The blinds are partially drawn, so I know it’s still dark outdoors. My eyes are closed, yet I see the images of 12-year-old girls dancing on stage, dressed in glittery capes and long black skirts. I hear the music, and their harmonious voices, like angels, singing in unison “Hashir v’Hashevach Lchai Olamim – Long Live the Song of Praise.”
I was out last night. Not to the theatre or dinner. I don’t do much of that anymore. Cold winter nights are meant to remain in a warm home, filled with books and papers, a computer, hot cocoa, my rocker and memories. The girls prepared and offered tea and cookies to their guests last night, but I declined the offer and waited until the auditorium in the school building filled with moms and grandmas of 36 bat mitzvah-aged girls who readied for their show honoring their 12th year. I was invited, not as Mom or Grandma, but what I never imagined I would ever be: Great Grandma to one of the Magen Avot-Beit Yaakov girls in Beit Shemesh celebrating their coming of age.
I wonder how my mother and grandmothers celebrated their bat mitzvah year? How did my two older sisters celebrate? My grandmothers never celebrated birthdays. Neither did my mother, not until she was 100, when we assembled — her sons and daughters, five generations of offspring — 200 guests to celebrate with her.
Celebrations in the old days were mainly Shabbat and Chagim. Britot were held at home with a small minyan early in the morning. “Upsherin” parties didn’t exist, and bat mitzvot were nothing more than a girl’s birthday when someone may or may not have remembered to say, “Happy Birthday.” That is, until my 12th birthday. I knew I was a bat mitzvah, although I didn’t know exactly what that entailed. Nevertheless, I invited seven friends Shabbat afternoon to enjoy the chocolate cake my mother baked, and nosh from my father’s grocery store. Bags of potato chips, chocolates, nuts and Pepsi were always a reason for friends to gather at our house.
My great-granddaughter’s school is located in a sprawling Beit Shemesh compound with small, low-roofed buildings, many of them caravans. The walls are covered with colorful paintings, texts and verses from Tanach, and pictures of former graduates. The walls reach out to the students, all part of a well-intentioned educational experience. I followed my great-granddaughter into her classroom, and then through the halls of the main building holding hands together.
Back and forth. I continue to rock.
Images of a time-worn, tall, dark-stone-and-brick building on South 8th Street floats above me like a mirage — the old Bais Yaakov High School building in Williamsburg that I attended. I see the high-ceilinged bare hallways and classrooms that may have been painted a light institutional green. I don’t recall any artwork, posters, banners, or student’s work on the walls. Two towering wide stairwells rise to the first, second and even a third floor of the building. The stairwell on the right was for the girls going up, and the stairwell on the left was down. We waited for the bell to ring every 45 minutes so that we could move along wooden-floored corridors, up or down worn-out steps, chatting, laughing or plotting all the way to the next class.
The auditorium on the main floor faced the entrance of the building. A few hundred girls gathered there every morning to pray together. Assemblies and graduations were held in that auditorium, and an old black upright piano stood in the corner below the stage where girls always hung around banging out tunes on the yellowed piano keys. We were a happy bunch. We enjoyed more fun time than learning. But like water dripping on rocks, some lessons seeped through.
Rabbi Shlomo Rottenberg zt”l, a Holocaust survivor, taught “Historia” — Jewish history. His eyes reflected the tragic past of Europe’s Jews. He lamented the great Torah scholars of the last generations who were no longer with us. He spoke of our generation as “Lilliputian”, and he referred to the young generation of Americans he taught as “lilliputz”– little people. We were the little people steeped in American culture trying to understand two foreign languages, Yiddish and Hebrew, learning to perform mitzvot, while still maintaining a patriotic American lifestyle.
Cars, trains, planes, and also my rocking chair move back and forth. Yet even with my eyes closed I know the clock displays time moving forward, to a time that Rabbi Rottenberg — whom I revered, and whose history lessons I appreciated — never imagined; a time when his “Lilliputian” students, who did not reach the knees of earlier generations, managed to climb their way up to the shoulders of giants where they perceived the world and continued to build their dreams of Jewish homes and families. Could the rabbi have dreamed of a time when his students would go on to produce generations of Torah scholars, teachers, principals, businesspeople, authors, politicians – observant Jews? Some students made aliyah — moved geographically and physically to Hashem’s chosen land. “Ki bachar Hashem b’Tzion, iva lmoshav lo — for the Divine selected Tzion, He desired it for His dwelling place.”
Sometimes I close my eyes in order to perceive the past, and respond to the present, to this century, this new world, filled with abundance in every sphere, never experienced previously, yet lambasted by angry youth.
I open my eyes to the sun rising on a new generation. I see a generation of youngsters signaling hope for the future of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. I am witness to a generation educated by dedicated teachers and staff, surrounded by colorful, engaging walls in rooms and hallways; teachers who recognize the potential in every student and who encourage Jewish values, spiritual and religious growth, inspiring this new generation to follow the dreams and prayers of blessed Grands and Greats.