Son Is Father of the Man


Working day and night in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Manuel Grife would often stop and pray that it would all go over well. The last thing he wanted to do was make a mistake in front of friends and family — and he certainly didn't want to let the rabbi down.

Grife is 83-years-old. And the rabbi who officiated at the May 6 ceremony was Saul Grife, the Bar Mitzvah's son.

"In all modesty, it went just superlatively," said the retired lawyer, who chanted the Torah and Haftorah portion and also wrote a speech for the occasion. "It is a meaningful experience. It leaves you with an inward feeling. It binds families in many ways; it creates an air of hope and friendship and warmth that you don't often get in this world."

The father of three never had a Bar Mitzvah as a boy. He was the youngest of 12 children growing up in a poor family in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia.

"The family couldn't afford the bottle of Schnapps and jar of gefilte fish," said the younger Grife, religious leader of Beth Tikvah B'nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Erdenheim. (The elder Grife actually attended B'nai Jeshurun growing up, years before it merged with Beth Tikvah.)

As long as Saul Grife could remember, his father had been a leader in the Jewish community. He served as president of Congregation Ner Zedek Ezrath Israel in Northeast Philadelphia as well as of the Delaware Valley Region of the Conservative movement's congregational arm, then known as United Synagogue of America.

The rabbi never knew that his father didn't have a Bar Mitzvah as a child and only learned the truth about a decade ago. That's when his middle daughter was studying for her own Bat Mitzvah and asked her grandfather about his own experience.

At the time, the family discussed the idea of the elder Grife having an adult Bar Mitzvah when he turned 83.

There's a little-known tradition of older men having a second Bar Mitzvah at that age. The idea comes from a line in Psalm 90 that states: "The span of our life is 70 years." So, living 13 years past the age of 70 is considered a meaningful milestone.

Four years ago, Grife lost his wife of 56 years, Lillian, and according to father and son, her absence added some bitterness to the sweet Bar Mitzvah occasion.

But the elder Grife's companion, Ruth Perry, herself a former leader in the Women's League of Conservative Judaism, was coaching him and encouraging him in his studies, particularly with the technique of chanting the Torah and Haftarah portions.

"This was one of those events where nothing went wrong, everything worked perfectly and it was a memorable experience for all concerned," said Perry.

The elder Grife said that as an adult, he never thought much about having missed the rite of passage as a boy.

He said he was "much more interested" in enabling the Bar Mitzvahs of his three sons.

For him, the experience wasn't so much about taking on the responsibilities of adulthood or becoming a full member of the community, things he did long ago. Instead it was "icing on the cake": a chance to do something he's never done before and enjoy it with friends and family from near and far.

"I know I'm going to be around for awhile, but at 83, I'm crossing some kind of threshold," he said. Ever the proud father, he said that half the comments he got after the service were about how good a job his son did at officiating.

Saul Grife said that officiating at the ceremony "is an amazing honor. My dad is one of the people that inspired me and helped me become a rabbi. It's kind of like a Shehecheyanu. I'm grateful that my dad is alive and well at 83. I wish him to be 120."

Manuel Grife isn't thinking that far ahead. But he said that if he lives to be 96, maybe he'll try it again.