Me, David Krumholtz as young me, and Julie Hal­ston play­ing young me’s moth­er. Addams Fam­i­ly Val­ues (1993). All images cour­tesy of the author. 


Every Mon­day and Wednes­day after­noon, from three to six, between the time I was 11 until two weeks before my April 2nd Bar Mitz­vah at the age of 13, I was at Ken­ny Morrison’s apartment.

Ken­ny nev­er won­dered why I was hang­ing out with him after school on those two week­days, instead of with the kids in my build­ing. That was until one after­noon when Ken­ny and I were hud­dled togeth­er in his bed­room, sneak­ing peeks at his father’s Play­boy. The door opened and, unan­nounced, my father, who had nev­er left work this ear­ly except the day he passed a kid­ney stone, looked down at me and said, Come on, Bar­ry. Let’s go.”

For almost two sol­id years I had been play­ing hooky from Hebrew school.

There are three lev­els of Jew­ish tribes: Reformed, Con­ser­v­a­tive, and Ortho­dox. My father was raised Ortho­dox. One of sev­en chil­dren, he was Kosher until he was draft­ed. My moth­er was raised as a con­ser­v­a­tive, although she nev­er prac­ticed. I was a cul­tur­al Jew, not a reli­gious one, hav­ing no inter­est in what seemed to be a pet­ty, vin­dic­tive, and inse­cure old tes­ta­ment God.

In my case, what made Judaism par­tic­u­lar­ly painful was that Hebrew school was taught twice a week by Rab­bi Baul­mal, a bald man with a huge black wart below his left nos­tril. He was also blessed by God with bag­gy eyes and a bird’s nest com­ing out of his nose and each ear. He looked more French bull­dog than Rabbi.

Hebrew School met in a win­dow­less room in the base­ment of Tem­ple Beth Shalom. The Rab­bi smoked white owl cig­ars in a ven­ti­la­tion-free fire trap sur­round­ed by kids under the age of 13. We learned how to read the Hebrew alpha­bet and to pho­net­i­cal­ly speak the words. We didn’t study what any of the words meant. When I say we, I mean every­one who didn’t play hooky for two years. I couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t take the smell or tedium.

Three times a year my father and I went to Shul: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kip­pur, and Passover. Yom Kip­pur is the hol­i­day that Jews fast for twen­ty-four hours — from sun­set to sun­set. Accord­ing to my moth­er the rules didn’t apply to females.

The time at Tem­ple con­sist­ed pri­mar­i­ly of old Jew­ish men hock­ing up phlegm.

The hol­i­day was espe­cial­ly tedious due to the hours of holy time spent rais­ing mon­ey for the new Tem­ple. Beth Shalom was about to break ground on a mod­ern Holy Shrine to replace our old, nar­row, non-air-con­di­tioned place.

As if the annu­al dues, tick­ets for High Hol­i­day ser­vices, and the Synagogue’s tax free sta­tus weren’t enough, and after the Rabbi’s end­less finan­cial plea dis­guised as a ser­mon, every mem­ber of Beth Shalom was called out to con­tribute mon­ey for the new building.

The finan­cial­ly chal­lenged would yell same,” mean­ing they were pledg­ing a sim­i­lar amount as last year. The big spenders would proud­ly boom plus ten” which meant they were giv­ing ten per­cent more than the pre­vi­ous Yom Kip­per. I tensed up when the Rab­bi got to Nat Schac­ter, who, alpha­bet­i­cal­ly was a cou­ple of names before Nathan J. Son­ny” Son­nen­feld. Schac­ter would phleg­mish­ly clear his throat before call­ing out, for all the con­gre­ga­tion to admire, Plus ten!”

Dad always found a trail to the bath­room a few names before Schac­ter, and I would sit, crouched low in the hard back break­ing pew, hear­ing, Nathan J. Sonnenfeld!”


Nathan J. Sonnenfeld?


Mar­vin Spitzer?”

Plus ten.”

