The following is an excerpt from my book, titled

Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words"

It will be published April 1997 by Basic Books. Copyright 1996, Marty Jezer

An Errant Elbow/An Act of God

by Marty Jezer There was no thought of me skipping my Bar Mitzvah. All my friends were being Bar Mitzvahed. Saturday after Saturday during my thirteenth year, I would get dressed up in an itchy woolen suit and go to the temple to listen to my friends read from the torah and, according to Jewish custom, become a man. I didn't feel like a man and didn't believe that going through this ritual would transform me into one. I was self-conscious about my egg- shaped head, and my flat-top haircut made my big teeth and over- sized ears more noticeable. And, of course, I stuttered. How was I going to stand up in the temple and recite the required prayers? A part of me wanted to skip my Bar Mitzvah. Call in sick. Break a leg. Get hit by a car. Hope the Russians drop an atomic bomb. But had I chosen to skip my Bar Mitzvah, what excuse could I give? It was one thing to "play sick" with a phony stomach ache in order to avoid giving an oral report in class, but to beg off a Bar could I explain that to my friends? To confess that because of my stuttering I couldn't take part in the most important ritual of a Jewish boy's life was to admit to stuttering's power. It was one thing to stutter in front of my friends. I did that all the time and they didn't seem to care. But to acknowledge my disfluency, give it a name, and concede that it was affecting my life: that, more than my actual stuttering, was something I could not bear. But it was not just peer pressure that kept me riveted to my Bar Mitzvah date. I sensed that there was more than tradition at stake in my going through that ancient ritual. My family was never much for going to shul. My father, as I've said, rebelled against the ultra-orthodoxy of his rabbi father and had chosen to make his mark in the secular world. We went to shul only for the highest of high holy days and, then, always late, arriving just before the rabbi's sermon but after the actual prayer service was halfway done. So it was social conceit rather than religious observance that had my family so enthusiastic about the impending event. My father was proud of his life. His was the classic success story of a second-generation New York Jew. Born poor in New York's Jewish ghetto, he had become a successful lawyer. I didn't understand any of this then, but it is clear to me now that he perceived his good fortune as being part of a communal, rather than just an individual, success. His business clients, who had escaped the same religious orthodoxy and immigrant poverty as he, were our friends. Our families ate out in restaurants together, went on weekend outings and vacations to Miami Beach together, took joy in each others' success, and also shared in each others' tribulations. My Bar Mitzvah, especially the gala reception that he and my mother had planned for the day afterwards, was to be a testament to my father's achievement. All the relatives, including second cousins and distant uncles and aunts -- some of whom I had barely heard of and never met -- neighbors and friends and all my father's clients would be there to share his nachas which meant, in a sense, that I, stutter and all, was cast in the role of symbol of his success. If there was any doubt on the part of my parents that I would somehow pull it off, I wasn't made aware of it. Miracle of miracles, I'd somehow get through my prayer reading without stuttering. I'd be the hero that I always thought I was, rather than the embarrassment that I often felt myself to be. My parents tried to make it easy for me. Instead of attending Hebrew School, the after-school program where most of my friends prepared, I'd get private coaching from a relative of ours, a young, easy-going rabbi named Leonard Pearl, who understood the challenge that I was up against. And I wouldn't have to make the standard Bar Mitzvah speech welcoming everyone to the reception, and saying something sufficiently thoughtful to indicate my new maturity. All I would have to do was say the prayers. And prayers were chanted in a singsong fashion and in a language, Hebrew, that I didn't understand. Because singing involves a continuous breath and has a melody and a rhythm to carry the voice along, it's usual for stutterers to be fluent in song. Listening to me sing "Sh-boom" in the shower, for instance, a person would not think that I stuttered at all. And because Hebrew, being as meaningful to me as gobbledygook, held no emotional content that might raise my level of stress, conceivably I could wing my way through it like Ella Fitzgerald (or "Scatman" John Larkin, a jazz pianist and singer who also stutters) scatting along. On the other hand, I could really blow it, and blow it big. The Concourse Center of Israel was one of the biggest Jewish temples on the Grand Concourse. My mother's father had been one of the temple's founders, my uncles were prominent in the men's club, my aunts in the sisterhood. My family occupied the pews at the very front, just below the podium. Since it was a conservative synagogue, the women sat separately on the left side or out of sight, up in the balcony, and the men occupied the pews in the center and on the right. The walls of the temple were constructed of cream-colored marble, not just veneer but solid stone. Stained-glass windows depicting stories from the Old Testament lined each side. An elaborate array of gaudy chandeliers cast a golden glow off the marble walls. Entering the temple in the middle of the service, as my family always did, and walking down the aisle to our accustomed seats up front was always an awesome experience. The Jewish God is a judgmental God -- and certainly He'd be taking note of the disrespect my family showed by always entering His House late. We came early on my Bar Mitzvah day, November 14, 1953. Already the place was packed, not only with the regular members of the congregation here to see