Encore for violinist: 2nd bar mitzvah at 83

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Growing up in a "semi-Orthodox" San Francisco household in the early part of the 20th century, David Schneider got a thorough grounding in Hebrew and celebrated his bar mitzvah 70 years ago.

"I did the whole service, the cantorial and Torah portion," said Schneider, who attended a school for "mostly boys" run by his rabbi. For b'nai mitzvah, "we all took part. It was taken for granted that you would. Everyone was very knowledgeable."

Now, seven decades later, Schneider finds it interesting to once again be working with a rabbi in preparation for his bar mitzvah tomorrow at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

The word "nervous," however, is not in his vocabulary. Whether standing at the bimah or on the concert stage with his violin, Schneider is not one to get butterflies. And he views the second bar mitzvah as a natural progression.

"I enjoy celebrating certain phases of my life," he said matter-of-factly. "I enjoyed our 50th wedding anniversary party and for my 80th birthday gave a concert."

In honor of his 83rd birthday earlier this spring, Schneider will return to the bimah. The lifecycle celebration will cap several days of special events, including a violin concert he was scheduled to give Thursday at Oakmont Adult Community's Berger Auditorium, and an extended visit by his daughter from Texas, and possibly by his son from Minnesota.

Schneider retired in 1986 after 50 years as a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony. In the aftermath, the former San Francisco resident has ratcheted down his pre-retirement activities, from a self-described "extremely busy," to just plain busy.

At first, he jumped into retirement by becoming involved in the administration of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco, where he and his wife, Geri, were members for many years, and soon was elected board president.

But after the couple moved to Oakmont in the Santa Rosa area in 1990, Schneider became more involved in the musical arena. Discovering that a classical music club had been organized at Oakmont, he nurtured it along, co-sponsoring a monthly music appreciation class and giving a special recital every year. He has become one of the Classical Music Society's most popular performers.

The violinist also continued his tradition of playing Bruch's "Kol Nidre" for High Holy Day services: After doing so for more than 20 years at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, he took up his bow for Beth Ami.

But other than playing "Kol Nidre" and attending services, he refrained from becoming deeply involved in the Conservative congregation.

And, in a way, that makes his second bar mitzvah even more meaningful, according to Beth Ami's Rabbi Jonathan Slater. It is not altogether unusual for an older congregant to have a bar mitzvah. But for individuals such as Schneider, who have not taken that active a role in the congregation, "it becomes a bigger deal," Slater said. "That he would choose to mark this stage of his life by coming to the synagogue, that's lovely."

From his perspective as an educator, Slater assesses his student as "pretty well-versed" in Torah. Slater hasn't done much in terms of helping Schneider shape his Haftarah interpretation.

"That's one of the things that I value," said Slater. "I don't think that there is one particular message that needs to be taught. What is most helpful is to hear other people talking about it from their own life experience."

Schneider said he will read from Joshua 2, "about two spies who were sent to befriend a harlot. She saves their lives, and when the Israelites come in, they won't harm her family. It's an interesting portion."

Other than working on his talk, he has done little else to prepare. "I have no problem with Hebrew or trope," he said. "But I have a terrible voice to inflict on the congregation. They'll have to take the bitter with the sweet."

Schneider polished his Hebrew as an adult during four visits to Israel with Geri.

He was especially looking forward to his Thursday recital, when he was slated to perform an ambitious program including a Ravel concerto, Beethoven's Sonata No. 8 Brahms Sonata No. 1 in C and a piece from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

Asked whether playing the violin has become more difficult at his age, Schneider answered with an emphatic "no."

"If anything, I play better. I work harder at it. I have more time. I think I'm doing very well."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.