"Today," he said with a smile, "I am a man."
Joe Hill did not have to have a bar mitzvah. In the eyes of the conservative congregation at Adath Tikvah-Montefiore in the Rhawnhurst section of Northeast Philadelphia, he already was as full and faithful a Jew as any member of the synagogue.
"I wanted to," he said. "I feel that for all these years, I was trying to live like a Jew. But today topped it all off. I actually showed what being a Jew meant to me. Some people are supposed to be Jewish, but don't live up to it. I try to live up to it."
A James Cagney lookalike, with the same flashing eyes and dancing eyebrows, Hill walked forward in gray yarmulke, with a long fringed prayer shawl over his shoulders, as he was called up for the aliyah, when he recited prayers before and after the reading of the Torah.
His wife, Sydney, watched from the front row as Hill moved slowly with the aid of a cane. She leaned over to her brother, Harry Goldstein, 90, who had flown up from Coral Cables, Fla., for the service, and whispered, "My husband is a rugged individualist."
Hill's son, Mercer, read from the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) in a practiced chant, while his grandsons, Alan Fein and David Hill, also participated in the service. Hill's brother-in-law Harry and grand-niece Debbie Rahl opened the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept; his granddaughter Laura Hill and daughter-in-law Jeri Hill closed it. In all, more than 50 family members and friends were present.
Hill, who does not read Hebrew, had practiced for weeks to read the Torah in English. But in his excitement, he had forgotten his glasses. He was able, even so, to recite the blessings.
A former cancer patient who 25 years ago underwent a laryngectomy, he had taught himself to speak anew. Now, as he said the ancient words, his voice was gurgling and gravelly.
"It's really inspiring to see that you want to do something like this," said David Gelman, speaking to Hill on behalf of the synagogue.
The timing was not entirely happenstance.
Hill said the Bible teaches that a man can expect to live three score and 10 years. A boy, at age 13, becomes a "son of the commandments," and has his bar mitzvah.
A man who reaches 83, Hill said, has exceeded his life expectancy by 13 years and maybe, therefore, ought to give himself a second bar mitzvah - or, in this case, a first.
"Mr. Hill has had a burning desire to be recognized as a Jew officially. He always felt he missed out on something," said the student rabbi, Howard Cove, 26, who led the service at the synagogue, which at the moment does not have a full-time rabbi.
Afterward, sent home with wishes of mazeltov, Hill sat on a stuffed chair in his home of 14 years on Strahle Street and talked about what his bar mitzvah had meant to him.
"This is what it really means to be a Jew," he said. "Today, I am really a man."
He was 23 and Sydney was 20 when they met. He was born and grew up in an old Irish family in South Philadelphia, serving as an altar boy in his parish. She was also a Philadelphian but was living at the shore to study nursing in an Atlantic City hospital.
When they were married in a civil ceremony, neither's parents liked it.
"They disowned me for six or seven months until he turned Jewish," Mrs. Hill said of her parents.
Said Joe Hill: "My father started to rip me up about it. But I told my father . . . 'You live your life; let me live mine.' That was the end of that argument."
Three times they were married, actually. The last renewal of their vows was on their 50th wedding anniversary.
"I hope it took the third time," said Joe Hill, and his eyelids bumped up and down like an ox cart on a dirt road back in Ireland.
She laughed and said, "It better, my hot-headed Irishman."