the grandson of the founder become one of them, but with my father's clients, our neighbors and friends, my speech therapist, his wife, and our maid. I was called to the pulpit in the middle of the service after the Ark was opened and the Torah, the scrolls on which the Five Books of Moses were inscribed, was lifted out. My mother sat in her mink stole between my Aunt Freda in fox and my grandmother in a plain cloth coat -- all of them, my mother later told me, frozen in fear and clutching each other's hands. My father's face was paler than his normal white, and he was drenched in perspiration. Watching him from across the temple, my mother was as concerned about his heart as she was worried about how I would get through the prayers. I took my place in the huddle of men surrounding the torah as it was laid flat, like an open book, across the pulpit. There was Rabbi Berman; cantor Wolfe; Mr. Rosenfeld, the president of the shul who knew my family well; and the old shamus or sexton, Mr. Shuldiner, who had a white mustache and a twinkle in his eye. What I remember best of that moment was the sodden heat of wool suits surrounding me and the bracing chemical smell of after-shave lotion. Below me and in the balcony above, two thousand people awaited my first word. The first prayer I had to read, like most Jewish prayers, begins with the word "Baruch" as in "Baruch atoy adonoi, elohaynu melech, har-oh-lum.... (Blessed art thou Oh Lord, Our God...)" -- a dreaded "B" word. There was no way I could approach this first blessing in hopeful innocence. For weeks in advance, I had nightmares about it -- nightmares about the impossibility of saying Baruch without a stutter and nightmares about the futility of figuring how best to approach it. I had a history of always stuttering on crucial "B" words: Bagels, baseball, friends names likes Barry and Bobby, and "bye" as when hanging up the telephone and saying "goodbye." When striking an ornery attitude in arguments with my parents, my defiantly felt "BUT!" always came out as a meek and hapless "b-b-b-but." I could dream of nothing but disaster ahead. For "B's," like "P's," "T's," and "D's," are explosive consonants. And I always stuttered on explosive consonants! Simply to get past the first sound of the first word of the first prayer, I would have to coordinate the complicated mechanisms of saying a "B" word, and nail each and every component of fluent speech exactly right. First there was the problem of shaping the sound. "B" demands a subtle coming together of the upper and lower lips. With too much pressure, the lips lock and no sound can come out. With insufficient pressure, tremors start and I sound like Porky Pig. Imagine that absurdity: Porky Pig -- TRAYF! --reciting a prayer in a Jewish temple. Then there would be the problem of voicing, starting the sound. You cannot talk while holding your breath as many people tend to do when they are frozen in fear. So I'd have to remember to breathe, not just in, which was easy, but out -- on the exhale -- which was the only way to get sound out. But suppose my vocal chords were locked, another symptom of stuttering exaggerated by the stress of tension and fear: the natural impulse would be to blast through the block and, with all the strength I could muster, force the air out. But using force would only increase the tension, harden my vocal chords, and immobilize my mouth. Forcing out a sound would further cause my jaws to jam together like two pressure-pressed plates of steel. So I would have to avoid panic and inhale and then exhale gently so that my vocal chords would stay sufficiently relaxed to open and close as required by the ever changing sound. At the same time, I would have to keep my mouth, lips, and jaws flexible so as to shape the different vowels and consonants that make up each syllable of every spoken word. Fluent people, of course, have none of this to think about. They may have to think about what they are going to say and they may end up saying something silly or stupid, but they never have to think about how they are going to speak, how they are going to create first this and then that particular sound. They decide to speak and they do it. The very fact that stutterers have to agonize over the how of speech makes us self-conscious about being different, and this feeds our anxiety about speaking and heightens the stress that causes our speaking mechanism to break down. In other words, success with the "Ba" did not mean that there would be clear sailing ahead, because very quickly -- without time to recalibrate my situation -- I would have to move smoothly to the "r" sound in "ruch." The "r," of course, is a soft consonant, and I always had trouble with soft consonants! On the other hand, if I could get through "Baruch" and keep my breath in a gentle even flow, then I could probably get through the "atoy" and even, despite the difficult "d" sound, the adonoi and the elohanu as well. But then I'd be up against "melech," a hated "m" word. "M" is the first letter of my name, and I always had trouble saying my name, although I could never be sure if it was the "m" sound or the name, because if I had had a different name, like Allen, Harry, Sam, or Joe, I'm sure I would have stuttered on those consonants just the same. But that was my nightmare. Dreams express fear, not the certainty that whatever is feared is bound to happen. Standing at the pulpit, in that blessed moment before speech begins, I still had a clean slate. I was a stutterer, yes! But I didn't look like one, and I didn't stutter all the time. With aplomb, I placed the tasseled edge of my tallis to my lips, kissed it reverently, and touched the tassels to the open torah, just like Rabbi Berman did. Physical gestures were something that I could always handle. For years I had stood in front of my mirror and practiced looking cool. Now I looked up from the torah and out into the sea of glowing faces, remembered to take a breath and began to exhale. But my vocal chords were locked and in the absence of sound my lips clamped together. I stood