February 13, 2013

Something About Larry

We all have a calling, but few among us ever find it.  Larry Greenstein found his calling.  Thirty years ago he made me a man, which is to say he was my bar mitzvah teacher.  And as a bar mitzvah teacher, he had no equal.  I loved him, I hated him, and in the end I appreciated him.  I have attended three bar/bat mitzvahs in the past month, and even now, thirty years after my day on the stage, each time I think of Larry.

Though not officially a cantor, Larry sang the Shabbat service with rare beauty.  He had a very large nose, the kind of nose whose affinity to stereotype even a fellow Jew could not deny.  Armed with this nose, Larry could unspool a cantorial chant of unmatchable warmth and depth.  He would sing the words of the Torah, dragging every ounce of pathos from each word, a kind of nasal melisma; slowly, deeply building whorls of ancient phonetic melody into plaintive crescendoes, beseeching God and man to open their hearts and raise their eyes to the heavens, until even the most stiff-necked of congregants had no choice but to join in on the chorus for Eitz Hayim or the Kedusha.  

And even when he was merely a participant and not the leader of the service, Larry always stole the show with perfectly executed refrains.  At those moments, when it would be time for the congregation to respond to the prayer, Larry would wait an extra beat as those around him began to sing and then, with his eyes closed, smiling beatifically, he would lean his head back and join in, slowly and softly at first but before long, his harmonies were the magic carpet that carried the voices of the congregation to weekly redemption.

Larry was a bachelor back in 1982 when my parents, who belonged to the same synagogue as Larry, asked him to be my bar mitzvah teacher.  Larry accepted, and a ritual quickly developed: We would sit at the dining room table.  Larry would sing a portion of what i needed to learn onto a tape recorder.  I would then attempt to recreate what Larry had sung, and during the week would use the tape as a reference point for my practice.  

"It is January 23, 1982, bar mitzvah lesson of Joshua Kranz, the parsha is Ki Tavo, this is D'varim Chapter 26, verses 8-14."  Larry would initiate each tape with the same formal introduction.  For our first few lessons he would sing each note I would encounter during my Torah reading, but where another teacher might have sung "Etchana-ah," Larry would sing "Etchana-ah-ah-ah-AH-ahahah......" Though I lacked any natural singing ability, Larry would drill me until I sang the notes the way he wanted them sung.  And he wanted them sung beautifully, each and every note.

I went to a Jewish day school, and my familiarity with Hebrew served me well in the early lessons. Too well, because Larry went to my parents and recommended that I prepare to lead the entire service, start to finish.  This meant learning the morning service, Torah reading, Haftarah reading and the supplemental, or Mussaf service.  Total running time = 3 hours, with only a break to deliver my bar mitzvah speech.  My parents thought this was a brilliant idea.  This meant longer lessons and more weekly homework, and each new prayer was addressed with the same rigor and devotion.

After each lesson, Larry would stay for dinner at my parents' invitation.  I don't remember there ever being any other adult who was casually invited by my parents to stay for dinner during my entire childhood.  My father would glare at my brothers and me when we would reach for the food on the table before Larry had been served.  My mother would ask Larry how his mother, who lived nearby, was doing.  Larry was the first person I ever knew to use the "X is X" non-explanation that says it all; each time he would answer "Mom is Mom," and it was left at that.

A few months before my bar mitzvah, Larry came into the house and asked my parents if they could speak privately.  When they emerged from the living room, the mood was calm but serious.  Larry had realized that on the day of my bar mitzvah, I would not actually be bar mitzvahed, in the sense of being legally qualified to lead the Saturday morning service, until I was called to the Torah for an aliyah, which takes place in the middle portion of the service, and therefore I would not yet be a BM when the service began that morning, and since I was already committed to leading the entire service soup to nuts, something needed to be done to make me legal from word one.  Hence the conference with my parents, and the decision that I would have to be called to the Torah and read a second Haftarah on a Shabbat prior to my bar mitzvah date.

The Haftarah is a reading of a section of the Book of Prophets, part of the Old Testament. It changes weekly, usually 25-30 verses, and it calls for a different set of notes and melodies then the Torah reading.  In other words, I was screwed.

My bar mitzvah was set for Labor Day weekend.  My parents and Larry checked their calendars, which back then meant pulling out a velo-bound 12 page calendar out of the desk drawer.  The scheduling options were limited.  Larry was going out of town for part of the summer.  Only one Shabbat was going to work, in July, and even that meant shortening our family beach vacation.  It also meant even more time cooped up indoors, chanting, while my friends fired off bottle caps and chased ice cream trucks.

"You get bar mitzvahed ONE TIME in your life.  Get over it," counseled my mother.

My father concurred.  "You're going to learn whatever Larry tells you to learn.  End of story."
The next week brought even more bad news.  The chosen Shabbat fell during the week before Tisha B'Av, the second most important day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, marking the destruction of both ancient temples.  Accordingly, the Haftarah for that week had to be chanted with a special trup, or melody, called Aicha that is used only during that one week of the year.  So the new tally was two Shabbats, two Haftarahs, and three different trups.  

Larry started a fresh cassette and plunged the red Record button and black Play button simultaneously.  This new Aicha trup was very different from the other melodies and I had only a few short weeks to learn it, in addition to everything else I was trying to learn.  I played the tape, rewound it, played it again.  

Two weeks before I was scheduled to chant the Aicha Haftarah, Larry asked me to read it through. As I chanted, I could hear him sigh through his nose, a human foghorn.  I struggled with some notes.  Glancing across the table, I saw that he had taken off his large, pale-colored eyeglasses and was massaging the bridge of his nose, and then his temples.  Larry said nothing until I was done, but then delivered his verdict. "Given where you are at this point with your reading of the Aicha Haftarah, and given the importance and sanctity of this reading, I cannot in good conscience allow you to recite it in synagogue in three weeks."