The last day I attend­ed Hebrew school was a windy, bit­ter­ly cold after­noon. Rab­bi Baul­mal walked into his dun­geon-like class­room smok­ing a cig­ar, his left arm ban­daged from his elbow to his hand.

The Rab­bi lived in Riverdale, about a fif­teen-minute dri­ve up the West Side High­way from Wash­ing­ton Heights.

Two things hap­pened the day before our les­son, both of which con­spired to send the Rabbi’s left arm up in flames.

A toll booth had been installed on the Riverdale side of the Hen­ry Hud­son Bridge. It cost a dime. On the very same day, the Rab­bi bought a new Buick; his first car with a seat belt.

The Rab­bi stopped his Riv­iera at the new toll gate and, real­iz­ing he need­ed a dime, reached under­neath his seat belt into his left pants pock­et, where­upon he felt both some change, and a pock­et­ful of strike any­where match­es for his White Owls.

As he strug­gled to get a dime out of his pants, his hand stuck under­neath his con­fus­ing and nev­er before worn seat­belt, Baul­mal became very con­scious of the trail of cars honk­ing behind him. The pan­icked Rab­bi made the soon to be hos­pi­tal-vis­i­ta­tion-induc­ing mis­take of rub­bing some of the strike any­wheres togeth­er inside the dark, claus­tro­pho­bic pock­et of his slacks.

I can imag­ine the fas­ci­nat­ed look on the toll taker’s face, as he watched the Rabbi’s left side start to smol­der and final­ly flame up, the reli­gious leader’s hand trapped in his trousers. I must say, it was so hilar­i­ous­ly grue­some, that it almost made me believe there was a God.

A cou­ple of weeks before my bar mitz­vah, the Rab­bi real­ized he was about to be embar­rassed that I didn’t know a word of my haftorah.

He called my parents.


Dad took me from Kenny’s apart­ment right to Beth Shalom. The class was over and the base­ment room stunk of Baulmal’s stale White Owls. As we peered through stri­a­tions of smoke and stench, I heard Baul­mal say,

What are we going to do with you, young man?”

You mean about me not being able to read Hebrew and my being bar mitzvah’d in two weeks?”


I guess I shouldn’t get bar mitzvah’d?”

Bar­ry,” said my father, we’ve already invit­ed peo­ple and paid a cater­er. You’ll be get­ting gifts and besides, your moth­er expects you to be bar mitzvah’d. That’s not an option.”

The evening of my bar mitz­vah I would dis­cov­er the real rea­son my father want­ed me to go through with the charade.

Well, why don’t I bring in my 3M Wol­len­sak reel-to-reel tape recorder, the Rab­bi can read my Haftorah into it, and I’ll mem­o­rize it.”

Which is what I did.

Here’s where the event went a lit­tle south. Beth Shalom, by this point, was almost fin­ished with their new build­ing. They would be cel­e­brat­ing the first Sab­bath in their fan­cy air-con­di­tioned tem­ple on Sat­ur­day April 9. How­ev­er, they had already sold their old build­ing to an ortho­dox sect, which was mov­ing in Sat­ur­day the 2nd, and they didn’t want us there.

The solu­tion, and I know this sounds too good to be true, was that I was Bar Mitzvah’d across the street from my apart­ment build­ing in Beth Shalom’s Tem­po­rary Quar­ters” — which was a Catholic Church. The Rab­bi and Can­tor entered the Church the night of April Fools — yes, my birth­day — and placed large burlap bags over the end­less dis­plays of cross­es and cru­ci­fix­es that looked down on the congregation.

Var­i­ous peo­ple are giv­en the hon­or of being called up to the podi­um to read pas­sages from the Torah at a Bar Mitz­vah. Usu­al­ly the fam­i­ly picks uncles or fathers, or spe­cial friends. They check with the lucky par­tic­i­pants ahead of time.

My par­ents went a dif­fer­ent way.

And now we would like Joe Rabi­nowitz to come up and read the next por­tion of the Torah.”