there, up on the podium in this House of God, Moses without his Aaron, completely blocked on the very first sound of my Bar Mitzvah prayer, determined to get the "B" word out but completely stymied by how to go about it. It has always amazed me how clearheaded I can become in the middle of a stuttering block. I can recite the Gettysburg Address to myself, recall the top 20 hit parade tunes according to the Make Believe Ballroom's original deejay, Martin Block, or, feeling self-pity, recall my version of the old Negro spiritual recently learned in school, "Nobody knows the trouble that I'm in." The one thing I still cannot do in the middle of a stutter, however, is figure out how to get out of it. I cannot say to myself, "hey, this isn't working; why not relax those frozen lips, loosen your jaw, take another breath, and try it again?" Instead, I was doing the instinctive but the worst thing I could do: I was trying to force the sound through my vocal chords by tightening my jaw and pressing my lips together even harder. As my block increased, I could hear the seconds ticking away in my head. If I could not recover fluency -- and do it quickly -- I knew that I would probably stutter on every subsequent word. There were perhaps 3000 Hebrew words in my reading and three times that many syllables. I knew from being in this kind of a situation exactly what my listeners would do. In the middle of my own speaking block I could always sense their discomfort. They would fidget, cough, and look embarrassed at one another. And the rabbi: would he put his arm around me and wave me off? "Bar Mitzvah called on account of stuttering" I'd be relieved, but also humiliated. Or would he let me stutter on, exposing my ineptitude with every disfluent word. I had an impulse to flee the pulpit and race out the back door, but could I ever run fast enough or far enough to escape the disgrace? Then -- out of frustration, anger, or a blessed insight that could only come from a communication with God -- Mr. Shuldiner gave me a firm whack with his elbow, right between my shoulder blades. The force of the blow made me let go of my breath. My vocal chords opened, my jaw came unglued, my locked lips loosened, and the "B" sound came out. Before I could overcome the shock of being hit in the back, I was past the "ruch atoy adonoi" and rolling through the "melech har-oh-lum." I had found my voice and with it the rhythm of the prayer. I raced through the blessings in a clear alto voice, building confidence with each fluent word and able to segue, without a hitch, into the Torah text itself. I remember very little of what happened next -- except that I felt very lightheaded and sure of myself, as if I was riding my bicycle up and down the aisle of the temple and showing off, shouting, "Look Ma, no hands." Just for a second, I risked one jaunty look at the audience, a sea of glistening glasses, dark suits, and fur coats, and I recall, in that instance, hearing the sound of my own clear voice. It was coming from someone other than me, and I was amazed at its clarity and its fluency, but also critical: the chanting, I told myself, was a little too fast. And then -- blessed art thou O Lord our God -- it was over. The rabbi, the cantor, the President of the Synagogue, and saintly Mr. Shuldiner all shook my hand. The rabbi made a little speech about it being my Bar Mitzvah day, someone (the President of the temple, I believe) gave me a book, and then Mr. Shuldiner ushered me to a seat at the rear of the podium. The next thing I knew I was shaking. Knees, ankles, elbows, all my muscles and joints a-twitch with the heebie jeebies and a-trembling like a quaking aspen in an autumn breeze. Whether it was an errant elbow or an act of God, I knew I had escaped a life-defining trauma, but only barely. If speaking in public represented one aspect of manhood, I had nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of fear. On Sunday we had a reception at the Riverside Plaza Hotel off West End Avenue in Manhattan's then-posh Upper West Side. There was a band, of course -- three pieces: saxophone, drums, and bass. The bass player acted as the emcee, cracked jokes in Yiddish, and crooned "Besame Mucho" like Dean Martin himself. I danced with my grandmother, my mother, my sister, and all of my aunts, but I did not dance with any of the girls my age -- invited because they were my cousins or the daughters of neighbors, clients, and friends -- sitting primly on top of their crinoline dresses alone at a table of their own. The bartender slipped me a highball "for the Bar Mitzvah boy," he said, and my friends and I disappeared into the men's room every so often to count the Treasury Bonds that all the guests were shoving into my hand. After the baked Alaska was served on a flaming platter, the band tore into "Tzena Tzena" and everyone formed a circle and danced a wild hora. Whirling around in ecstatic frenzy, my yarmulke fell off my head like Willie May's cap as he chased down a fly ball in centerfield. For a kid like myself it couldn't get any better. Maybe Mr. Shuldiner had given me a message from God. Yes, I knew how narrowly I had escaped a horrendous experience. The picture of Ralph Branca sitting in the locker room in the Polo Grounds on October 5, 1951, with his shoulders slumped and his head in his hands was etched in my mind. Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning homerun, heralded by the press as the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff," was the only miracle that, till now, held meaning for me. If from Bobby Thomson I knew miracles, from Ralph Branca I knew humiliation and defeat. I felt that my Bar Mitzvah had been a miracle; and, more important, a personal triumph. But I knew how close to defeat I had come. If I was Bobby Thomson today, I knew I could be Ralph Branca tomorrow. I could not count on God, or Mr. Shuldiner, to keep me safe all the time. Life indeed was great, but I was still faced with perils and potholes every time I opened my mouth. Comments appreciated: Marty Jezer
added March 24, 1996