Street, he came to a large park, superbly laid out with a neo-classical Palace, orangeries and a monument to Chopin. This is not a fake, at least not a twentieth century fake. The Lazienki Palace and grounds, built in the mid-nineteenth century as a Royal Palace by a king no longer important to anyone, was used by the Germans as their headquarters during the Occupation. It is now swarming with people relaxing in the hot Autumn sun. He read Polish novels on the buses, trams, cafes, and felt terrified by the idea of a nation which existed only in the mind. He interviewd Polish Jewish writers, ani-Jewish Polish writers, amneisic Polish writers. He went to the grotesque shrine of Father Jerzy Popilescu, with the candles burning at all corners, and the crass icons. He heard Lech Walesa deliver an incoherent speech, and a Polish-Canadian carpet-bagging his way to non-election. He did not go to Auschwitz.

He went to Prague instead, first to the old Ghetto, carefully preserved by the Nazis as a memorial to a dead culture, and then to the Helsinki Assembly where Vaclav Havel's principled stance in favour of free speech and honesty was trying to take on an institutional form. But in the sessions on `Civil Society' he kept on remembering the battered old stones in the Jewish cemetary and the statue to Good King Vaclav in Vaclav Square. And he was shaken by a conversation with a West German policeman who told him that the Stasi, unemployed by the Germans, were lining up to work for the Mafia. And yet, for once in his life, he felt happy and free in Prague. It was not just a European city, but the European city, the city of magic and fun. Late at night in a Jazz club he talked with a French Trotskyist, a Danish feminist, a gay Italian artist, and a Czech woman drummer. And there was Stephen Lukes, the Oxford sociologist, now working in Florence, wearing a stetson and looking every part the flamboyant European intellectual. The nineteen-sixties were back, without apologies.

But Moscow was only an hour-and-a-half away. A military brass band serenaded him when he arrived (well, not actually him but Yeltzyn, but the appearances were simultaneous). He was whisked off quickly to Leningrad (overnight, by train) to meet a Jewish writer, Israel Metter, whose book, Five Corners, had just been published in Russian after thirty years' oblivion and had just been auctioned at the Frankfurt Book Fair for publication in English, German and French. Back in Moscow, he attended a premiere of a Jewish film based on a story by Isaac Babel, the audience largely consisting of the Jewish Intelligentsia of Moscow. In Kiev (which he arrived at also by train, meeting two Australian Penticostalist missionaries and the Moscow editor of Business Week en route), he was introduced to the separatist Rukh in their hideaway at the Writers' Union HQ. In Moscow, again, more Jewish writers, lots of late lunches in the Prague restaurant on the Arbat, and a final, devastating interview with the cultural czar of the Moscow Writers' Union, all of this punctuated by visits to galleries, palaces, cathedrals, mausoleums, hard currency stores, soft currency stores, ghettoes, journalists' appartments, demonstrations. An unforgettable moment: the erection of a monument outside the Lubyanka Prison to Stalin's victims. At the airport, as he is leaving, the mass of Jews trying to get out, to anywhere, but preferably not Israel. But Israel is what they will get. Trotsky, Mandelstam, Babel, Benjamin - is it reduced to this? Another ice-pick in the scull, the little cap of cyanide, or the eternal gas-mask?

Meanwhile, the postcards. The Aurora, the many faces of the Kremlin, St. Sophia in Kiev, St Peter & Paul in Leningrad (or is it St. Petersburg? and where is Mandelstam Street?), Lenin in Oktoberskaya, Mayakovsky in Mayakovskaya, Catherine the Great in Pushkin, the Finland Station, the Theatre on Spartakus Plochad, the Lavra in Kiev, Old Moscow, new Moscow. Mail them all from Amsterdam, so they will at least be delivered. Was not, anywhere, able to get a phone-call through since Prague. What have they been doing? Bar Mitzvah! Must get back to Toronto, and forget about the bodies in sleeping-bags at Moscow airport. What did they ask him about Steve Roman in Prague? He could only remember muttering something about devastating the Sandbanks on the shores of Lake Ontario and building an ostentatious cathedral, blessed by the Pope, in the empty fields north of Toronto. He, and Denison Mines, are buried there. Why does it matter? Sleep on it.