Looking back, I realize the proper response would have been elation.  Instead, I turned beet red and at Larry's suggestion, excused myself to the hallway bathroom to collect myself.  When I returned, Larry declared that he was willing to work hard to get me where I needed to be, if I could similarly commit.  With a nod of the head, we set to it.  

Two weeks later, I chanted the Aicha Haftarah for a sparsely attended Shabbat morning service in the 95 degree humidity of a Maryland July, and in the most technical and legalistic sense of the term, I became a man.  Larry had been appeased.  

In September,  my bar mitzvah went off without a hitch.  But something else happened in between, an event I remember more clearly than anything that happened on my bar mitzvah day.  My parents, you see, had become overwhelmed with the stress of bar mitzvah planning and had decided to take a long weekend vacation.  There was no way they could take my brothers and I with them, not so close to my bar mitzvah date and with all the studying I had to do.  Larry had quickly offered to stay at our home and take care of us while they were gone.  

I had just turned thirteen, naturally.  Jonathan was eleven and Jeremy was seven.  We were all huge pro wrestling fans at the time.  Jonathan subscribed to several pro wrestling monthly publications, and every weekend we watched WWF and NWA action.  Jonathan and I were watching pro wrestling this particular weekend in August - Jeremy was napping upstairs - when Larry walked into the room and declared all pro wrestling to be fake.  With the benefit of thirty years of perspective, I now realize that Larry was merely uttering a true statement.  At the time, it was taken as a challenge.

"IT'S NOT ALL FAKE," yelled Jonathan and I.

Yes it is, said Larry.


That's what I am saying, said Larry.


No, I do not, he said.

Something in me bubbled over.  I challenged Larry: He would let us execute a series of wrestling moves on him, and we would see if he could withstand it.  Larry, to his eternal credit, agreed.

We cleared some extra space in the family room.  We ordered Larry to lie on his back so we could administer the Figure Four, at the time the signature move of several pro wrestlers.  Larry was built like a cube.  Everything about him was broad: ears, nose, shoulders, back, chest, thighs, calves, feet.  As Larry laid on the ground, Jonathan and I strained to lift his right leg, which we then bent ninety degrees and laid over his left knee.  I then slid one leg in the triangular space between his thighs (thus the "four" shape), slid the other leg over the overlying right foot, hooked my left foot behind his left calf, and leaned back as hard as I could.  The effect, as seen on television, was excruciating pressure on the person's knees and groin.

Larry didn't flinch.  "Nothing," he said.  "I don't feel anything."

Jonathan and I moved on to the Cobra Clutch, a chokehold synonymous with the legendary Sergeant Slaughter, who was at the height of his villainous popularity at the time.  For this hold we hooked one arm underneath Larry's right arm in a kind of half nelson and then brought his left arm all the way across his body, locking my hands behind Larry's neck while Jonathan stretched Larry's arm as far as it would go."

Larry's voice was muffled by his left arm but we could make out clearly what he was saying. "Nothing again."

Jonathan wanted to try a Superfly Splash, the Jimmy Snuka finishing move that won him worldwide fame, but Larry vetoed it because it involved jumping off the couch, which was forbidden by my parents.  We tried a sleeper hold.  Nothing.  Camel Clutch.  Larry giggled.  The Texas Cloverleaf.  The Chickenwing.  Mandible Claw.  Tongan Death Grip.  Larry would tolerate the move, sigh, shake his head and wait for our next failed maneuver.

Finally it hit me: the Boston Crab.  Frankly, it was the last arrow in our quiver.  "Okay but this is the last one and then we're done," said Larry.

Larry was asked to lie on the ground on his stomach.  I stood over his legs, facing his feet.  With Jonathan's help, I lifted up his legs, leaned back and bent them toward his head.  Jonathan moved around to the other side and started to pull up Larry's shoulders.

"Okay guys, I think I proved my point," said Larry, but did I sense a shortness of breath?  Was he feeling some bodily stress? I tried to pull higher and further but Larry's stocky build was proving resistant.  At this moment, Jeremy bounded down the stairs.

"JEREMY COME HERE," said Jonathan and I simultaneously.  

Jeremy ambled into the family room and found his two brothers, grunting and tugging on the prone, arced bar mitzvah teacher.

"JEREMY, push Larry's legs up! Now!"

Smiling, ingenuous, Jeremy ran over and slammed his small frame into Larry's upside-down thighs.

"PUSH Jeremy, PUSH!"

Larry's legs started to bend further.  His knees creaked.  He let out a loud groan.  "GET OFF!" he whispered.  "GET OFF!" 

We released our collective grip, perhaps involuntarily due to the convulsive laughter.  Larry writhed on the ground for a minute, then slowly got up off the floor.  He sat on the couch and, staring off into the distance, asked us to just go upstairs and go to sleep.  None of us, including Larry, breathed a word to our parents about what had happened.

Shortly after my bar mitzvah, Larry decided to move to Israel.  He married an Israeli woman and they started a family.  I only saw him one more time.  In 1989, my family traveled to Israel to visit Jonathan while he spent a semester there.  My parents tracked down Larry and we had a nice dinner in the shadow of the Old City.  At the end of the dinner I looked at my brother, he nodded, and we approached Larry while my parents were talking to his wife.

"Hey Larry," we whispered.  "Do you remember the Boston Crab?"

Larry stared at us, then after a long pause muttered "it was great to see you both again" and said his goodbyes to my parents.  

Oh Larry, what I wouldn't give to hear you lead the congregation just one more time; your voice rising to the stars, the moon, the sun and the heavens as you pray for us all.

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