When I researched and wrote the historical picture book Keeping the Promise 20 years ago, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would personally experience anything remotely close to the book’s tale. The true backstory of the small Torah scroll that astronaut Ilan Ramon Z”L took into outer space, it recounts the secret bar mitzvah ceremony of the late Israeli scientist Dr. Joachim Joseph held in Bergen Belsen, and the promise he made to the rabbi who had trained him. The promise of telling his bar mitzvah story and what he had endured in the concentration camp so that all the world would know. This week, some 80 years after that brave ceremony was held, I watched our grandson Alon being called up to the Torah as a bar mitzvah boy in the Israeli community of Alfei Menashe. The words I had penned two decades ago reverberated in my head. But with an important difference.
Joachim Joseph was a frail boy forcefully separated from his parents in the same concentration camp. Similarly infirm were the inmates of his bunker. Despite the weakened condition of all, they were bound together through a strong determination of upholding Jewish tradition and ensuring that Joachim celebrate this important Jewish rite of passage. They even made sure that word reach his mother, housed in a different part of the camp. And indeed, she secretly made her way to the bunker, standing outside, peering through a crack in the door in order to be present for her son.
There was no slinking through passageways in the darkness of night for our grandson’s bar mitzvah. It was proudly held in broad daylight for all to see, with his parents, two sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a gaggle of classmates by his side. But like Joachim’s celebration, it was held in the shadow of war and evil destruction. And like the bar mitzvah of 80 years ago, it was an occasion of unbridled joy and a modest affair reminding everyone present that the bombastic is not a necessary ingredient for unrestrained happiness.
Jewish joy has always been found in celebrating the customs and holidays carved out for us over the millennia. To quote Tevye the Milkman: “Tradition!” Holding tight to our heritage is the glue that has bound us together for over three thousand years. But the collective Jewish ability to keep our head held high regardless of where we live, and not second guess what wickedness may be lurking around the corner is only seventy-five years old, the age of the Jewish state, making the celebration of our grandson’s Bar-Mitzvah even more important.
As we clapped, sang, and trilled our tongues, this open and proud bar mitzvah reminded us of who we are and why we are in battle. From the Spanish Inquisition through the Holocaust, Jews defied danger because their Jewish identity was more important to them than anything else. Thanks to Israel, the whispered hushes of secrecy no longer exist. We have a country where all customs, holidays, and rituals are seamlessly integrated into daily life and are part and parcel of the national culture.
All Israelis – religious and secular – are “Keeping the Promise” of our Jewish heritage and our homeland. It is a pledge we have made for ourselves and for Jews around the world. It is a vow that all Jews in every corner of the globe must make, especially during these trying times across the Jewish map.