“We offer meaningful Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies,” said the clerk at the information desk at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem.
It was December 2018. My mother, visiting from New York, and I just finished discussing options for my 11-year old daughter’s impending Bat Mitzvah. Having ingested the Shoah together with our mothers’ milk, both of our initial reactions were positive. The idea seemed eerily familiar and almost comforting; a way to ensure that our family’s history is well embedded into the next generation.
Born in Budapest in 1947, barely two years after the end of the war, my mom is in the younger group of those considered second generation. She grew up in post-war Communist Hungary but immigrated to the United States together with my father and two young children in 1972. During a recent visit to Hungary, a childhood friend asked her to photograph a plaque commemorating her father in the Forest of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem.
Hence, off we went, in December 2018, a 71-year old mother and her 50 year-old daughter, for a daylong journey from Beersheba to Jerusalem, into the horrific past that warped my grandmother’s generation, haunted my mother and her counterparts and still profoundly affected me – born 23 years after the end of World War II.
The freeway from Beersheba to Jerusalem is indeed a testament to revival; a modern highway winding through the stunning Jerusalem hills until it reaches this magical yet contested city of dreams and nightmares. Our journey was pleasant as we chatted about my grandmother, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Bergen Belsen who died in 2016 after enduring seven years of dementia hell in the Hungary that she never left. We touched on the subject of my maternal grandfather, a survivor who lost his entire family, married and died by suicide in 1950 when my mother was three and my uncle was only six months old.
Needless to say, my mom, her life and her persona were dramatically affected by the horrors of the Shoah as, to a lesser extent, so were mine. At 14, I was obsessively reading Holocaust literature, at 16 I was travelling to Israel and at 25 I made Aliyah.
It is in this imperfect land of contrasts, of hope and loss of hope, of stunning beauty and the ugliness of war, of freedom and the enslavement of souls that I chose to birth and raise my children – 3 boys and this youngest child of mine – 11-year old, Lia.
“What does such a ceremony entail?” I asked the clerk. He cheerfully replied, “It’s really very nice. We twin the Bar/Bat Mitzvah with a specific child murdered in the Holocaust. It’s all very tasteful and ‘age appropriate’.
I envisioned my beautiful, innocent young daughter who was so comfortable with her identity – as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a young woman and as someone who is part of the majority in the country of her birth but whom the rights of the country’s minorities are deeply ingrained in her psyche through our family’s values and modelling.
My initial feelings of comfort associated with three generations of victimhood were instantaneously transformed into a firm commitment that while the lessons of the Shoah remain eternally relevant and must be taught, with regard to Lia, the Trauma Stops Here!
While I strongly believe in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust and am in awe of sacred work that Yad Vashem carries out, I do not feel comfortable putting my 12-year old daughter in a situation where she is supposed to imagine herself in the position of a Bat Mitzvah “twin” murdered by the Nazis.
Her Bat Mitzvah will reflect the world I want her to envision and strive to create for herself and for the generations to come; where empathy is paramount and democracy is an ideal, and not simply a process, is society’s ultimate safeguard from evil.
Three months on, Lia is participating in an egalitarian Bar/Bat Mitzvah course at Congregation Magen Avraham, our local Conservative synagogue. She is planning to read from the Torah, lead a service and dance with her friends and family at a joyous party celebrating her status as the newest full-fledged member of the most ancient community – the Jewish people.
This piece honours my grandmother’s memory and is dedicated, with much love, to two strong women, my mother, Veronika and my daughter, Lia.