A whole other meaning to ‘coming of age’
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A whole other meaning to ‘coming of age’

The days of our years are 70 years, and with strength, 80,” begins the 10th verse of Psalm 90.

“In other words, we’re all ‘entitled’ to 70 years, and if we reach 70, we’ve reached the limit of our ‘given’ life-span” and everything else is gravy,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park. “That means that a person actually turns ’13’ for a second time at age 83.”

Marking that birthday with a “second bar mitzvah” has become a custom adopted by many area men. Among those who recently celebrated are two Temple Israel congregants; a resident of Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale; and a Hackensack resident whose original bar mitzvah was preempted by World War II.

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Irving Kamil today and at 13.

Irving Kamil chanted his haftarah in front of family and friends at Temple Israel on Nov. 14.

“My first bar mitzvah was in an East New York synagogue in Brooklyn,” Kamil told The Jewish Standard. “Afterward, everyone came back to our apartment. My father moved all the furniture in one room, and we sat at borrowed tables and chairs to eat the luncheon my mother had cooked for everybody.”

Though the retired middle school principal says he was more observant at 13 than he is today, the second bar mitzvah idea was important to him.

“My father, Marks Kamil [sic], was a president of Temple Israel and he also had a second bar mitzvah there, so it’s a tradition I want to keep up” said Kamil, a synagogue board member who also served as president years ago.

For his youthful bar mitzvah, Kamil learned his haftarah in Hebrew school. This time, Engelmayer made a tape for him.

“It’s been 70 years, and I’ve forgotten it. I’ve been practicing so I don’t make a fool of myself,” he said jokingly before the event. Two of his grandchildren were unable to get back from college for the occasion, but it was attended by his wife, Selma, their three children, and one grandchild.

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Ray Kaplan at age 13 and today.

Ray Kaplan’s turn on the bimah came the following Shabbat. He, too, learned to chant his haftarah from a tape Engelmayer recorded.

“My original bar mitzvah was in 1939 at the Laurelton Jewish Center in Queens,” he recalled. “It was very small and I don’t remember too much about it. Up until three months before, I had not gone to Hebrew school at all. My family had split up and we [six children] had been in foster homes since 1934; I was with my younger sister.

“I had some Jewish friends, and maybe it was because they were having bar mitzvahs – I don’t recall ever having been in a synagogue before that – I told them I wanted to have a bar mitzvah, too. So they got me enrolled in Hebrew school, and in three months I went from learning the alef-bet to learning how to read my haftarah. The director of the Hebrew school, a nice lady, sort of guided me through the process.”

Kaplan recalls that his father came from Brooklyn for the festivities. After a small kiddush of wine and sponge cake at the Jewish Center, they went back to his foster home, where his foster parents and their daughter had prepared a luncheon.

That daughter, his foster sister Bernice Sarisohn, joined Kaplan and his wife, Rebecca, at Temple Israel – along with three of his biological siblings and relatives from Boston, Pennsylvania, Phoenix, and Rhode Island, and his son from California. His daughter and two granddaughters in Bergen County were there as well.

Kaplan, 83, has been a member of Temple Israel since moving to Cliffside Park 30 years ago from Teaneck and is now a vice president. He said the words in Psalm 90 have long made an impression on him.

“When I reached 70, I felt I had certainly been fortunate, and then when I got my extra 10, I felt extra-fortunate,” he said. “You sort of start counting again. I thank God for giving me the health to survive all these years despite some tough problems I’ve had along the way.”

Kaplan, a retired aerospace engineer, chronicled his life – including his adventure as a volunteer in Israel’s War of Independence, and his marriage there to a young Egyptian immigrant in 1950 – in a 2007 autobiography titled “The Spark Within Me.”

While writing his bar mitzvah speech to deliver at the reception, to which the entire congregation was invited, Kaplan was tempted to use a line he didn’t get to say in 1939.

“I was thinking of opening my speech with ‘Today I am a Bic,'” he said with a laugh.

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David Neuwirth celebrates his second bar mitzvah at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. At right, the bar mitzvah boy at age 13.

David Neuwirth and his wife Minnie invited their family and friends to join them at the Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale on Dec. 5 to celebrate Neuwirth’s 83rd birthday and second bar mitzvah. The service was conducted by Rabbi Robert Freedman from the Princeton area, followed by a kiddush luncheon.

“My birthday is Nov. 25, and it’s a good time to have a party,” said Neuwirth, who was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1926.

