Friday, May 30, 2014

Fifty Years Ago in Sheepshead Bay: Our Bar Mitzvah Reception at the Deauville Beach Club, May 30, 1964

Fifty years ago today, on Saturday night, May 30, 1964, our bar mitzvah reception was held at The Deauville beach club off Knapp Street and the Belt Parkway in Sheepshead Bay.  The property is now the UA Sheepshead Bay multiplex.

Our bar mitzvah had been held the Saturday morning before, May 23, 1964, at the Flatbush Park Jewish Center on Avenue U and East 64th Street in Mill Basin; it was a "modern Orthodox" synagogue our family belonged to although only the first half of the designation fit us.  Rabbi David S. Halpern, who taught us our Haftorah, the reading called Naso, we were shocked to learn, retired only a couple of years ago. Here are our parents and brothers.

With our two sets of grandparents and great-grandmother.  Yikes, we are now older than all our grandparents were then!

We once posted this "Mr. Wonderful" pic from the album on Facebook and three friends wrote us to say they had the same exact pic in their bar mitzvah albums.  And not all of them used Hunter Studios on Flatbush and Flatlands Avenues, either.

The Limbo.  It was 1964, the winter of the Beatles and the spring of the World's Fair.  On our 35mm bar mitzvah movies (now on VHS but not DVD or online) the opening shot with the title features the Unisphere.
The Twist was pretty old by then. A couple of years earlier, our grandparents had taken four of us -- two grandsons and two nephews ages 11, 9, 8 and 7 -- to see Chubby Checker perform , even then past his prime, at the short-lived, much-loved Bronx mammoth amusement park Freedomland, whose property was roughly shaped like the 48 states.
Even while the photographer was shooting this and told us what he was going to do, we knew it was wrong.
Our great-great-uncle, the greatest klezmer clarinetist of all time, Dave Tarras, played with his party band. When we were young, he tried to give us clarinet lessons, but we were hopeless. At the time, we stupidly didn't realize how important klezmer music was, although we all always loved the music of Uncle Dave, especially his doinas and the jazz-influenced album Danz! with his son-in-law Sammy Musiker, a great saxophonist, and his amazingly talented brother Ray Musiker, whom we last saw perform in 2011 at the annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival at Chinatown's Eldridge Street Synagogue.
In 1979, when we felt like a big shot because our first book got a nice notice in the Village Voice, it brought us down to earth when we saw our really famous and more talented great-great-uncle on the Voice's cover a week later. Anyway, here we are cutting challah at the dais and saying a brucha whose Hebrew we vaguely recall. (We were taught old-school Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation, with different vowels than today's normal Jews use: "aw," not "ah"; a "t" sound, not an "s" sound.)
Actually, being a bar mitzvah boy half a century ago seemed to involve a lot of cutlery and serving people food.
At least one of the three kids in our family learned how to dance (not the current bar mitzvah boy).  Notice the cigarette in the woman's gloved hand.  At the tables were luxurious round brown gift matchboxes engraved with "Richard"  in gold script so people could thank us for their carcinoma for years to come.
Our friends and some cousins.  Most of the guys up front and the two on the back on each side were also in eighth grade with us at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush.  A couple of our friends had girls from our class there, but most of us didn't.  As at least two women we went to junior high with kept telling us.  When we were seniors at Midwood High School in 1968, they did get invited to our middle brother's at Bensonhurst's La Perville, but by then of course, the Cultural Revolution had begun.  By 1974 and the last bar mitzvah, our parents decided this whole catered affair business was tacky and instead treated a much smaller group -- about 50 instead of 200 -- of close friends and relatives to a resort hotel in the Catskills for a winter weekend.  The older brothers were happy, since they got to share rooms with girlfriends, and it was just a lot more low-key and normal.
Contact lenses were still in our future, so we tried to keep our glasses off most of the night.  But sometimes we failed.  Hang onto your yarmulkes, it's going to be a bumpy night.  Weird there's no photo of all the food, from the buffet with all the huh-luscious stuff of Jewish-American mid-century satire, to all the different courses, including my mother's insistence on intermezzo: all the great-aunts and great-uncles didn't understand why they were being served ices between the fish course and the filet mignon.  Oh, did we mention the Viennese table?  And as people filed out at 3 a.m. or so, everyone got a copy of the Sunday News, with the Dick Tracy comic on the front cover.  This whole thing cost over $10,000 half a century ago. That's over $75,000 in 2014 dollars, people!
From the viewpoint of 2014, it's glazed in nostalgia, of course.  But we remember our best friend from the time, who sat next to us during the dinner, would tell us many years later at a Manhattan dinner with him and his husband: what he most remembered the bar mitzvah boy saying all evening was, When is this going to be over? When is this going to be over?  

We've avoided attending every single bar mitzvah we've been invited to in the past 35 years.

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