On Dec. 26, 1947, a blizzard left a paralyzing 27 inches of snow on the ground in New Jersey. For Noah Chivian, that meant major complications for his bar mitzvah service scheduled for Shabbat the next day at Oheb Shalom Congregation in Newark.
To complicate matters, the storm prevented the return of the synagogue’s Rabbi Louis Levitsky, who was in Latin America on a mission run by the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Called in to pinch hit for Levitsky was Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham, then located in Newark. Prinz wanted to move the service to his own synagogue, which was two doors away from the Chivian home on Shanley Avenue. But the family refused because, Chivian said, “Oheb Shalom was my home.”
So, unable to drive to the site through the deep snowfall, “we had to walk two miles from the Clinton Hill area to Oheb Shalom on High Street.”
When they arrived, they counted only nine men in the sanctuary (women were not included in a minyan at that time). A 10th man, the organist, finally entered the synagogue — but, said Chivian, the cantor reminded them, “He doesn’t count. He isn’t Jewish.”
At last, “three of my older buddies from junior high school showed up”; since they had already become b’nei mitzvah, they counted for the minyan, and the service could proceed.
A planned party and luncheon afterward was cancelled due to the weather, but the celebration was held the following day at the Chivian home. “It was a lovely, lovely time,” he recalled as he sat on a couch in his West Orange apartment 70 years later.
Bad weather and a low turnout on the day of their bar mitzvahs might have left a bad taste for many boys starting their religious manhood, but Chivian, at 83, still feels the afterglow of that day in 1947 — and of the repeat rituals he took part in in 1998 and again on Dec. 30, 2017, 50 and 70 years after his first rite of passage into Jewish adulthood.
As the 50th anniversary of that first event neared in 1997, Chivian chose to have his second bar mitzvah on Jan. 10, 1998, the date on which the Torah portion for the Shabbat service would be the same as his original.
As a lifelong member of Oheb Shalom, his choice of venue was obvious (the synagogue had moved to Scotland Road in South Orange in 1958). A celebration was held at the nearby Orange Lawn Tennis Club.
A dentist by profession, Chivian attended Weequahic High School, Franklin & Marshall College, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. He retired from private practice after 54 years and now supervises graduate students at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in Newark. His specialty is endodontics.
In lay people’s terms, endodontics means root canal, and many patients consider it the most painful of all dental procedures. What, he was asked, would draw anyone, especially such an outgoing, friendly man as Chivian, to specialize in a practice that is often joked about as bordering on the sadistic?
“Why?” he said. “Because there is a preciseness to it. You get instant gratification when a patient comes into your practice full of pain and leaves free of pain.”
Influenced by actor Kirk Douglas, now 101, who also became bar mitzvah three times, Chivian began considering a third ceremony for himself last spring. In June, he committed himself to studying the prayers and passages for the service, and began working with Oheb Shalom’s Cantor Riki Lippitz, reinforcing lessons he had learned with her 20 years ago.
He was also assisted by some third-year dental students — Orthodox young men whom he refers to as “my yarmulke boys” — who had spotted him rehearsing his haftorah and offered to help. Unlike his first two experiences at preparation, he also had an assist from Trope Trainer, an on-line program that teaches Torah chanting. As the words in Hebrew and English appear above lines of sheet music, Hebrew-to-English transliteration appears beneath the notes. The student can control the speed and volume of the material.
Despite all of his preparations, there was an unexpected moment of “déjà vu all over again” on Dec. 30, 2017, the date of bar mitzvah number three: It snowed again. With just a few inches of snow on the ground, several of Chivian’s neighbors in his apartment complex decided not to venture forth. “I just smiled,” he said, thinking back to the blizzard of 1947.
Smiling again, he said his third go-round was the most enjoyable.
Thanks to his “yarmulke boys” and his on-line tutoring, Chivian said, “I was able to perform my Torah portion.”
What made the ceremony especially meaningful was the participation of his two granddaughters, Ella Toback, 15, and her sister, Cara, 14, who sang a section of Amidah prayer in two-part harmony from the bimah.
“If I hadn’t done the one 20 years ago I don’t think I would have appreciated this one as much,” he said. “I am so pleased that I did this.”
Chivian recommends the experience of a second and third bar or bat mitzvah service for “those who are so inclined.” For him, it provided “a period of study and rededication and feeling a greater understanding of myself as a Jew.”
And he has continued the pursuit of further understanding. “I read the Torah portion on my cellphone, almost on a weekly basis,” he said. “I still participate in my own way.”
Chivian lives with his “significant other,” Margie Gale. He has two daughters, Wendy Chivian, who lives in Manhattan with her husband Ricky Molloy, and Karen Toback, who lives in Fort Lee with her husband, Michael, and daughters Ella and Cara.