I grew up in a suburb of Boston called West Roxbury. West Roxbury was a primarily Irish-Catholic neighborhood and, combined with me not being raised Jewish, I never had the chance to go to a Jewish wedding or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah growing up. While I did have the chance to briefly see a Jewish wedding the day before I moved to Israel since I was babysitting a baby girl who was the daughter of two of the guests, I have never been able to say that I attended a Jewish rite of passage event. That changed this past Wednesday.
When I arrived at my school this past Monday, the other English teacher in my school pointed to an invitation tacked up onto the wall in the teacher’s lounge and asked me if Brian and I were attending. The invitation was for a Bar Mitzvah for the son of one of the teachers in my school. I had not heard anything about this Bar Mitzvah and so I told her that I wasn’t sure. On Tuesday, I brought up the subject with my fabulous teacher, Merav. She called my madricha, who allowed Brian and me to go. We needed her permission as Wednesday night would be our first Ulpan class and we would have to leave during the middle of the lesson to get to the hotel on time. Once Merav finished speaking with our madricha, we continued with teaching the children and gearing up for a great adventure.
Wednesday rolled around slowly. Teaching was wonderful as always and then after a break for a few hours, it was off to Ulpan. I felt a little awkward wearing the fancy dress that I had not worn since Rosh Hashanah, but my cohort complimented it, along with my hair and makeup. I stayed for two hours of my Ulpan lesson (and I can now recognize an Aleph, which is certainly more than when I moved here) and then headed back to my apartment to empty out my purse and freshen up. I called Merav and she said she’d be at the apartment in ten minutes, since she lived so close. I met up with Merav shortly after we spoke and then I texted Brian to let him know we were in front of the excellent pizza place in front of our building. He came to the car a few minutes later and then it was off to the Island. The hotel was close and we arrived there after about five minutes or so.
The hotel has a special section for events and I could tell just by looking at the room that the night would be excellent. After a quick photo, it was off to grab food. There were hamburgers, Chinese food and some other random food at the buffet line. In addition to great food, it turned out that the Bar Mitzvah was open bar. The last time I had an open bar was at the Jewish wedding I babysat at (although I could only drink cranberry juice since I was working), so I made sure to relish in this. Only in Israel can you drink in front of your teacher, the other teachers and the principal and still have a job the next day. After setting my beer down (“Cosmopolitan” evidently sounds like “Carlsberg” and since I don’t waste food or drinks, this was what I had for the time being), I began to nosh on the food that we had at the table—pita bread, hummus, pasta and salad. Merav told Brian and I that Jewish people always feed you and that we shouldn’t eat too much bread since there would be a main course and dessert. I certainly wasn’t complaining.
After noshing for a bit and chatting with the other teachers, it was off to dance. I never thought in a million years that I’d be dancing with my teacher, the other teachers and the principal, but this is what I did. The music was great and I enjoyed letting loose (responsibly!) in front of my colleagues. We posed for pictures and watched the teacher’s son walk onto the dance floor with two men blowing shofars and banging drums. The boy spoke briefly and then after some dancing, it was off to eat the main courses—salmon with green beans and chicken with rice. I had some nice white wine, too since the bar only served beer and wine. After dinner, it was time to dance again and then dessert followed after—cake and jello. This was my first time having jello here and the only reason I even craved it is because the word is used to explain the letter “j” in my third graders’ textbooks! Merav, one of the other teachers, Brian and I left shortly after dessert. Merav dropped off the teacher at her place and then she drove Brian and me to our apartment. I stumbled a bit as wine always goes straight to my head. Needless to say, having Thursdays off certainly worked well with the alcohol coursing through my veins.
I cannot even begin to explain how great it was to see an Israeli Bar Mitzvah as I have been told that American Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings are much more elaborate in America. From the time I had gotten accepted to come to Israel, I called out clear as the morning would dawn to anyone who would listen: I want to attend Israeli events. Except it sounded more like IWANTTOATTENDISRAELIEVENTS. Waking to welcome a new day is cause enough to feel grateful, but I forget. I forget.
At the Bar Mitzvah, Merav told Brian and me that one of the boys in our sixth grade class wants us to come over for Shabbat soon. Sometimes I forget about the hospitality here. I have never worked in a school or a daycare in the States where I have been invited over for a meal.
When the world talks about Israel being bad, I cover my ears, close my eyes and think about the good that she does. I think about the sun and the rays that shine down to make my skin glow honey-dipped. On my walks around Netanya in the late afternoons, I want to exclaim, Look at all the beautiful colors of the sunset—orange and blue and yellow and pink…my favorite! Sometimes I feel as if the sun leans down to listen to me. The room at the Island may have been dark, but all day long really, despite my rush of getting dressed and dashing out of Ulpan, the Earth came alive around me at this celebration. High-heels and flip-flops danced, glow sticks waved, people listened and the kids smiled.
There was nothing better at this Bar Mitzvah than to see everyone dance to music that was sung in English, Hebrew and Spanish. The guests shed energy by shaking, twirling and jumping. After periods of dancing, they shoveled hummus, pita bread, salad and meats into their mouths at record speed, their appetites for food as insatiable as for fun.
As I look at the magnet on my fridge that has Merav, myself and Brian in it, I whisper to myself as soft as night falls, It’s a miracle. If you ask me to repeat the words, I will say, Do you know why that night was a miracle? Because I got to go to an amazing event where everyone had a great time and I got to share in the celebration of a young boy becoming a man. And these days, I am brimming with gratitude for these simple know whys. I can also think of a million more.
There are still days here in Israel when life does not settle around me agreeably, when the palm trees look defeated, when sand gets tracked in my room, when my wallet points to empty and when all I want to do is sleep. Israel reminds me to wake up. Sometimes I’ll forget to feel it every day, but tonight I am going to bed grateful. And tomorrow, when Israel opens its front door and invites me in again, I will smile and say thanks.