September 20, 2010
"I am 80 years old. I am a Holocaust survivor, and I never thought I would see my grandson's bar mitzvah." My father's words, spoken as he stood next to the bimah at Congregation B'nai Israel in Vallejo, California, brought tears to my eyes. He and my mother had flown six hours from New York to be in Vallejo on a summer day, with the temperature outside climbing toward 100 degrees, despite my mother's difficulty walking and my father's battle with ongoing health issues. Nothing would have kept them from seeing Levi, their only grandson, become a bar mitzvah. His mother, my sister Lisa, was adopted from Korea when she was 5 years old and is married to a non-Jewish man who is half Mexican. All of this only made the day more special, because Levi decided to have a bar mitzvah on his own, prompted only by what my uncle called "the fire of Judaism, which was somehow lit inside him."
|Levi is lifted in a chair by his father Les (left) and friends. Photo: Harry Olenberg.
My sister celebrates the Jewish holidays with her family in her home, with her husband Les's support. Still, they never pressured Levi or his 12-year-old sister, Temma, about religion. My sister had always felt confused about her own background. She was converted to Judaism through an Orthodox ceremony when she was a child, but has told me in recent years that she felt uncertain about how she fit in. She had more trouble learning Hebrew than my brother and me, because first she had to learn English. She also looked different from other Jews in our community, although I was so used to her almond-shaped eyes when I was young that I didn't understand that the difference existed. My brother had a bar mitzvah when he turned 13, but my sister and I decided against Bat Mitzvahs. Our parents were brought up with the old-world tradition that the event was not necessary for girls.
Lisa grew into adulthood, married Les in her early 30s, and soon had a son and daughter. My brother is unmarried, and an illness robbed me of my chance to have children when I was 29. By the time I married my husband at 44, I felt it was too late to start a family. Lisa's children, therefore, are my parents' only grandchildren. Levi and Temma have dark, panel-straight hair and brown eyes shaped much like Lisa's. They are lanky and slim, taller already than I, and mannerly, generous and creative. When I arrived at San Francisco International Airport the day before the bar mitzvah after a long trip from Boston, Levi offered to help with my bags. Temma, who was named after my grandmother, presented me with a necklace she had made out of colorful beads. The beads spelled "Cats" on one side and "Dogs" on the other because Temma knows how much I love animals. I adore these kids, and my parents would not have chosen any other grandchildren.
Still, for years we were uncertain if there would be a bar mitzvah. Levi had no formal Jewish education before he was 12. But when my father asked whether a bar mitzvah was in the works during the family's annual visit from the west coast that year, Levi said he would like to have one. My parents were thrilled, and my sister set out to try to make it happen. It wasn't an easy prospect because her family didn't belong to a synagogue. She was nervous about finding a congregation that would accept her interfaith family and a rabbi willing to work with Levi. She also was worried that it would be an uphill battle for Levi to learn a Torah portion, because he already struggled with his regular schoolwork.
Listening to Levi read in beautiful Hebrew inside the sanctuary of the B'nai Israel synagogue, with its whitewashed walls, rows of wooden chairs and colorful stained-glass windows filtering the light from a brutal sun, I wondered how my sister and Levi had made it happen. During the Kiddush lunch after services my sister explained that it was Rabbi David White and the warm acceptance of his small, vibrant congregation that made all the difference. The family had approached another rabbi about Levi's bar mitzvah, but he had discouraged them, saying it was unlikely Levi could be ready for a bar mitzvah by the age of 13. In fact, he wasn't; he became a bar mitzvah at 14. Rabbi White was unconcerned about Levi's age; he was too busy being impressed and excited by Levi's desire to do this. As he told the people gathered in the sanctuary that day, Levi was a leader--he brought his entire family with him into his Jewish experience. Age had no significance.
