Second time’s the charm

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Still fits: Morty Davis will be wearing his tallit from his first bar mitzvah in 1943.
Photos by David Holzel

There’s a yellowed sheet of paper that Morty Davis has kept among the mementos of a busy life.

On a Saturday morning in August 1943, he read the message it contains to his family and the Northwest Washington congregation, Beth El Synagogue, where they belonged, as he summarized where he stood upon becoming a Jewish man.

“I wish to thank you, my dear parents, for all your noble deeds… . I am still young and have no other things to offer you but my good intention.”

If that earnest and formal pledge sounds nothing like the gregarious 83-year-old Davis, a resident of Leisure World, it also sounded nothing like his 13-year-old self, either. “You know, in those days, the rabbi wrote the bar mitzvah speech,” he says. “Thirteen year olds – you had no power.”

This Shabbat, Davis gets another chance, when he plans to reprise his bar mitzvah, this time at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.

The 70-year cycle since the first time he celebrated the milestone puts him right at reading from parashat Va’etchanan, the section of the book of Deuteronomy that includes the listing of the Ten Commandments. With people living longer, a second bar mitzvah is becoming increasingly fashionable.

After 70 years – a full span of life in Jewish tradition – a person can bring a lifetime of wisdom to the ceremony.

“I’ve dreamed about this for the last several years. I don’t know if there’s a good reason, [but] it’s something that I want to do.” Reflecting for a moment, Gordon finds two reasons after all. First, “I love being Jewish.” Second, it’s a chance to party. “We like parties,” he says.

The theme of his bar mitzvah is “That was then, this is now,” bracketing a life that began on Fourth Street Northwest, through service in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and a 40-year career in the liquor store business. These days he stays busy by being the volunteer head coordinator of Montgomery County’s Keeping Seniors Safe program and as president of Jewish Residents of Leisure World, a 1,100-member organization.

He says he’s already received a few checks for his bar mitzvah, which he plans to donate to a fund to pay for a new Torah scroll at Leisure World.

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Davis’ 1943 bar mitzvah speech: As a 13-year-old, he didn’t get much say in what he was going to say.

Did he, in keeping with custom, receive a fountain pen upon reaching manhood? Davis can’t remember.

What he does recall is that he received a wristwatch from his grandmother and War Bonds. When he cashed them in 1952, they paid for the house he and his new bride, Leah, bought.

After 52 years of marriage, Leah died in 2005. “She would have been proud of me,” he says.

Providing backing and occasional ideas for the speech is Sue Sandler, a friend for decades and the woman Davis calls “my significant other.” Not long ago, he noticed the tallit he wore 70 years ago displayed in his daughter’s china closet.

He hasn’t worn it since he began wearing an adult-size prayer shawl. But he likes the idea of wearing it now.

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