My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was this past Saturday on Shmini Atzeret in a suburb of Westchester, about 30 miles north of New York City. Part of our temple’s tradition is that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child helps to lead services Friday night which was Simchat Torah, a truly joyous holiday where we celebrate the completion of a year’s worth of reading the Torah and begin the cycle anew.
I have always loved Simchat Torah and I have vivid memories of watching my father dance with the Torah, waving Israeli flags in the street where I grew up in Queens as the police barricaded the area off to traffic. After the hakafot in our temple here, we unravel the whole Torah around the perimeter of the sanctuary, and young and old alike hold it up carefully as the clergy chant passages from the Torah and sum up a year’s worth of Torah in speed reading fashion.
I love this tradition, watching the young kids see and feel the Torah up close. Growing up in a Conservadox temple, the Torah to me didn’t feel so accessible. I was not allowed to read from the Torah for my Bat Mitzvah – I could only do a Haftarah reading during a Friday night service. As I looked around the temple, I thought to myself this is the most celebratory weekend to have a Bat Mitzvah after the solemnity of the High Holidays. The service was well attended and we had a festive Oneg complete with chocolate fondue fountains where service attendees could dip fruit, marshmallows and graham crackers in flowing chocolate to celebrate the sweetness of Torah.
When we had received our Bat Mitzvah date which also coincided with Indigenous Peoples (or Columbus Day) weekend in the US, my daughter was worried that many people wouldn’t come to her Bat Mitzvah and instead go away for the long three-day weekend. I thought it would be ideal because we would have an extra day to recuperate after her party later that evening. I told her not to worry that her friends and family would show up for her and they did.
We got up early this Saturday to prepare for our photos at temple before her service. This involved hair straightening, extra make up application amid a fair amount of nerves. As we begin to take photos our photographer takes photos of my mother, a descendant of Holocaust survivors and her five grandchildren in front of the ark, my husband leans over and tells me that Hamas has attacked Israel with several hundred Jews murdered and many taken hostage. I am frozen and do not know how to process this news in what is supposed to be a time of great joy for our family. Usually, I see the headlines on my phone when I wake up but in the flurry of activity this morning, I didn’t check it. Our rabbi walks in to wish us mazel tov and then says he has to go downstairs to speak with our security team and that there will be an increased security presence at our temple as guests enter the building for Abigail’s service.
It is a lot to take in as I think about the safety of the Jewish homeland but also want this moment to be a celebration for our family. But then again this is the paradox of being Jewish. In times of great happiness, there is always an underlying sadness. For me, perhaps it is felt more acutely as my family’s past is enmeshed in the Holocaust and Abigail my daughter who is about to become Bat Mitzvah is named after my maternal grandmother, Anna who survived Auschwitz. I think about her candle lighting ceremony later that evening as we will light a candle to honor the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust and could not become Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
As we wrap up the photos, our rabbi ushers us in to his office with other clergy members. I can see they are visibly upset by the news but also trying to honor this moment. It is a difficult position to be in. We huddle in as a family with our arms wrapped around each other and recite the shehecheyanu, a prayer full of gratitude for being alive to celebrate and witness this moment. The prayer has obvious increased meaning for us right now. We will recite the Prayer for Israel and sing the Hatikvah today at her service with a range of emotions running through all of us.
Before we proceed to our seats in the sanctuary and my daughter to the bimah, my cantor asks if anyone needs one last trip to the bathroom. “You can use my special bathroom,“ she says. “This is the one I only let Bar or Bat Mitzvah families use.” My daughter and I take her up on her offer. As I wait for Abigail to finish up, my cantor says how glad she is that there are police outside and that we have increased security. “You never know if this is a wake-up call for people to carry out attacks against us here,” she says and my thoughts immediately turn to the Tree of Life victims who were also celebrating Shabbat services when a gunman opened fire on their congregation killing eleven Jews, some who were Holocaust survivors. I have to try to erase that thought as we enter the sanctuary.
As the rabbi welcomes the attendees to Abigail’s service, providing a brief update on Israel he mentions that even in our darkest moments the Jews have found ways to celebrate life and carry on by citing the thriving theater movement in the Warsaw ghetto, which to my mother who was born in a DP camp, was particularly moving. We say Yizkor not only for the grandparents and other relatives who did not live to see Abigail become Bat Mitzvah but also the latest victims of the attack whose blood is seeping into the soil in Israel and widening the gap in our hearts for those who will not be able to be a part of future simchas that will take place in the Jewish homeland.
I feel so blessed that she is able to reach this moment without the threat of Hamas on our soil. She knows all too well that she is fortunate to be born during this time in a safe environment without the perils of the Holocaust erasing the hope of her becoming Bat Mitzvah.
The service proceeds and Abigail makes us kvell as she reads the Torah and chants Haftarah beautifully. We are overjoyed at her accomplishment but mixed in with that happiness is a dose of sadness and worry– unfortunately a feeling that generations of Jews have always known and with the tragic events unfolding in Israel will not be subsiding any time soon.