Rabbi Harry Silverstein’s Bar Mitzvah Speech, Sep. 17, 2016
I was born Saturday, August 21, 1926, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
My bar Mitzvah took place Saturday, August 26, 1939, Parshat Ki Tetze, six days before the Nazis invaded Poland.
Today – 77 years later – we celebrate my 90th birthday here at Temple Beth Am, as I just chanted the same Haftorah, Parshat Ki Tetze.
In 1935 we left Canada and came to Los Angeles. That’s when Boyle Heights was the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community, and my father, Rabbi Osher Zilberstein, z”l, became the rabbi of the Breed Street Shul at a salary of $2,000 per year. I grew up and went to the public schools in Boyle Heights, Sheridan Street Elementary School, Hollenbeck Junior High School, and Roosevelt High School.
I graduated from UCLA and then the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
After being ordained, I served our country as a chaplain 1st Lt. in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Among my assignments, I served at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS. This was 12 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Other than on base, there was complete segregation. I did whatever I could to help the African American airmen, who at that time were referred to as Negroes. Their life in Mississippi was not an easy one.
Beginning in 1959, I became the associate to Rabbi Jacob Pressman here at Temple Beth Am. During the 32 years I served as Associate Rabbi and Director of Education of our religious school, I worked most closely with Rabbi Pressman who came to the Temple in
1950, along with Cantor Kelemer who joined our Temple in 1965 and Cantor Schimmel who came to the Temple in 1970. I miss all three of them very much. Wilma Schimmel, Cantor Schimmel’s wife, and Linda Kelemer, Cantor Kelemer’s wife, are here with us today.
I helped provide a Jewish education and Yiddishkeit to thousands of children, one of my proudest achievements. Several of my students became rabbis and cantors, and many became leaders in the Jewish Community.
In 1961, I met and married the love of my life, my wife Kay. We have been married for 55 years. No one could have a more loving, caring and devoted wife.
Our three sons, Alan, David and Robert, with their spouses and some of our grandchildren, are here today. Our oldest granddaughter just started at the University of California Berkeley and is studying there now. Our four younger grandchildren attend Jewish Day Schools. That is a way to go bankrupt, although we contribute to part of the tuition. Our sixth grandchild is due in about two weeks, and he is here, too.
Some Rabbis serve until the day they die. But Kay and I believe in the philosophy that there is a time to hold and a time to fold, and we are enjoying our retirement very much, although things are getting more difficult.
In the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, it talks about the stages of growth: The 5 year old is of the age for scripture;
The 10 year old is of the age for the Mishna;
The 13 year old for the obligation of the Mitzvot; The 15 year old for the study of the Talmud;
The 18 year old for the wedding canopy;
The man of 20 is the age to pursue livelihood; The man of 30 has reached the age of strength;
The man of 40 the age of understanding; The man of 50 the age of giving counsel;
The man of 60 has reached old age; The man of 70 vulnerable of age;
The man of 80 has reached the old age of strength;
The man of 90 has reached the age of becoming bent over;
The man of 100 as though already dead and gone from the world.
Let me repeat: The age of 80 is of strength and the age of 90 of becoming bent over.
Several months ago Kay and I were in the desert and I started feeling very weak. We went to the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert and I was given a transfusion of 4 pints of blood.
The cardiologist who was treating me was not Jewish, and he didn’t know that I am Jewish or that I am a rabbi. He came in and told Kay: “Your husband was about ready to meet Jesus.” To which Kay responded, without missing a beat: “Oy Vey!”
When Kay told me about this, the words of the Psalmist came to mind:
“Lo Amut Ki Echyeh V’Ani Asaper Ma’asay Yah.” “I shall not die but live and recount the works of the Lord.”
The Lord has indeed chastened me. But, he has not given me over unto death. I have had a good and healthy life and when G-d decides it is time for me to join him, I will be ready. But here I am.
I want to share with you a few of my favorite quotes and bits of wisdom:
- From Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):
“S’mach bocher b’yaldutecha.” “Rejoice in your youth, young man.” Or really, it can be understood as: Let’s rejoice in our lives while we have life.
- From Walden, by Thoreau:
“The great mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Try not to be like that. Find meaning, purpose and love in what you do. Don’t lead a life of quiet desperation. Instead, as I just said, “S’mach bocher b’yaldutecha.” Rejoice in your life each day.
- From Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers:
“Aizeh hu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko.” “Who is a rich person?
He who is content with his portion.”
And “Aizeh hu chochom? Haroeh et ha’nolad.” “Who is a wise person? He who understands what is happening and can accept it.”
- From the British Lord Acton:
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unfortunately, there is a tendency in human nature to pull towards the Yetzer Harah, the evil impulse. We must all fight that inclination within ourselves, and in our world.
- And on that note, from the Torah, Deuteronomy 16:20:
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.” “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.” The pursuit of justice helps give our lives meaning and makes our world a better place.
I am grateful to G-d for all the blessings he has bestowed upon me.
My sister Feigie and her husband Dr. Steve Bailey flew in from Jerusalem for this occasion. Originally, we were four sisters and two brothers. I was number four, and Feigie was number six. Our sisters Miriam, Freda and Mary, and our brother Aaron, are no longer with us. Many of my nieces and nephews are here today. Kay’s sister Nancy and her husband Ken, and some of our cousins, are here also.
Thank you for joining Kay and me and our family for this simcha.
Let us recite the Shehechiyanu together: Baruch ata Adonai, . . . shehechiyanu . . . . “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”