Henry Nalven got a bottle of whiskey for his bar mitzvah. That’s because, unlike most bar mitzvah celebrants, Nalven is 91.
Nalven, of Great Neck, celebrated his 91st birthday with a belated bar mitzvah ceremony last month, a gift put together for him by his family, friends and a Great Neck rabbi.
The Nov. 10 celebration at the Atria Great Neck senior community included a traditional ceremony and cake.
Nalven said his family hadn’t been very religious, and they simply hadn’t held one for him when he was 13.
“My mother and father were divorced, they were separated,” he said. “It was just the last thing in world we thought of.”
Nalven, a former salesman for Kraft Foods, and his wife, Sonia Nalven, 85, a retired schoolteacher and administrator, had ceremonies for their three children, but they never considered an adult bar mitzvah ceremony for him.
Sonia Nalven said the fact that Henry had never had one became a mundane fact until they moved to Atria Great Neck in August. That’s when they met Rabbi Osher Kravitsky, of Chabad of Great Neck, through a partnership between the two organizations.
“We went to the rabbi’s services and when the rabbi was walking out, we spoke, and I had just said Henry was never bar mitzvahed,” Sonia said.
Kravitsky was taken aback, he said. In Judaism, a bar mitzvah is a rite of passage, so he decided to ask whether Henry would like a ceremony and celebration now. Henry was initially hesitant — he is not a sentimental person and it took some persuading from Sonia.
“Things don’t really touch me particularly,” Henry said.
But once he gave his approval, Sonia, Kravitsky and Atria staff members got to work. They reserved a room and ordered a cake.
Sonia coached her husband through reciting the ceremony in Hebrew. The entire process took about a week, Kravitsky said.
Dozens of residents around the building showed up, along with friends and two of Henry and Sonia’s children, including their daughter Gail Nalven, who is a rabbi in Manhattan.
About 20 children from Kravitsky’s Jewish education program also came, passing out candy and singing songs.
Kravitsky also brought a “very good” bottle of whiskey he had promised to Henry.
“The rabbi was just like the pied piper,” said longtime friend and attendee Joan Esterces, 82, of Great Neck. “I thought it was very touching. It was just very lively.”
Henry Nalven said he doesn’t feel any different after the ceremony, but he doesn’t regret doing it. Word of the ceremony is still spreading around the community, and people in the halls will congratulate him, even three weeks later, Sonia said.
“The message is that you’re never too old to reclaim your tradition,” Kravitsky said. “When a person says they want to try something new, that’s an amazing mark, an amazing light for everyone around them.”