The first paid writing job I ever held was as a Bar Mitzvah speech ghostwriter.
This was a few years after my own bar mitzvah although, thinking back now, my own dvar Torah was nothing particularly special; what I remember about it more than anything was arguing back and forth with my father about how many jokes was too many jokes. I certainly can’t recall the delivery all that clearly, what with the speed and adrenaline of that day. I didn’t even remember to wear a belt to the synagogue.
But I was a future English major in the making, and I was already writing quite a bit. I edited a magazine at my school, and I was starting to write fiction on my own in earnest (emphasis on earnest). Most relevant to this particular job was when my classmates would ask me to punch up their student government stump speeches, which was terrifically fun. I’d acted quite a bit in student productions by then, and I’d written silly sketches for class assignments, but to actually see people using my words in a persuasive manner — and getting laughs for them! — was a singular experience.
I can’t recall exactly how my first dvar ghostwriting job came to be. It may have been that my mother, unbeknownst to me, offered my services to a friend concerned over her progeny’s inability to produce a speech on his own; it’s also possible that the friend mentioned her son’s difficult experience, and I oh-so-graciously suggested that my services could be had. You do — or, I should say, I did — quite a lot of talking and not a lot of thinking at that age.
Either way, I was offered $36 per hour to produce a dvar Torah with the family friend’s son. Perhaps if I had known that this was to remain my high-water mark for remuneration in my field of choice, I may have chosen a different path, but at the time, it seemed to herald what unending spoils were just over the horizon. I accepted on the condition that I kept the arrangement to myself, and that I would have an invitation to the service (though not the party).
As I recall, we had three sessions, totaling about four hours. His mother drank coffee in the other room while we talked through his parshah, which I had read and reread, collecting commentaries and pulling the best bits out to refer back to and rip off (sorry, Rashi). I would try, to the best of my abilities, to draw thoughts out of my “client” as I typed, guiding him in this direction or that. It was slow work. I don’t think we wrote more than a paragraph during that first session.
My confidence took a hit that day. At Saligman Middle School, I was not even a particularly gifted Tanach student, I remember thinking — what was I doing taking someone else’s money to make pronouncements on the Torah? But as the second session approached, something clicked.
I reread, for the umpteenth time, the same few verses we were tasked with wringing meaning from. This future bar mitzvah, as I recall, had one of the juicy parshot, one with a real story, some drama, and even a cliffhanger, (a result of the storytelling arc of the triennial reading cycle). My own parshah was probably, pound for pound, one of the most boring in recorded liturgical history; truly, I defy you to come up with something relevant and exciting to say regarding the lengths of wood required for building the Mishkan.
But reading over the verses, for the first time in my life, I made the most obvious connection for a budding writer: Why don’t I just read this as fiction? Not, to say, as false, but as I would read a work of fiction, attending to the text with the same sort of lens. It was so gobsmackingly obvious as to embarrass me a little bit.
Our second session went much better than the first. It turned out that he had done a little more reading, too, and so we went into the text together, two more or less secular Jews doing primitive Torah study together. We wrote quite a bit more, and spent most our final two sessions polishing what we’d written together.
Unfortunately, this story does not do either of the fun things it could have.
I didn’t start a dvar Torah ghostwriting empire, becom- ing the secret weapon of frustrated soon-to-be Jewish adults all over the area. Nor was my mind enflamed by the possibility of Torah study as a significant part of my life, eventually leading to a heartwarming friendship with my daf yomi partner. I was paid, I was recommended to one more family friend, for which I was also paid, and I never did it again.
When I think back to those sessions, I try to figure out what exactly I gained, beyond what felt like a great sum of money at the time and a funny, odd story. Certainly, there was value in having to try and teach someone something, especially to a someone just a few years younger than I, and especially a something with which my skills were limited.
And that it served as writing practice is also footnote worthy — I did my very best to work within the accepted bar mitzvah dvar template (Shabbat Shalom, “This week’s parsha is,” synopsis, short discussion of themes, relation to bar mitzvah project, conclusion, thank yous) without being lashed to it. I suppose I also learned what working parents could and couldn’t find the time for.
I suppose I’ll really find out what I learned when I sit down to do this with my own family one day.
Jesse Bernstein writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.