When he was young, his grandmother, who lived with his family, urged him to attend services regularly. “I went to shul every Saturday until I was bar mitzvahed, and continued laying tefillin until I was 18,” he said. At his grandmother’s urging, he even took the tefillin with him to boot camp in 1945.

Neuwirth’s early training paid off; when he lived in Long Island, he received the Tenth Person Award, for his devoted attendance at daily minyan, from the South Baldwin Jewish Center-Shaarei Shalom. He and his wife moved first to Bloomfield, to be near their daughter in Montclair, and then to JHAL in September.

Friedman was previously his other daughter’s rabbi in Vermont, and worked with Neuwirth to prepare for his second bar mitzvah. “We went over the parts of the service and Torah reading that I will do,” said Neuwirth, a retired insurance broker. “My daughters read from the Torah, too, as well as our [four] grandchildren.”

Neuwirth’s first bar mitzvah took place in front of about 100 guests at the Lincoln Place shul in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. “The custom in those days was to have a little kiddush after services and in the evening a catered affair, not too elaborate, but there was a three-piece band, and I had to give a speech,” he recalled.

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Above, Charles Ticho today and at 12 years old. At left, Dr. Isidor Reiniger, Charles Ticho’s uncle, tutored him for his first bar mitzvah.

Charles Ticho of Hackensack sent out an excerpt from his 2007 autobiography, “From Generation to Generation: A Family’s Story of Survival,” with the invitations to his “second” bar mitzvah to be held at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake on March 27. The excerpt explains why he never really had a first one.

Ticho’s bar mitzvah was supposed to have taken place April 22, 1940, in Czechoslovakia. Because his father was then imprisoned in a concentration camp and his mother was stranded in Switzerland, he and his younger brother Steven were living with relatives. His uncle, Dr. Isidor Reiniger, was preparing him for his religious coming of age.

“The Nazis had burned down the large synagogue,” Ticho wrote. “The small synagogue, where our family worshipped and where I had sung in the choir, was closed. We learned that services were still held in the Polish synagogue and preparations were made for me to have my bar mitzvah there.”

However, just before the big day, his three uncles made the painful decision to scrap the celebration so as not to draw undue attention to the family at such a dangerous time. Reiniger quietly took him instead to a clandestine weekday service in a dimly lit room in someone’s basement.

The service was led by Cantor Leo Ast, young Ticho’s former choir director. “He smiled at me briefly and then proceeded to sing the regular bar mitzvah liturgy – the same that I had heard him sing so often in our glorious small synagogue for other boys. I was deeply touched by this gesture.”

Afterward, “Uncle David gave me a wristwatch … and Uncle Jacob gave me a fountain pen,” Ticho recalls. “Uncle Isidor wrote out a blessing on a small piece of paper … and read it to me very solemnly before he handed it to me. Aunt Emma gave me a kiss and had managed somehow to find a piece of chocolate to give me as a present.”

Ticho remembers promising himself that if he survived the war, he would have a real bar mitzvah surrounded by family and friends. The March event, organized by his wife, Jean, and their children Robin, Ron, and Richard, is the fulfillment of that promise.

Ticho anticipates being joined by his older brother, two daughters of his late brother Steven, and his four grandchildren – each of whom will have a Torah portion to chant.

“The idea really started taking shape when I felt semi-confident I would make it to 83,” he said. “I took the precaution about eight years ago to reserve the date at the temple,” to which he and his wife, former Woodcliff Lake residents, have belonged since 1966.

Last year, he met with the temple’s cantor, Mark Biddelman, who provided him what he needed to learn the special haftarah for the Shabbat just before Passover.

“I took a 2009-2010 calendar and put myself on a schedule to be at a certain segment at a certain time, and then I started cheating and going ahead,” said Ticho.

To Ticho, however, this bar mitzvah is less a religious milestone than a celebration of a family surviving the devastation of the Holocaust.

“We were a well-established family in Boskovice for 300 or 400 years,” he related. “My great-grandfather, Abraham, was a dayan [religious judge]. My grandfather, Yitzchak Zvi Ticho, had 13 surviving children, 11 of them boys, and they became lawyers, doctors, and merchants. I have tried very hard to keep their descendants connected.”

In 1998, he organized a gathering of 145 Ticho relatives in Israel to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, whose house he had rebuilt and whose grave is among several he has restored. He twice took relatives to the Czech Republic to show them where the Tichos lived and lie buried, and plans another such journey next summer.

“So this bar mitzvah is all in keeping with the idea of maintaining in the togetherness of the family,” said Ticho.

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