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Of Prayer, Poise and Ping-Pong

My niece is a die-hard Yankees fan. So for her Bat Mitzvah, I got her some Judaica in the form of a yarmulke with the Bronx Bombers’ insignia and a baseball cap that spelled “Yankees” in Hebrew letters — as well as some Bat Mitzvah gelt.  Services were at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, which has been beautifully restored from a devastating fire a few years ago. Friday Night (Shabbat) Lights is the main event there and the house was packed not just with the families of the two Bat Mitzvah girls – my niece, Kayla, and another girl were the stars of a double header the following morning – but with the regulars.

The atmosphere had the sound and feel of a world music rock concert that just happened to have some Jewish prayers mixed in. The two female cantors had lovely voices and ably accompanied themselves on guitar, such strumming being a prerequisite at Reform temples these days.  Their backing band consisted of piano, violin, clarinet, upright bass, percussion and four singers. It was great to hear music in temple that was sung in tune for a change.

Everything went as planned the following morning. No lines were flubbed; no Torahs dropped. They have a lovely tradition at the temple where the Torah is passed from generation to generation. Kayla is fortunate to still have all four grandparents, who passed the sacred scroll to my brother and sister-in-law and then to my niece.  The band was smaller on Saturday — only one cantor — but the mood remained festive as the pianist, at times channeling Vince Guaraldi, made me feel as if I were at “A Charlie Brown Bar Mitzvah.” I somehow refrained from doing my Snoopy dance on the piano.

Now, Kayla is a very bright, diligent student so we all knew that her chanting of the Torah and Haftorah portions, as well as the blessings before and after, along with her commentary on the torah portion, would be technically perfect and error-free. But what was a revelation to me and to her proud papa as well, was the poise and maturity with which she handled these duties.

Many kids  — and adults for that matter — tend to rush, speak in a soft monotone and don’t make eye contact when they’re compelled to do any kind of public speaking. And of my brother’s two girls, the younger one, Amelia, tends to be the more extroverted of the two. However, Kayla turned out to be a polished pro – better than most candidates on the stump. She chanted the Hebrew clearly and in key and she delivered her commentary deliberately, varying her tempo and modulating her voice for emphasis. And she made lots of eye contact! Well done!

However, even the Rabbi conceded that the day’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha  (Genesis, chapter 12) is a troubling one as Abraham, the patriarch of our people, doesn’t come off too well. To save his own hide, he seems to have had no problem pimping out his wife to the Egyptian Pharaoh as long as she said Abraham was her brother, not her husband. In exchange for Sarah’s having to fend off the king’s booty call, Abraham received some nice booty of his own: sheep, oxen, camels asses and servants.

After services, there was a buffet lunch in the basement of the temple. And something akin to a miracle occurred there. Two of my cousins, a brother and sister who hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years, sat down together and amiably chatted for about an hour as if only a few days had passed since they’d last spoken. Thrilled and amazed, I nonetheless had visions of airborne swine, of small simians soaring from my nether regions and of meteorological impossibilities in the netherworld.

At the reception, the adults and the kids had separate, adjoining rooms — brilliant and highly recommended — and the kids took part in a live-action game of Clue. I found Miss Scarlet most fetching, as many of us alleged adults ventured into the kids’ room to snarf some of their snacks as they had chips, guacamole and salsa — and sushi, too.  The kids were ushered in for the ritual blessings over bread and wine and my brother, whom I’d never seen look happier, delivered a very moving toast.

But the best part of the evening to me was that both the kids and adults had ping-pong tables. Although I played some competitive table tennis when I was a teen, I’m a couple of decades out of practice. Suit and tie isn’t the best athletic wear and wine probably wasn’t the optimum pre-match hydration libation but was more enjoyable than gulping Gatorade. Nonetheless, after warming up a bit, I got my forehand cranking and vanquished all comers not just at ping pong, but at beer pong as well, that staple of college recreation I first encountered in my brother’s Dartmouth days.  His good friend, Steve, an excellent beer-ponger, and I went at it, substituting glasses of red wine for plastic cups of beer – and I emerged victorious by a margin of two games to one!