I witnessed the effect of the rabbi's encouragement and acceptance on both Levi and my sister. I have also noticed its affect on Temma and even Les. Levi and Temma began attending Hebrew school, and Les and Lisa spoke proudly of their children's accomplishments there and the caring, attentive Hebrew teachers. Levi, despite his difficulties at public school, blossomed with the encouragement of the Rabbi. Levi never complained about practicing or working hard to achieve this goal, a stark difference from his approach to his other studies. In fact he began to believe more in his abilities, and has since brought his grades up and is doing well in junior high school. And there was more; there was the palpable relief I could sense in my sister as she prepared for the special day, ordering kepot (yarmulkes) and arranging to cater the Kiddush. Lisa has always been a quiet person, but when she talked about this rabbi and the welcome her family had received in the congregation, she gushed enthusiastically. She called me a few weeks before the bar mitzvah and asked if I would take part in the ceremony, and said she needed my Hebrew name. She talked about the services and prayers with a confidence I had never heard in her before.
Lisa told me she never felt rejected at B'nai Israel because of Les' non-Jewish status. People of varied backgrounds are members of the synagogue, from transplanted Israelis to African Americans. For the first time in Lisa's life she felt as if she and her family belonged in a Jewish congregation.
I felt the warmth she had raved about as I sat in the sanctuary; it radiated from the Rabbi as he led the congregation through the service. My parents, Lisa, Les, Levi and Temma were seated in the front row. My Uncle Harry and Aunt Marlene, both in their seventies, sat in the row in front of me. They had also flown across the country from New York. Their three daughters--my first cousins--all moved from New York to Israel years ago, so Marlene and Harry's nine grandchildren are Israelis. They also live there now, for seven months of every year. But they knew this bar mitzvah would be a special event for our family.
On the opposite side of the room sat two of Levi's friends who had been invited to attend with their parents and siblings. Neither family was Jewish. I watched them read along with the English in the prayer books and observe the proceedings with interest. Rabbi White, an ordained Conservative rabbi whose father was Rabbi Saul White of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, gave a spirited, inclusive sermon. I didn't even realize until halfway through that it was his sermon, because he moved so smoothly from the prayers and proceedings into observations about how we treat each other as human beings, the meaning of justice, and what it really is to walk with G-d. With a sweep of his hand he included the two families who were in attendance at Levi's invitation. At one point he asked their names, and told them they were welcome.
My parents, my aunt and uncle, and me were the only other attendees on the small invitation list (my husband and brother unfortunately could not make the trip.) The entire congregation, of course, was invited to the ceremony and the Kiddush. But Levi did not want to invite legions of friends. He had no desire to host a big party, or to have a band or games. He simply wanted one thing: to stand at the bimah, recite the Torah portion and prayers he had learned, and then to be able to say (as he wrote on Facebook the next day), "I am now a man!"
Early in the ceremony, when the ark was opened and the Torah removed, my father and sister joined the rabbi near the bimah. The rabbi handed the scrolls to my father, who then handed them to my sister before she passed them on to her son. It was important to my father to take part in this ceremonial handing down of the Torah from generation to generation, even if his back was in pain and his hands were shaking. During World War II, on the day that should have been his own bar mitzvah, my father was starving in a work camp. He never dreamed, during those terrible years, that he would pass the culture and traditions for which he was being persecuted to a generation the Third Reich hoped to obliterate. The fact that this generation, more than sixty years later, turned out to be part Korean, part Mexican, and 100% American, could not matter less to him or to any of us. My own pain over my inability to give my parents grandchildren has been tempered by my sister's beautiful kids. And now Levi, through his quest to have a bar mitzvah, has helped Lisa finally feel what was always true: she belongs.
There was one small error during the ceremony. Les was not supposed to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the bimah because he is not Jewish. The rabbi's assistant made a mistake and told Les to wear it, so he did. Rabbi White chose not to correct the mistake during the ceremony. Afterward he mentioned it, however, and Les apologized. The rabbi said not to worry. "I thought it looked rather good on you," he added with a smile.
And Les, who has never felt drawn to religion, responded to the rabbi on the day of his son's bar mitzvah, "If anyone could convince me of that, it's you."