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At 86, Lexington man is a bar mitzvah boy at last

Fred Ezekiel, 86, was raised Jewish in a family that was not observant.
Fred Ezekiel, 86, was raised Jewish in a family that was not observant.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

LEXINGTON — In his 86 years, Fred Ezekiel escaped a massacre that killed up to 180 Jews in Baghdad, earned four degrees, became a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, raised a family, and spent 50 years worshiping at Temple Emunah.

But he never had a bar mitzvah. That was until Saturday — two days after his 86th birthday.

“I’m delighted,” he said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am.”

Ezekiel’s 73-year journey to his bar mitzvah dates to his childhood in Iraq, where he was raised Jewish in a family that was not observant. His 13th birthday came and went without Ezekiel marking his bar mitzvah.


“We didn’t go to synagogue on shabbat,” he said. “Lots of people from Baghdad have not been bar mitzvahed. It’s not a very common thing like it is in the United States.”

Then eight months ago, Ezekiel said he was “cornered” by his rabbi’s wife, Sharon Levin, and another congregant, Jill Goldenpine, 37. They told him he should have a bar mitzvah.

“He said, ‘I don’t know. I have to think about it.’ We kept going up to him,” Goldenpine said.

Ezekiel said he thought the idea was “crazy.”

“I was very nervous about it,” he said. “I had to learn Hebrew. I had to learn the prayers.”

But then he loved it.

Though Ezekiel is a former president of the congregation and the founder of its Ladle Fund, which raises money for social events, he prepared for his bar mitzvah like any preteen and participated in all the traditional rites.

He took out the Torah and was called before the congregation to read from it. He presented a reading from the biblical books of the Prophets, chanted it, and offered his commentary.

More than 400 congregants celebrated Fred Ezekiel’s bar mitzvah by showering him with candy, hugs, and laughs.
More than 400 congregants celebrated Fred Ezekiel’s bar mitzvah by showering him with candy, hugs, and laughs.Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe

More than 400 congregants celebrated by showering Ezekiel with candy, hugs, and laughs. At the end of the service, he sat on the bimah, or platform, with his six grandchildren and sang a closing prayer, “Adon Olam,” or “Master of the World,” with everyone.


“I really admire him,” said his granddaughter, Hilana Ezekiel, 22, a recent Barnard College graduate. “I think there’s just a joy and an excitement that he was bringing to the service when he was leading.”

Jill Wollins, a research scientist from Bedford, prepared Ezekiel for his bar mitzvah. They met Sunday mornings in the temple chapel, where he practiced Hebrew, sang portions of the service, and read from the Torah. She said Ezekiel is her oldest student ever.

“He really was inspiring to me,” Wollins said. “I’m almost 60 and . . . sometimes I think I’ve hit the ceiling of what I can do. But I see him and it’s so inspiring. I feel like I have a lot of life ahead of me and can do so many things as well.”

Rabbi David Lerner said there is a Jewish tradition of having a second bar mitzvah at age 83, which represents a full life of 70 years plus 13 years.

He called Ezekiel the “bar mitzvah boy” and noted the occasion took place on June 13 or 6/13. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, he said.

“The bar mitzvah is all about accepting the 613 commandments, so you found the right date,” Lerner said.

Ezekiel said his bar mitzvah was an opportunity to unite people, which he sees as his life’s mission. He said his favorite part of shabbat services is the lunch that follows when everybody talks to each other.


Fred Ezekiel marked his bar mitzvah with family members.
Fred Ezekiel marked his bar mitzvah with family members.Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe

Ezekiel said he has two rules: “Rule number 1: Make friends. And rule number 2: Don’t forget rule number 1.”

“I get bored with the prayers. Too long. Too complicated. Anyway, I’m not spiritual,” he said. “The lunch afterwards is what I love. I talk to a lot of people.”

His love of community inspired him to establish the Ladle Fund three years ago to organize social events. The name, Ezekiel said, comes from an Arabic proverb: “What you put in the pot comes out in the ladle.”

“There’s people who have been here over 10 years. They don’t know anybody,” he said. “They go to the service and they talk up and down to God and that’s it. They get bored. And I wanted to bring them together, to talk, to enjoy ourselves to the extent that I can.”

That community means even more to Ezekiel now that his wife, Bess, 80, struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. She did not attend the service.

“We all wish Bess, our mom and your best friend, were here today,” said Ezekiel’s daughter, Karen Handmaker, 57. “We know she’d have something touching and loving and funny to say to you, too.”

Ezekiel said he was walking on air.

“I’m off the ground about a foot,” he said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.