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On the religion beat: St. Paul man celebrates bar mitzvah at age 83

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH
  • Star Tribune
  • March 23, 2012 - 8:58 PM

Herbert Fantle couldn't have a bar mitzvah when he was 13, the age when the Jewish religious ceremony is typically celebrated for boys. He and his family were fighting for their lives, trying to escape Nazi-occupied Europe.

Some 70 years later, the 83-year-old St. Paul resident was finally able to celebrate his bar mitzvah on March 17 at Mount Zion Temple -- surrounded by his wife of 56 years, two sons, several grandchildren and dozens of supporters.

"In Herb's case, which was unfortunately true for too many of that era, he ... never had the opportunity for education ... for engagement in any synagogue community to celebrate a bar mitzvah," said Adam Stock Spilker, rabbi at Mount Zion in St. Paul. "The most important thing we celebrated was his existence and commitment to Judaism, despite it all."

The right of passage ceremony usually takes place for boys on their 13th birthday, when they accept "responsibility for their own Judaism," and officially become part of the Jewish community, Spilker said. Some congregations also hold similar ceremonies for girls.

In Jewish tradition, a second bar mitzvah can be held at age 83, 13 years later than age 70 -- the age that signifies the span of a lifetime in Jewish scripture.

"Seventy just meant a long time" in biblical times, Spilker said. "That meant you lived a lifetime. So if you've already lived a lifetime, and you're going to live 13 more years," the idea is to "celebrate that."

Fantle and his parents arrived in the United States from Vienna in 1939, and soon moved to St. Paul where his father found work. The traumatic move left the family little time or resources to celebrate Fantle's bar mitzvah. "We had no choice" but to leave Vienna, Fantle said. "I didn't like it, but I went."

Although Fantle was moved that his family supported him at his bar mitzvah, he "would have been just fine" if the ceremony had never happened. People have asked him to record his incredible life experience, but he's not wanted to do it so far: "I'd rather do other things," he says.

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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