MONTREAL, Canada — This is an exciting week in the long life of Eli Moscovitz.
The Côte St. Luc resident turned 89 on Monday. And on Saturday morning, Moscovitz becomes a man.
No, it doesn’t involve surgery. Moscovitz will join worshippers at the Chabad of the Town synagogue and recite prayers in a ceremony that formalizes his adulthood in Judaism.
Moscovitz is having a belated bar mitzvah.
As 11th-hour Jewish religious rituals go, it’s a lot easier than a circumcision.
This is something that should have happened when Moscovitz turned 13. But a combination of circumstances – tough economic times, parents who did not actively practise their religion – precluded a bar mitzvah for someone growing up in the rough-and-tumble Jewish neighbourhood around St. Urbain St.
“It was the heart of the Depression,” Moscovitz says, recalling 1935. “People had to forgo a lot of things. And my mother was an atheist; she didn’t believe in anything.
”My friends in the neighbourhood had to tell me when the Jewish holidays were. I used to fast on Yom Kippur, but my parents didn’t.“
When he was 24, Moscovitz married into a religious family. Through the years he’s attended services and had bar mitzvahs for both of his sons, without ever experiencing the ritual himself.
Moscovitz spent his working life in the rag trade, travelling around Quebec with samples of men’s clothing. He proudly reels off the executive positions he held with various commercial travellers’ associations, and the long-retired schmatte guy is still a natty dresser.
When I met him Monday morning, Moscovitz was wearing a cap, slacks and loafers, all in summer-cool light beige.
His bright purple shortsleeve polo shirt was open at the neck to reveal a gold chain. Moscovitz wears a hearing aid and walks slowly, using a cane. But he’s a lively conversationalist who relishes the friendly atmosphere at Chabad of the Town.
”I’d been going to the same synagogue for 20 years, and the rabbi didn’t know my name,“ he said. ”When you have 700, 800 members, you can’t know everybody. Here, it’s like a family. It’s a small shul; the rabbi knows everybody by their first name.“
Rabbi Moshe Krasnanski, a bearded bear of a man, is the spiritual leader of Chabad of the Town (the name derives from proximity to the Town of Mount Royal). He is a 42-year-old native New Yorker who married a Hassidic Montrealer and brought Big Apple ebullience to his adopted city.
Viewed from the outside, Krasnanski’s synagogue doesn’t look anything like the old, abandoned houses of worship on the Plateau or the stately Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount. Chabad of the Town is housed in a charmless commercial complex on Jean Talon Ave. Its neighbours include a BMW dealership, a gym and the Mosel boutique.
Chabad, the outreach arm of Lubavitch Hassidism, is not about grandiose architecture. The centre, which includes a library and brightly painted children’s classrooms, bills itself as a place ”where Judaism comes alive!“ – a revival, Krasnanski explains, based more on heart and spirit than bricks and mortar.
”We’re not a typical synagogue,“ Krasnanski says, ”where you pay your dues, show up when you want and we’re here to circumcise you, marry you, bury you and that’s it. We’re here to get people excited about their identity and their heritage.“
There are more than 3,500 Chabad centres around the world. Their mission, Krasnanski says, is ”helping Jews know more about Judaism.“
Moscovitz’s personal revival began 18 months ago. He met the rabbi through David, his younger son, who had become a member of the Chabad of the Town congregation. Moscovitz père et fils were invited to dinner at Krasnanski’s home.
”The rabbi asked me a lot of questions,“ Moscovitz recalls. ”Who I was, where I went to school, what was my religious education. And I just mentioned casually that I’d never had a bar mitzvah.
“He asked if I wanted to be bar mitzvahed. And I said I’d love to.”
The phrase does not derive from Hebrew scripture, but “better late than never” will be on the minds of a few celebrants at Saturday’s service. The Moscovitz bar mitzvah has an invitation list of 50 friends and family members – including his son, Jason, the CBC’s former parliamentary correspondent.
“At an age when most people are content to sit in memory lane, Eli is doing something he hasn’t done before,” Krasnanski said.
“It’s very courageous. And I hope it inspires others.”
Moscovitz will not have a full-blown bar mitzvah. He won’t be reciting a “maftir,” the portion of Torah scrolls that 13-year-olds sing, with widely varying degrees of vocal ability, in a traditional ceremony.
Instead, with three generation of progeny looking on, the octogenarian bar-mitzvah boy will lead the congregation in four prayers. Rather than master written Hebrew from scratch, Moscovitz was taught the liturgy phonetically by Krasnanski. It’s part of Chabad’s user-friendly approach.
“We have the ideology, the values and the tradition of Judaism,” Krasnanski says, “but we run it in a way that people can understand what’s going on. We want them to be comfortable.”
Even an 89-year-old rookie.