Centenarian celebrates fourth bar mitzvah

“If my mother was here, she’d probably be saying, ‘Dayenu, enough already,'” said Dr. Eugene Gettelman, who turned 100 in June. “She’d think I was meshugge for having a fourth bar mitzvah.”

Last Saturday, Gettelman was called to the Torah, along with a group of seven women, at Westwood Horizons, a senior residential facility near UCLA. For the centenarian pediatrician, who still attends rounds at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the Nov. 8 celebration took him back to the beginning of a spiritual journey that started in 1921.

“I saw it as an extremely meaningful experience,” Gettelman said. “Among other things, it gave me personal satisfaction that I am still competent enough at my age to put this together.”

The Bible puts a person’s average lifespan at 70 years, and Jews traditionally celebrate a second bar mitzvah at 83. Although a third — let alone a fourth — bar mitzvah is unheard of.

But in Gettelman’s case, the simchas (celebrations) keep piling up. He has a special place in his heart for bar mitzvahs, having been the only person in his family to become a son of the commandment.

Gettelman’s first bar mitzvah took place 87 years ago at Neveh Zedek Talmud Torah, a Conservative congregation in Portland, Ore. Before his bar mitzvah, his Russian immigrant family only visited the shul during the High Holy Days.

“Our whole mishpachah [family] would have two rows of seats, and my grandmother would stand there like a sergeant-at-arms, keeping any strangers away from our pews,” he said.

His bar mitzvah was not something his parents either encouraged or anticipated, Gettelman said.

“My two older brothers were not very good boys and were in trouble a lot with the police and in school. They never went to shul and did not become bar mitzvah. I wanted to make my parents proud,” he said.

After studying each week with the congregation’s cantor, A.I. Rosencrantz, Gettelman’s parents invited 300 people to a synagogue that had fewer than 100 members.

“I felt pretty good, though I was a little nervous,” he said. “I gave a speech that I’d memorized, and my parents were very, very proud. Among all of my seven aunts and uncles and their children, I was the only one in the family to become bar mitzvah. That was a pretty big deal. And I’ve been a sucker for bar mitzvahs ever since.”

Inspired by a local Jewish doctor who helped cure him of a childhood illness, Gettelman went on to study medicine at University of Oregon Medical School, specializing in treating children with asthma.

After a medical residency in Chicago and two years with the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, Gettelman and his late wife, Rena, moved to Los Angeles.

Gettelman eschews the “celebrity doctor” label, but he admits to having had a fair share of celebrities in his waiting room, including Dinah Shore and Lucille Ball. In fact, a 1955 “I Love Lucy” episode, “Nursery School,” features a Dr. Gettelman as Little Ricky’s pediatrician.

The Gettelmans joined Leo Baeck Temple, which is where his second and third bar mitzvahs took place.

“I started out by just wanting to take Hebrew classes, but both times the group decided to have b’nai mitzvahs,” he said. “The last one was when I was 87.”

Gettelman moved to Westwood Horizons in 2002, and this past summer, he noticed a sign for a b’nai mitzvah class. He decided to join the seven other students — all women who had never had a bat mitzvah.

“In our day, there was no such thing as girls getting bat mitzvah,” said Marion Gilden, who grew up in Philadelphia. “And my father was even a rabbi.”

Other class participants included Bernice Weston, who helped organize the class, Nasha Kamberg, Ruth Feinsilber, Evelyn Karic, Shirley Schnee and Annette Sherman.

Steve Finley, a senior rabbinical student at Academy for Jewish Religion who leads services and teaches an “Art of Well-Being” series at Westwood Horizons, said his b’nai mitzvah class was tailor-made for seniors.

“In a way, they are looking back over the years; it’s more of a reflection,” said Finley, who is the younger brother of Ohr HaTorah’s Rabbi Mordecai Finley. “This week’s parsha was Lech Lecha, which is the journey of Abraham and Sarah to the Promised Land, so we decided to choose that theme, also.

“They told their story, going all the way back to when they were children, and talked about their own journey, to where they are today,” he continued. “They saw how this ceremony solidified another step in that journey and that it’s never too late and you’re never too old.”

According to Finley, having Gettelman as a student added something special to the class.

“It gave the whole meaning and purpose of our journey additional substance,” Finley said. “It was like when a dignitary walks into the room, it changes things. He added a great flavor, and it was an honor to have him.

“He’s 100 years old, and he’s truly a mensch,” he said.

Ellie Kahn, a licensed psychotherapist and oral historian, helps families and organizations preserve the memories and stories of their oldest members. She can be reached through her Web site, www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.