Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. Rabbi Herzfeld serves as the Orthodox Rabbinic Advisor at Harvard Hillel, and is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh of Portland, ME. He is married to Michal Herzfeld, a student at Harvard Law School. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This editorial was first published in the Portland Press Herald.
In early November of the year 1620, a ship by the name of the Mayflower hit land in Cape Cod, and the pilgrims settled down in America. The pilgrims befriended the local Indian chief Squanto, and after their first harvest in the land, they held a feast of thanksgiving to God.
Then, in the year 2007, again in November, another feast of thanksgiving was held in the land of New England. This time it was in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of a young Jewish man named Arthur Jebediah Wilder Lockman, a direct descendant of one of the passengers on the Mayflower.
Arthur Jebediah (A.J.) Lockman’s father, James Lockman, proudly notes that his children are descended from a Mayflower passenger and are also distant cousins of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of The Little House on The Prairie. It came as no wonder then that the Bar Mitzvah celebration for A.J. Lockman was filled with a flavor that was both distinctively Jewish and distinctively American/northern New England — Maine.
The invitations to the Bar Mitzvah, which were printed by A.J.’s father, who runs a print shop in Gorham (Working Words), invited guests to “open the barn door” to see the details of the party.
It was a “barn mitzvah,” and a Bar Mitzvah, held in a giant tent at the family’s backyard near Sebago Lake. Even though a massive thunderstorm came pouring down during the Bar Mitzvah on this recent Saturday night, it couldn’t dampen the happiness at the celebration.
If I could use one word to describe the party and the Bar Mitzvah boy, I would say that both were “authentic,” true to A.J.’s roots and his personality.
The first part of the Bar Mitzvah took place in the synagogue, at Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland. As the rabbi of the synagogue, I worked with A.J. over the past year to help him prepare the appropriate portion of the Torah text for his Bar Mitzvah.
A.J. labored away. He would arrive at synagogue about an hour before the beginning of the prayer services, and he would struggle over the Hebrew text together with me. Chopping wood in a freezing North Dakota blizzard must be nothing compared to breaking your teeth learning Hebrew at 7 a.m. before the prayers on a Saturday morning. But A.J. worked hard at it, and came to realize his aptitude for Hebrew reading.
As he stood up there this past Sabbath to read the Torah before all his family and friends, I thought to myself about how nervous I was at my own Bar Mitzvah, when I had first stood up before the congregation to read the Torah.
My Bar Mitzvah teacher had gripped my arm as I started to read the Torah, signaling for me to slow down and not to read so quickly. A.J. looked calm, oblivious to the pressure At my own Bar Mitzvah party back in the day in Staten Island, N.Y., I had to wear a suit and worry about whether my parents would make a party that matched up to my friends’ glitzy events. A.J.’s party was quite different from what I grew up with.
Before the party, A.J.’s mom, Rori, had given me specific instructions to wear sneakers, not shoes. When I arrived at the Lockman house, I was handed a little flashlight and a bottle of 100 percent pure maple syrup that was harvested from the trees right by the Lockman’s home. (James Lockman and his family harvest their own delicious maple syrup, for sale in February, I believe.) On the tables were cut-out pumpkins that A.J. and his brother Teddy had gathered from the North Gorham cemetery at 4 a.m. on the morning after Halloween.
The food served included a maple syrup squash soup, hamburgers, hot dogs, s’mores, and such kosher Israeli flavors as hummus, baba ganough, grape leaves and tehina with pita.
A.J. was carried around on a chair as we sang Hava Nagila, and then he picked up his trombone to play with the Bar Mitzvah band, the Mavens. The band itself was comprised of senior citizens Jonas Smith, Robert Pillsbury and Thomas Mulkern, who have been playing together for decades.
In the past, A.J. volunteered to play with the band at various synagogues and at the Portland Art Museum. In the words of band member Jonas Smith, “A.J. did awesome.” As A.J. and the Mavens played the song “Watermelon Man” and the blues in B flat, all of his ancestors — the rabbi in Russia, the Jew at Sinai, and the pilgrim in Cape Cod — must have been very proud of his accomplishments.
I guess when you match a North Gorham Halloween pumpkin with a Hebrew Torah scroll, you get a Bar Mitzvah boy and Bar Mitzvah celebration that are as authentically American Jewish as they come.