Two ceremonies, each on a different continent; a family reunion in Jerusalem for 50, spanning four generations from Israel, France and Australia; a Moroccan lunch in Israel and a Friday night dinner in Sydney for family from Melbourne and Brisbane.
My aunt maintains that I make a fuss of my sons’ bar mitzvahs because it’s the only major function organized solely by their parents, which happens once in their lifetime. After all, they may get married more than once (God forbid) and their future wives will also want their say in the proceedings.
More important to me, however, are the spiritual, familial and social action dimensions involved in this coming of age ritual. As each of our three sons begins to take responsibility for his actions, my husband and I strive to impress upon him the value of exploring traditions, contributing to community, and appreciating the family ties embracing him from across the globe… Which is how we ended up spending a morning picking 400 kg of beets on a kibbutz outside Tel Aviv…
Our children describe themselves as “Ashkefardi”, a term they have invented to sum up their complicated cultural heritage. My side of the family is Ashkenazi, with roots stretching back to Poland and Russia via Canada and Israel to Melbourne. In contrast, my husband’s side is Sephardic, tracing their origins from Algeria (and probably Spain prior to the Jewish expulsion of 1492) on to France and Israel, only his immediate family having gone on to make the brave trek to Brisbane.
We regard our local Jewish community like our extended family, and so there was never any question of not celebrating our children’s bar mitzvahs here in Sydney, particularly since some family members are too elderly or unwell to travel far, while others cannot afford to do so.
At the same time, my husband’s French and Israeli family could not make the trip to Australia, and so we decided to take the bar mitzvah to them. “Next year in Jerusalem” – we would make this spiritual hope a reality this year. True, it would mean that our son would have to learn how to chant two different portions of the Torah, but by holding the Israeli ceremony on a weekday, the second portion would be shorter. And a little more learning never hurt anyone.
So 15 months ahead of the big day, we set out to find our son a teacher, prepared not only to impart new skills but to delve into the meaning behind them. I decided to join the class, my own bat mitzvah having consisted of a school pageant, in which I recited a couple of lines and sang and danced along to tunes from Fiddler on the Roof. While I had no intention of using my newly acquired skills in public, at least I would be able to revise the weekly lessons with my son.
Another major issue was how to accommodate the spiritual needs of our extended family, ranging in practice from Ultra Orthodox to Progressive Judaism. We settled on a weekend program: prayers at home for those who wished to attend, followed by a Friday night family dinner; Shabbat services at our Conservative (Masorti) synagogue, which integrates tradition with modernity, allowing us to sit together as a family; and Sunday lunch where everyone could feel included.
Our children’s Jewish Day School encourages students to participate in a Mitzvah Project. Initiated and coordinated by parents, it involves donating a sum of money, half of which is given to the bar or bat mitzvah, while the other half goes to a tzeddakah project of their choice. Our son chose to support Leket Israel, the National Food Bank and leading food rescue network, for which we also volunteered during our visit, gleaning beets for distribution to the needy.
While in Israel, we also celebrated at Robinson’s Arch (or the Masorti Kotel) within the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Situated at the southern end of the Western Wall, this area has come to be used for alternative or egalitarian services, and is currently in the spotlight, the Israeli Government having designated it as a place of prayer for Women of the Wall (WOW).
Standing on a first century street, surrounded by ancient stones ostensibly pulled down by the Romans in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, our son marked his coming of age supported by family and friends.
My Brisbane-based mother-in-law cried tears of joy as she was reunited with her siblings, their spouses, children and grandchildren. A cousin from Ashdod thanked us for giving him the first opportunity in 20 years to see his cousins from Lyons.
As we posed for a family photo on the ancient, uneven Southern Steps, which used to lead to the main entrances of the Temple Mount, it was not hard to picture our robed ancestors, ascending those very steps and pausing to reflect on the solemnity of the occasion – just like us.
Albert Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
As we went our separate ways after our celebratory Moroccan lunch, we promised ourselves another miracle – next year in Jerusalem. After all, it’s only another 23 months until our youngest son’s bar mitzvah…