Bar mitzvah king lacks skill of a storyteller in Off the Wall

They call him Jerusalem's "bar mitzvah king."

And they should. In the past 15 years, Rabbi Jay Karzen has officiated at thousands of bar mitzvah ceremonies in Jerusalem for tourists from all over the world.

Perhaps the king has been too busy, though. Maybe he should have taken a little time off and learned how to become a writer and storyteller.

Gathering good anecdotes isn't Karzen's problem. Putting them down on paper is.

Almost all of the 104 short stories in Karzen's "Off The Wall" land with a thud.

On a couple of occasions, I read some of them to my wife before we went to sleep. Every time I reached the end of a story, it was as if a comedian had just delivered a massive dud of a punch line: Silence. A long, uncomfortable silence, as if to say, "Uh, is that all?"

The book focuses on celebrations — most of them bar mitzvah ceremonies at the Western Wall — conducted by Karzen's company, Rituals Unlimited. There are also a few wedding stories.

Here's a typical Karzen anecdote:

A CNN camera crew once came to the Western Wall to film a segment on Israel.

"They spent an hour scouting the Kotel for an ideal bar mitzvah scene to capture for posterity," Karzen writes. "They opted to feature me wrapping Tefilin on a youngster's arm and reciting the blessing with him."

And here's how the story ends: "This 'commercial' for Israel is viewed all over the world. All in a day's work at the Western Wall!"

Uh, is that all?

Yes, and that's the way most stories in the book go.

The book is chock full of similar tales that are no doubt memorable moments in Karzen's life. But they don't stack up in terms of being good stories.

It's like a group of 35-year-old guys reminiscing about their high school days. Somebody says, "Remember when the principal had that 'kick me' sign stuck to him during the assembly?" Everyone remembers it, and maybe they can share a laugh. But that's it. There is no real story.

What the book does contain are some cute anecdotes.

For example, at one bar mitzvah, the father of the 13-year-old was reading a list of deceased grandparents and other family members — as part of the El Malay Rachamim, a traditional memorial prayer.

As the father read the names, he added the phrase "All of a Sudden" after reciting the name of each deceased family member. "I assumed he wished to inform me that they had died suddenly or prematurely," Karzen writes.

Actually, Karzen discovers, the father was trying to say, Alav hashalom (may he rest in peace). There should be a good punch line there.

However, the story ends like this: "But as a youngster, when he heard others do so, it registered to his ears not as Alav hashalom, but rather as All of a Sudden."

It's a cute story, but it doesn't pack much of a punch simply because it is developed and delivered poorly.

Karzen wastes other cute anecdotes, such as one about a kid who came to Israel for a bar mitzvah knowing only two blessings: for the bread and for the wine.

"Don't ask me how we did it," Karzen writes, "but suffice it to say, this youngster had a kosher bar mitzvah!"

And don't ask me why the rabbi doesn't tell us how he pulled it off. That, of course, would have made a good a story.

Karzen also writes of a teen who insisted that the entire service be in Hebrew, even though his fluency was nil. The kid insisted, since he was in Israel.

"The service began and whatever was explained to him was not grasped," Karzen writes. "He remained glassy-eyed and uncomprehending." So Karzen eventually had to start speaking English. "Another Rituals Unlimited special bar mitzvah to remember!" he concludes.

One nice thing is that the stories are all very short, a page or less. That makes for quick reading.

The lengthiest section is a list of e-mail and faxes Karzen has received, such as "Since we aren't a very religious family, can we have a non-religious bar mitzvah?"

The funniest part of the book is the back cover, which consists of four mock testimonials about the book. There is one each from Karzen's Russian cleaning lady, an Arab janitor, a handyman and one of Karzen's neighbors.

"Each week when I come to clean the Karzen apartment, I must also listen to the stories contained in the book 'Off the Wall,'" writes Nadia, the Russian cleaning lady. "After they are explained to me, I understand them to be humorous. I am told to recommend this book very highly."

Not having been "told" to do so, I, however, cannot recommend this book, highly or otherwise.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.