I’m back at 35,000 feet on my way home from another quick trip to Chicago. I came here for a series of weekend events that included the Bar Mitzvah of the son of one of my earliest blogging pals, David Gottlieb of True Ancestor. It was also my chance to meet the other bloggers in David’s family who gathered in Chicago for this joyous occasion, including Annie Gottlieb of AmbivaBlog, a site I enjoy reading every day even though I often get into sparring matches with Annie’s conservative readers. AmbivaBlog is one of the few places where folks on the left and the right can talk to each other with curiosity and at least occasional semblances of respect. Annie is a skilled referee, never succumbing to the hysterical hyperbole that often grips her readers on both sides (myself very much included).
As the oldest of the six Gottlieb siblings, Annie was a card-carrying member of the 1960s counterculture. She wrote a fascinating history of that time called “Do You Believe in Magic? Bringing the Sixties Back Home” (a book she now tends to disavow), and has tiptoed further to the right than anyone else in her staunchly liberal family, especially brother Alan who often gets into superheated exchanges with Annie’s conservative “regulars.” In addition to her prolific writing on AmbivaBlog, Annie writes a blog for New York's Natural History Museum that is a great read. Her husband Jacques has his own riveting story. He was a prisoner at one of Stalin’s slave-labor camps as a teenager and somehow survived an insanely severe Russian winter during his long escape to freedom. Oh, and then he became a part-time actor and co-starred in movies with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Dan Aykroyd, and Robin Williams. Although I’ve been communicating with Annie since January 2005, it was a delight to finallly meet her in the flesh this past weekend. She truly felt like a long-lost sister.
By now I’ve met David a bunch of times, both in Chicago and Los Angeles, and I believe I’ve already mentioned the weird coincidences that connect us, starting with the fact that we were both born at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago in the fall of 1959. I’m a few weeks older but had to stay in the hospital for over a month so I’m convinced there were a few days when our bassinets were next to each other in the nursery of the south side hospital. Maybe we were accidentally switched before we left Michael Reese, thus creating the bond that I discovered to his family so many years later? Fat chance, I always joke, since the Gottliebs are WAY smarter than anyone in my gene pool. (I can’t tell you how much my actual family members LOVE this joke!) I guess I’ve always had a bit of an inferiority complex about those mysterious Hyde Park Jews. They always seemed to be elite members of the Intelligentsia compared to us hunched-over shtetl Jews who were hawking shmattes on Maxwell Street.
David was not religious at all growing up. He lived in Mexico for part of his childhood, moved into the same Hyde Park building as Saul Bellow, went to school with Prince Albert of Monaco, was an actor in New York, and now works as an affordable housing developer. As an adult, David returned to the fold with gusto (you should have heard his davening at his son’s Bar Mitzvah), and recently started an intense graduate program at the University of Chicago Divinity School where he’s currently studying the intricacies of Ancient Hebrew. His renewed relationship with Judaism began with a search outside of the faith, a spiritual journey that produced the fascinating book, “Letters to a Buddhist Jew” which David co-wrote with Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva Tatz.
One of the most unexpected connections between our two families was when my sister sent my nephew Spencer to a summer camp in Wisconsin last year after we discovered that it was the same place my mother attended in the 1940s. And who randomly became Spencer’s best bud at the camp, which he returned to this summer? None other than David’s son Gabe, the Bar Mitzvah boy. We had no idea a Gottlieb even went to this camp. What are the freaking chances of that?
At one point back in 2005 I think I was reading six or seven blogs written by Gottliebs all over the country. Several of those blogs are now defunct, but new ones are popping up all the time such as two by David and Annie's niece Sara—a funny yet informative blog evaluating, of all things, public bathrooms in southern California, and an irreverent, sexy blog “for the ladies” called Shady Sadie. There’s no end to what those Gottliebs will write about. The family’s patriarch, Harry Gottlieb, now 90, doesn’t write in his blog very often, but what he writes is “cherce!” Now living in Florida, Harry and Jean Gottlieb have been married a whopping 66 years. Jean has a PhD in English (there are enough advanced degrees in this family to start a small college—Gottlieb U.?) and comments often on her kids’ blogs. Harry graduated college in 1939, served as Adjutant to the 583rd Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion during World War II, but says he is extremely opposed to old people sending young people to war. Mr. Gottlieb, like David and Gabe, is obsessed with baseball and says he still dreams of being the third baseman for the Chicago White Sox (but by now the pitcher would have to relay his throw to first base).
Here’s an excerpt of what David wrote about the weekend festivities on his blog:
Every life-cycle event is a birth canal exiting the womb of a certain moment in your life. You are pushed into it and contracted through it by forces that, having nurtured you into existence, have realized for you that your removal is the imminent phase of your creation. You are ready, scatologically speaking, to be eliminated.
So maybe birth isn’t the right metaphor.
This past weekend, a few hundred people poured into our synagogue and watched and listened to this rite of passage called the bar/bat mitzvah. My son Gabe and his first cousin Sarah, two months older than him, went through it side by side, and had parties side by side today, under a humid but cloudless late-summer sky, on the grounds of a local day camp.
Nothing struck me so much as how, in the days prior to the event, time seemed to enter a kind of rip current, and the event had a life force and momentum of its own. Gabe was, as usual, self-possessed and laconic, executing his duties with the slight smirk of adolescence, brightening noticeably when gifts were proffered.
All that remain of the weekend are fragments—impressions—faces that kept coming at me and moments that flashed and receded. No conversation went uninterrupted and my face hurt from smiling by the end of it all. The event, loaded with meaning, was deprived of all meaning by the urgency of last-minute preparations, and then had meaning restored to it by all the love that surrounded us. Notable fragments: getting to lead the Shacharit portion of the Sabbath service, and the way everything faded away but the text I was chanting; watching Gabe read an ancient text with agility and concentration and some reverence; the look on his face when he was done: liberation
An especially weird world when your son goes through a kind of initiation right before you, and you feel this sad distance beginning to open in your life; this quiet space opening and moving between you and the child. The rite that was his is yours, too: look, it’s saying: you’re done with the delusion that you can mold his character. He’s his own person now, officially as well as plainly. I’m officially a little more alone, and a little more free, and soaringly happy, with a drop of sadness at the heart of me for the distances that are opening.
And Annie’s ruminations on the same event:
Most of all, bar and bat mitzvahs are about the turning of the wheel of generations—certain moments on that wheel are marked so that you notice the motion that is raising others toward their heights as it carries you under (or vice versa, if you’re young and it’s your time). Not only the next but the next next generation of our family was present: our dad, the Director of Sunsets, is 90 and Matt and Julie’s baby is already visible like the first edge of sunrise under her shirt. As Gabe formally took on the responsibilities of a man while still mostly interested in playing games nonstop, the next generation, “our kids,” officially ceased being kids. Most of them are deep into young adulthood; it’s their time and their world.
Can you see why I’ve become this family’s official stalker? I keep waiting to be banned from Annie’s website for my leftist ravings, or to have David issue a restraining order, but so far they’ve been quite welcoming. Now I just need to get my own family members to start blogging. Come on, guys! Don’t let those smarty-farty Hyde Park Gottliebs show us up!