Sanctuary of Congregation Ahavath Sholom, West Warwick, RI. Photo by Howie Lisnoff, 1977.
The Bar Mitzvah Blizzard of 1961
By Howard Lisnoff
February 4, 1961 was not exactly “A day that will live in infamy,” but it was quite a day for me. Relatives had poured into our small Rhode Island town the night before. Pearl and Irwin and their kids, Phyllis and Barry, from New Jersey; Sam and Yetta from Philly, far enough away that its row houses would seem exotic to me on my first visit there the following spring; Aunt Ester from Brooklyn, someone whose stern and imposing presence, but kindness, always impressed me; and all of the others from places much closer to home.
It was the day of my bar mitzvah, not such an unusual benchmark in life, but after six years of Friday trips to nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, for Hebrew lessons and bar mitzvah instruction, I guess it really was a big deal to my family and I had religiously (no pun intended here) practiced the part of the Torah that I would chant that morning for the small congregation.
My cousin Barry and I got up early, the house full of relatives had begun to stir, and we walked across the hallway of my family’s two-story colonial house to a small alcove where my grandparents’ mahogany wardrobe—too big for their nearby apartment–stood majestically beside a window looking out over the front lawn of the house and John Street. Barry peered over my shoulder as I pulled up the cord of the venetian blinds. What we saw caused our boyish chatter to stop immediately. In front of us and below, huge swirling masses of blowing and swirling snow filled the air and the streets, and the huge open field of a neighbor’s house on the other side of the street. Snow muffles sound, except for the wind that accompanies a blizzard, so any of the few passing cars left no sound either in their coming or their going, much like the scenes of a silent movie. The view outside was both surreal and breathtaking for the two young kids looking out at the pure white, linen wintry landscape from above.
We stood in this near silence. I would celebrate my bar mitzvah during the full fury of a blizzard: that much was certain at this point in the early hours of the morning. In those days, not to sound like a cliché from an old Saturday Night Live skit, we welcomed the snow. It was not hyped on the news; people did not empty supermarket shelves of the last crumbs of bread and the last ounce of milk, but either stayed home and waited out the storm, or went out into the world and dealt with the temporary inconveniences that a storm caused. On an ordinary day, I would have sat on the parlor couch with my siblings and looked out toward the great pines that bordered the Payan Street playground and looked for indications of the intensity of a particular storm and the prospect of school being cancelled that day, if it was indeed a weekday, and hoped against hope that the superintendant of school, a woman who did not believe in so-called snow days, would extend her sympathy to the town’s school children and let us design our own day of snow-bound activities.
Soon, breakfast finished, my family and all of our relatives piled into a convoy of cars and drove down the hill to our synagogue. The synagogue was a beautiful one-story brick building, the bricks being the color of pine needles that had aged a season. A series of huge curved stained glass windows, a pale yellow that set off the complimentary color of the building’s brick, held an impressive-looking Star of David in a portion of each upper windowpane. Two great mahogany doors opened up into the synagogue’s hallway that led to the sanctuary. Above the doors were the two tablets of the Ten Commandments with a lion guarding them on either side. On both sides of the ochre-colored stucco walls of the synagogue were pictures of a woman lighting Sabbath candles.
Swinging doors led to the sanctuary, a beautiful room with benches on either side of the bimah, the raised platform in the middle of the sanctuary where the Torah was read. Men and women sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary, this being an Orthodox synagogue. At the front of the room was the dais where the rabbi, his assistant, or the learned man of our synagogue, Mr. Sternback, would lead a particular service during the festivals of the year. The Holy Ark was on yet another raised walkway just in front of them, its beautiful red curtains with the Ten Commandments also guarded by two embroidered lions. Above the Ark hung the Eternal Light, two imposing high-back chairs flanking either side of the Ark, and the flags of both the state and the nation.
My family and I stood in the hallway greeting guests, having just walked from the parking lot across the street to the steps leading to the great doors in front of which blowing and drifting snow now was piled high. Relatives and friends from the community and nearby communities came in through the doors to where a large puddle of melted snow stood beside a metal coat rack. Max Margolis entered, the president of the synagogue, followed by Mr. Sternback, who had walked through knee-deep drifting white snow for over five miles, covered in snow himself like some northern woodsman, remaining true to his faith and the admonition against driving on the Sabbath. Mr. Hoffman entered next, who lived only a short block away, and whose store never seemed to have any stock worth mentioning, and who wore the same dark suit for as long as memory served, its wide lapels from another era. Syl and Reds Kafrissen came in, who with their sons Sammy and Donny, had driven from 10 miles away in Cranston, their sons having to periodically get out of their car and push them into town through the blowing and accumulating nearly-impassable snow. The sanctuary filled up with familiar faces. My Grandma Ida and Grandpa Bill; Mrs. Sternback, who always took up the first small bench at the front of the sanctuary, and who cried with abandon during the High Holy days for a son lost in World War II; Mrs. Leichman, who would only a few short years later break with my mother over their opposing views of the Vietnam War; Bessy Schectman, one of my mother’s most reliable bridge partners, in a game that went on for years with each host player of a given week having the game at her house; my other Grandma Rose, who showed absolutely no hint of emotion in all of the years I had known her, took a seat silently.