He wakes up in Toronto to one week of controlled but hectic activity. His brother Evan and sister-in-law Jenny arrive first, followed by father and Megan. They all stay in our house, father in the TV room, which means that Justin and Benjamin have to negotiate their Nintendo time, and the others in the basement. Grace before meals is re-introduced after a long absence. But, as all this is taking place, Dad, Justin, Mum have to put the finishing touches to the Bar Mitzvah itself. There are three crucial things to be completed. The first is the Supplement to the Reconstructionist Prayer Book. This has to include, in Hebrew and English, the Torah and Haftorah readings, and also those other readings that personalize the whole event. The second is Justin's sermon, which is in fairly good shape already. And the third are the welcoming speeches that are to be given at the big bash on Saturday night. Diane is concerned with how the Kidush which follows the service is to be organized, how everyone will be dressed, whether the buses that bring everyone from their hotels to the different events are synchronized. Justin skips school, straightens his tie, chants, and chants again, his Torah and Haftorah portions, and wonders how much gelt he's going to get. Benjamin plays Nintendo, goes to school, and listens to bedtime stories from his grandfather about Dad being brought up in the Belgian Congo, with real Elephants and real Snakes. Wide-eyed, he realizes that Dad had been somewhere else before all this happenned. But Dad is unsure what is the difference between Kaddish and Kidush, Misrat and Maftir, hope and fear.

One morning, at breakfast, Benjamin tells everybody, but secretly, one by one, that he had been a cat in outer space before he had entered Mum's tummy as a ghost. Reluctantly he had agreed to become a human. He had been first born a zillion years ago to other parents who looked like Mum and Dad but were cats, but he always knew which parents he wanted to have. Suddenly he saw them, on earth, having a party. So he decided to join them, but he had to wait a while because Justin was already in Mum's tummy and there was only room for one. Everyone knows what he means, but with feline agility they prepare for the party to end all parties.

The Saturday morning service and the evening dinner are obviously the main events. As the guests arrive on Friday evening to attend the `out of towners' dinner, it becomes even clearer to Dad that this is not a regular occasion. There will be no Rabbi at the schule tomorrow ("No Rabbi? How can you have a Bar Mitzvah without a Rabbi?") The Cantor will be a Medical Doctor, who does it in his spare time. What are we going to do with all the goyyim? Dad looks at his two sons by an earlier marriage: tall, strapping twenty-year olds. Do they mean them, or the brother, sisters, father who sit politely and talk with whoever is next to them? What the hell is he worried about? The apprehended disaster is not about to happen. Everybody is having a great time. He has read too many books, and especially too much Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, Mordechai Richler, Jews for Jesus stuff. Everybody wants to get on with each other.

Next morning the synagogue has about two hundred people present. The ceremony begins with Diane reading a segment from Rabindranath Tagore. "Joy is everywhere!" Suddenly Joy is Everywhere, as she sings it through the little chapel, in the truth of oneness. Then Dad reads Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Pied Beauty" and, before he knows it, the whole thing is rushing along on a momentum that only living, vibrant human beings can bring to each other. He reads a poem that he had written especially for this occasion, and then Diane's father, placing the Tallis over Justin's shoulders, speaks out of his experience, his soul. Then Justin in a clear voice chants his Torah portion and the story of David and Jonathan, and the MD Cantor's tenor responds with a liquid command that would have delighted Uncle Haydn on the Gower Coast. Just before the sermon, Justin grabs his Dad's hand nervously, but, when he comes to deliver, it is as lucid, well-argued and succinct as anyone had heard from such a young person. And we end it, as we had promised, with poems from the Third World and about Peace and the uniqueness of humankind. A Hungarian friend reads from the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire's great hymn to the dispossessed, "Eia, for those who never invented anything," and others of us read from the South African dub Poet Mzwakhe Mbuli, then there is another poem by Dad, and we end with a few verses from the second Isaiah to provide a conclusion that tries to put the entire event in the widest possible context, "for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

At the Kidush following, the mixed congregation of various kinds of Jews (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular), of Evangelicals, of skeptical academics and artists, of children who still preserve the innocence of uncertainty, talk and reflect on the meaning of the event of which they have just been a part. And a discussion develops about how unique was this event. For many non-Jews, having no point of comparison, the sense of being present at a particular rite of passage which tried to connect youth and age, race and religion, time and space, was a curiously moving event, a punctuation-mark in a world of disconnectedness. Many of them seemed to think it was typically Jewish (whatever that means), but as the day wore on to other meetings and encounters with the variety of people who were present, it became clear that this was a special form of Jewishness where the tension between Jewish internationalism and the particularity of the Hebrew text and ritual was deliberate. And maybe also for the Jews, the taken-for-granted everyday world was shown in a different light, less simplified, more wonderful.

