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A Year in the Life of a Family's Bar Mitzvah: A Personal Account

Review of Kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith, and Family  (Simon & Schuster, 255 pp., $23.00), by Roberta Israeloff.

Roberta Israeloff's new book, Kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith, and Family, is as much about the year leading up to her son Ben's Bar Mitzvah as it is her own coming-of-age story. This is not new territory for Ms. Israeloff, who has written with great candor and insight about her own adolescence, motherhood and ongoing search for Jewish identity. In many ways Kindling the Flame and Lost and Found: A Woman's Intimate Exploration of Her Journey from Girlhood to Adolescence (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $12.00), a previous book in which Ms. Israeloff remembers her year in eighth grade, are book ends. Lost and Found makes effective use of Ms. Israeloff's adolescent diary entries to pinpoint the moments that a young girl stops raising her hand in science class or suddenly feels too awkward to be around boys. This kind of precision elevates Ms. Israeloff's work from the merely confessional, inspiring readers to sift through their own memories and recover a piece of themselves.

At the beginning of Kindling the Flame, Ms. Israeloff recalls a moment when Ben was still a baby and she sat with her dying father “thinking that having children had anchored me to the physical world, and to time, in ways I hadn't before experienced.” Lurking in the shadows was her difficult yet ineffable attachment to Judaism. A decade later motherhood and Jewish identity meet at a crossroads in Ms. Israeloff's life. At that juncture she realizes that “I was unable on my own, to give my children the kind of Jewish education I had, a tactile, visceral, aromatic Judaism that seeps through your pores as much as your ears and eyes.” Much of that brand of Judaism was reflected in the Shabbat (Sabbath) candles that her grandmothers lit, the Passover seders that her father conducted and the Yiddish words she heard all of her life but declined to speak herself.

But Ms. Israeloff and her family found it necessary to search for a more formal relationship to their Judaism--a relationship that included Bar Mitzvah lessons for Ben and a philosophically like-minded community for her. She found a Reconstructionist synagogue near her home on the North Shore of Long Island that did away with many of the pretensions of suburban synagogues.

At this point Kindling the Flame also becomes a story about joining a community and learning how to flex one's own spiritual muscles. “The synagogue,” Ms. Israeloff said in a recent interview with Jewish Family & Life!, “was everything I had hoped for in terms of values and an activist agenda. I did feel myself hanging back at first. I wasn't that observant and I was worried about being an imposter. It was the strength of the social action committee that first drew me in.” The reader is similarly drawn into these seemingly routine meetings through Ms. Israeloff's vivid writing. In her capable hands, the social action committee is comprised of individuals, not stereotypes. Thought-provoking discussions push aside bureaucratic business.

As Ben's Bar Mitzvah approaches, the synagogue becomes a more integral part of Ms. Israeloff's life. It takes her some period of time to attend her first service. But she eventually does as a member of the synagogue's chorus, and suddenly a service which felt mechanical and rote is illuminated with meaning. She writes that that happened as she and her fellow chorus members sing “O sey Shalom:”

I knew each of us was summoning memories that paralleled mine, of my time-traveling grandmother who lit candles in the near dark of a Sabbath evening and taught me the wordless melodies she'd learned in another country, from a mother of whom not even a photo survives, in a community now all but obliterated. We were tapping into one of Judaism's deepest wellsprings when we sang.

The passage of time, Jewish time and real time, are pervasive themes in Kindling the Flame. “For me,” says Ms. Israeloff, “Ben's Bar Mitzvah was not about his pending adulthood but a marker in time, the finality of death. It was very profound.” But Ms. Israeloff is careful not to view time as strictly chronological or cyclical. Her model is the relationship between the Jewish and secular calendars. The former presents the unpredictable timing of the Jewish holidays as idiosyncratically “running not in counterpoint, but in opposition to the school calendar, a capricious, elfin syncopation, an irrepressible wildness that seemed to delight in confounding.” That confusion is the basis of what is perhaps the ultimate American Jewish paradox--living a meaningful Jewish life in the midst of an overwhelmingly non-Jewish world. In Ms. Israeloff's memoirs that paradox manifests itself as seeking the elusive world of our ancestors, yet maintaining our distance from it. It is also about claiming a symbolic place at Sinai yet wanting to remain solitary in our devotion. She writes:

I didn't feel especially close to God--my most intense spiritual moments still occurred when I was alone, reading, walking on the beach, reading a poem late at night in my study--but I did feel close to my brother and sister Jews, to this unwieldy, loud, colorful group of strangers who weren't total strangers. This feeling had a kind of spirituality all its own, one I couldn't achieve by myself; I had to be here to sample its variety.

Ms. Israeloff's contemplation of time expands into a larger consideration of the meaning and ultimate importance of ritual. She says that “ritual really began for me with this impending Bar Mitzvah. For the first time it was totally up to me. My parents arranged my wedding and my sons' brit [ritual circumcisions]. I wanted to be very deliberate about not allowing religious ritual to become an excuse to say that's what we cling to and have it be a synonym for routine. Ritual really is about something new--a length of time to get out of the every day.” And she writes, “all rituals, I realized, arise when the three normally parallel strands of time--past, future, and present--jump their tracks and collide head-on. Whether the ritual occurs daily, weekly, yearly, or over the span of a lifetime, it gives us the opportunity to remark on change.”

Change went hand in hand with memory at Ben's Bar Mitzvah. It was on display when Ms. Israeloff decided to wear her wedding dress to the Bar Mitzvah. It was there in poems read in memory of her father and her sister-in-law. And it was also there in things not spoken or made explicit. “There is always an underside to adolescence, Ms. Israeloff observes. “There is never just happiness at a Bar Mitzvah. It is really about time marching on and absorbing the paradox of ritual.”

Perhaps equally profound was that the Bar Mitzvah brought Ms. Israeloff face to face with the contradictions of belonging to a community. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Religion is solitude in community.” That realization forms the core of Roberta Israeloff's coming-of-age story.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.

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