The synagogue filled to capacity. More bountiful years had shone in on the honey light cast by the stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The town had once been the center of the textile industry in Rhode Island and its main retail center. My Grandpa Bill had come here as the superintendent of his brother’s textile mill that dyed synthetic textiles. My other grandfather, long dead, had built up a successful family clothing business from its beginnings with his horse-drawn cart as a merchant peddler. Now, an economic downturn, less than expert business practices, and competition from what were then called mill outlet retailers, had caused the loss of that business and harder times for my family as my father struggled to find consistent work. The textile industry had abandoned the town in the 1950s, gone to the South with warmer climes and no union movement to speak of.
The Sabbath service soon began. Within minutes I was called to the bimah, opening up the book that contained my section of the Torah reading for that day and placing it over the actual section of the Torah below my book. The rabbi, called in from Providence for the service, handed me the sterling-silver pointer that I ran down the pages of my reading for that day. I chanted, partly from memory, partly from glancing down at the Hebrew letters below. My years of training had “paid” off, as I sang with ease, the lines of holy script that my Hebrew teacher, Mr. Shapiro, had tirelessly rehearsed with me.
Finished, I looked not to the rabbi presiding at the ceremony, but rather toward Mr. Sternback, who smiled slightly and nodded in approval. I turned toward the women’s section and caught the wide smile of my mom and my Grandma Ida, who also beamed with pride. Glancing next at the men’s side I saw the familiar faces that I had sat with since memory formed during the religious holidays each year. The blowing snow outside was immaterial at that moment. Here I was at 13, supposedly a man, among those loving faces who have now been nearly lost to the sands of time and place. Only traces of them remain, here on this page and in memory. Even the synagogue was sold during the 1980s, no one left in town to attend services.
And now a second adventure would begin. After having light refreshments and pastry in the finished basement of the synagogue, we walked out into the blizzard that waited. The caterer from Providence, Louis, well known for providing kosher fare, stopped at the synagogue, coming in after the service to tell my parents that his truck would not be able to make it up the hills from the river valley to my house where guests had been invited for the afternoon’s luncheon. We piled out to the parking lot across the snow-clogged street that ran through the middle of the business district of town. A worried look swept over my father’s perennially worried face, above his tan winter coat, snow quickly piling up on its brown fur collar. Lots and lots of food had to be transported between a quarter of a mile and a half mile distant from where we now stood in the blowing snow, its depth increasing with the passing minutes. A plan was quickly devised. All those who believed they were ready for adversity would open up the trunks of their cars and fill the void with the platters, one after another, that Louis and his helper unloaded from his truck. Soon trunks closed and with much resolve a wagon train of food for the impending celebration wound its way through the business district and up a more circuitous route of fewer hills that left the troupe with only about a quarter mile of gently rising hills to climb to my house.
The first hill we climbed left car tires hopelessly spinning. We would have to abandon these now useless machines and walk with huge platters of food through the drifts and blowing snow. And there we soon were, a group of struggling walkers, a human caravan in our finest clothes, traipsing through the snow moving slowly and only visible in the storm to one another. My father led the group.
As if by magic, and there was ample magic that day, we arrived home with all of the food for the celebration intact. No one had fallen in the slow line of celebrants that had finally reached its stormy conclusion. Sighs of relief were many as the several platters were emptied into awaiting dishes while the day’s guests entered the house, stomping the clinging snow from their shoes and boots and shaking it from their heavy winter coats. Soon the house was filled with the convivial noise of friends’ and relatives’ conversation. But despite the fact that the house was filled with voices and hearty appetites, many were missing. Some could not make it from neighboring towns and cities for the celebration: the snow had literally stopped them in their tracks. So my mother and father came up with a plan. Why not extend the luncheon to several Saturdays of the weeks to come and allow everyone who had planned on attending the bar mitzvah to take part in an ongoing celebration?
And celebrate we did, right into the coming spring, when snow was no longer an issue. Maybe this was the bar mitzvah of the century? I don’t know, but what I do know is that that day and the weeks that followed are leaden with some of the best memories of my life. I did not party like that again until I arrived at college four years later. And through all of the seismic changes of the tumultuous and heady days of the decade that followed, there was nothing quite like how momentous that celebration was. When great storms are forecast, or the hype accompanies storms that either materialize or don’t, there was that first Saturday morning of a February from so very long ago when my cousin Barry and I peered out the second-floor window beside the wardrobe and knew instinctively that this was going to be one heck of a momentous day. And it was!