Out There: I have a dream

With great joy I approached my paternal chore of training child #3 in delivering his bar mitzva speech.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
I love a good speech, always have. I'm fascinated by the way a good turn of phrase, properly positioned and delivered, can send chills up the spine, cause goose bumps, inspire men and launch revolutions. I love Lincoln's language, Churchill's delivery, Kennedy's accent, King's cadence. It has to do with my upbringing. As the son of a Shakespeare teacher, I was often encouraged to recite the Bard for my father's friends. "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams," I would respond to my dad's colleagues - quoting from Hamlet - when they came over to the house and asked how I was doing. I remember standing as a third-grader on a lonely stage at Hillel Academy reciting the Gettysburg Address by heart at an all-school assembly. "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground," I declaimed Lincoln, my buckteeth muffling an already pipsqueak voice. I had no idea what the words meant, but fell in love with the rhythm of those lines. So it was with great joy earlier this month that I approached my paternal chore of training child number three in the delivery of his seven-minute bar mitzva speech. THE BAR mitzva speech is a grand institution. First making its appearance in 16th-century Poland, the speech, or drasha, was then a showcase for gifted lads to dazzle the community with their talmudic wisdom. Today, well, today it's evolved into something a bit different. Sure, in some rare cases you get kids who actually write their own lines, who know the Ibn Ezra from the Ramban and can truly understand the Tosefot they are citing. But those cases are few and far between. And the chances of finding a kid with that type of knowledge who is also able to speak entertainingly in public with punch and confidence is, well, rare indeed (it's difficult to find an adult with those abilities). In most cases, you are talking about gangly, awkward, self-conscious boys who find it difficult saying hello when they walk into a stranger's house, let alone holding an intelligent conversation with an adult. Never mind. When it comes bar mitzva-time these boys are trotted out in front of hundreds of people who - let's face it - don't generally have much of an interest in what the young lads have to say. That's torture dressed up as rite of passage. To make matters more challenging, in my synagogue it is customary for the boy to give his drasha just before the Friday evening prayers, the absolute worst time possible to give a speech. Rashi himself could come down late Friday afternoon and give a riveting lesson on the weekly Torah portion, only to find that three-quarters of the shul would fall asleep. It's not that the people are rude, or even dislike the speaker, it's just that at that time of day, on that day of the week, something happens to the physiological clocks of the synagogue-going Jewish public, and the eyes automatically shut. LET'S SET the scene: You have a kid who doesn't want to speak - half the time not understanding what he is saying - talking to an audience that doesn't want to listen and would much rather be at home snoozing. To make matters worse, in Orthodox congregations there is no microphone, so half the shul can't hear what the boy has to say to begin with. Welcome to manhood, son. Contrast the boy's reluctance to speak at his bar mitzva to his parents' tendency to pile-on the superlatives when talking about their offspring at the celebratory meal. I've been at celebrations where it's difficult to tell Haim Yankel the bar mitzva boy from Mother Theresa the saint. The boy does his homework, helps his siblings, is good to the elderly, visits the ill, does his chores, is kind to animals, eats his greens and has just finished all six tractates of the Mishna. I always walk away from those types of speeches not uplifted at the good fortune that such a youngster walks in our midst, but rather depressed that I have four kids and not one of them is like that. Even combined they are not like that. "Keep it real," I coached the wife before she spoke at our son's bar mitzva two weeks ago. "Remember, he doesn't even make his bed." As to the boy, in the run-up to his big day I urged him to relax, speak slowly, project and inspire. "Grab their attention," I said, during last minute prepping, losing a little perspective. "Smile. Look up from the paper. Don't just read the speech, son, be the speech. BE THE SPEECH!!!" "Huh," the lad said. "Abba, are you nuts?" No, not nuts, just a frustrated rhetoric coach, a speech aficionado, a father living a tad too much through his son's experience, reliving the glory some 40 years ago of delivering the Gettysburg Address to a riveted audience at Hillel Academy. The wife and I had many proud moments that bar mitzva Shabbat morning. The way the lad read from the Torah, looked folks in the eye while shaking their hands, seemed genuinely happy. But my proudest moment of all was when a friend came up and complimented the boy not on his speech, but on his intonation, on his delivery. Ah, what pride, what naches, what luck to experience a whiff of what Martin Luther King's parents must have felt so often.