The big bash in the evening brought out all the contradictions as the orchestrated carnival spun on. A large, very modern garish hotel provided two ballrooms (one for the adults, another for the children), with a bar and various ante-rooms (mainly for group photographs). Under balloons, the circular white tables, with their convenient sense of symmetry, accommodated a ghettoised sense of what it seemed not to have been about. All the Davieses at one table, the Smolkins at two others, the Bellans at two more, business friends at another, academics at yet another, and so on. And the music, provided by a Deejay located in the children's room but piped into the other, was a stratified sense of what was acceptable: no Heavy metal, no nostalgic Welsh or Irish folk music, not too much Jewish but just enough to make the Hora and Hava Negila danceable, but `soft' classical to begin with, then `mainstream' rock and Third World pop as things hotted up. (Deejays for these events are trained to cater to the mainstream: raunchy forty-five year old divorced aunts who were reared on the Beatles are their current yardstick). But symmetries are meant to be defied.

As the eating ended, the group photographs over, a form of dancing started as people broke up from their assigned tables. Apart from the unattached academic, poetical males, fortified by Scotch, who went in search of attached or unattached Jewish women, the children crowded into the adults' room or went out to the hallways pretending to smooch, and many adults moved into the children's room which was the designated dance area. There were regroupings round some of the tables as different families sought each other out. Five teenagers decided to quit the Hotel and go to the MacDonalds down the road in search of `real' food. A group of Hungarian intellectuals, seated together from the start, continued to talk in sombre terms about the future of Central Europe, while some of the Conservative Jewry were amazed to discover that Moscow had a subway system that worked very efficiently, and that not all Russians were destitute. A South African (how do we find these people?), having decided that the party had little to offer him, was last seen walking down Bloor Street with a quadruple Scotch in one hand and a piece of Black Forest Cake in the other.

And, which brings us to the crux of this story, what about the Davieses? There were four generations of them at this event. (And at this point, let us dispense with me as Dad: I was merely the facilitator). As a side-show to the whole affair, but coeval with it, as Catholic theologians would say, was my father, my brother and his wife, my sister, my two elder sons, and my eldest son's wife and their nine-month old child. None of them had the faintest sense of Judaism, except by remote control, that is through me and their reading of the Bible. For the older Davieses, the Jewish religion was basically the Pentateuch, superceded by the Christian appropriation of it and especially via the books of Isaiah and Psalms. For the younger Davieses, it was basically Dad's new family life. For all of them being Davies was an accident of relationships. My father still speaks with a Welsh accent, my sister with a New Zealand one, my brother, Evan, with a Tasmanian one, my eldest son, Eric, with a Toronto one, and his brother, Thomas, with an indeterminate West Coast American one. My father is an (almost) retired missionary, Megan a nurse, Evan the head of a Bible College, Eric works for Brewers Retail, and Thomas collects from supermarkets in Seattle and distributes to a food bank. They are all shy and reserved when not in a comfortably milieu, but very expansive when they feel confident. This was definitely an uncomfortable milieu.

They all acted in different ways, but together separate from the character of the event. Thomas, worried about his girlfriend in Seattle, did what he could to make sure that things went well (in particular he brought back the kids from MacDonalds). Eric was concerned about talking to his grandfather and trying to ensure that the ties were somehow cemented (the photographs of four generations at least did that as a record). Evan probably viewed the whole thing as a tribal ritual in which his brother played a curious participant-observation part. Megan and Evan's wife Jenny, who got into the spirit of things with Diane in preparing food, were probably closest to seeing the event as significant for its own sake, though probably unsure whether and how this ritual made sense. Father had mentioned several times about the cost of the whole affair (he was absolutely right), and, as the night wore on, was overheard trying to proselytise a lonely Jewish woman from Winnipeg.

As the candlelights burned out, the video-camerman who had tried to make sense of whom to film, was heard to complain that only the children wanted to talk, that the adults were only concerned with talking to each other and not to him. He was right, of course. It was a children's event. They were having fun with each other while the adults were trying to connect or disconnect. The Davieses were trying to connect with each other, first, and then, as fearfully as they might, with the Smolkins, the Bellans, and the ragtaggle `friends' that had been assembled. The same went the other way, though, from this vantage point, I have no way of knowing.

It certainly was a Bar Mitzvah. Someone (my son) had crossed a threshold from childhood to manhood. That was an event which was predicted by calling the occasion together in the first place. And he will, in due course, make sense of it himself. But the mitzvah (blessing) might be bestowed on all who took part. It really was not a Welsh Bar Mitzvah, but a congregation of different clans from across the world who took this event as important to themselves, who, in their obscure ways, wanted to hear both Baruch a'tad adonai melucheinu
Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah
Pilgrim Through this Barren Land.

Not that the Adonai or the Great Jehovah were important in themselves, but more that the connectedness in the desert was important, whatever the auspices.

And Diane? Well, of course, she had brought the Jews and the Hebraicists together, in an event they would never forget.
Ioan Davies January 3, 1991.
Published: Matrix, # 42 (1992): 24-29

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