No,” called out a sur­prised Joe, who lived in apart­ment 6C and was the father of Amy, who had been in class with me from kinder­garten through, as it would turn out, high school.

Joe Rabi­nowitz. Please come up to the front of this uh…”

The Rab­bi hes­i­tat­ed to find the right word, as he glanced around the burlap wrapped crucifixes.


No,” said Joe.

You can’t say no,” bel­lowed the blus­ter­ing Baulmal.

No. Thank you,” said Joe.

That doesn’t work either. You are required, when you are called, to come up and read this pas­sage. It’s an honor.”

Not for me it isn’t.”

My moth­er walked back to Joe. They had a whis­pered con­ver­sa­tion, dur­ing which Kel­ly was informed that Joe didn’t read Hebrew.

The Rab­bi see­ing this was going nowhere, left the podi­um and walked up to Joe. After a heat­ed dis­cus­sion, and a promise that Joe could read the words in Eng­lish, Joe caved but was — with good rea­son — pissed.

After pre­tend­ing to read/​sing my por­tion of the Torah, which was total­ly by rote, I then gave my bar mitz­vah speech to the assem­bled guests, which was, and this is April 1966, a plea to end the war in Viet­nam. It was ghost writ­ten by my moth­er. I can’t imag­ine any­one thought the words were mine.

Although the new and improved Tem­ple Beth Shalom’s main floor wasn’t ready for my Bar Mitz­vah cer­e­mo­ny, the base­ment was fin­ished enough for my big, cheap par­ty as long as we didn’t mind the spack­le tape and kraft paper cov­er­ing the floor. The event was in the evening, hours after my Catholic Church appear­ance. It was an eight block walk from my apart­ment to the new tem­ple, but mom’s legs were both­er­ing her,” so Son­ny drove.

Kel­ly insist­ed I sit on her lap.

When we arrived at the shul, I jumped off mom’s lap as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, since real­ly, if a bar mitz­vah rep­re­sents a Jew­ish boy becom­ing a man, rid­ing to his man­ly par­ty on his mother’s lap was just wrong.

I opened the Pontiac’s door, for­got mom hadn’t got­ten out yet and slammed the door on her leg.

She should have walked.

For the entire par­ty, my moth­er sat with her leg up on a chair, bags of ice taped around her ankle and calf. She was as much in heav­en play­ing the role of injured mar­tyr as I was in hell, play­ing the role of bar mitz­vah boy.

My suit was shiny blue with a hint of green, as if lit by a mer­cury vapor lamp. The jack­et had two inside breast pock­ets, and as the evening went on, they start­ed to bulge as more and more envelopes with E bonds or twen­ty-five-dol­lar checks filled them. My pecs were start­ing to look Schwarzenegger-esque.

When we arrived home, Son­ny and I sat on my bed, count­ing the loot. Over thir­teen hun­dred bucks. A nice stash for a cam­era and an enlarger.

I would nev­er see that mon­ey again. Dad took it, telling me we’d open a bank account the fol­low­ing Sat­ur­day. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he lost” the mani­la enve­lope he had put the mon­ey in for safe keep­ing. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, we could once again shop at Lou the butch­er, and we no longer owed sev­er­al month’s back rent.

Oedi­pus, Schmoedi­pus. As long as you love your mother.

Bar­ry Son­nen­feld is a film­mak­er and writer who broke into the film indus­try as the cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er on the Coen Broth­ers’ first three films: Blood Sim­pleRais­ing Ari­zona, and Miller’s Cross­ing. He also was the direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy on Throw Mam­ma from the TrainBigWhen Har­ry Met Sal­ly, and Mis­ery. Son­nen­feld made his direc­to­r­i­al debut with The Addams Fam­i­ly in 1991, and has gone on to direct a num­ber of films includ­ing Addams Fam­i­ly Val­uesGet Shorty, and the first three Men in Blacks. His tele­vi­sion cred­its include Push­ing Daisies, for which he won an Emmy, and most recent­ly Net­flix’s A Series of Unfor­tu­nate Events.