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One Family's Multicultural Coming of Age Celebrations: The Jewish Bar Mitzvah and The Hindu Thread Ceremony

May 26, 2009

For Washington-born Dev Talvadkar, religious allegiance pivots on the traditions of Judaism and Hinduism, practiced by his American-born mother, Linda Finkel-Talvadkar, and his Indian-born father, Vivek.

When Dev celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, he flew 9,000 miles to Bombay to honor coming-of-age customs linked to the Hindu and Jewish religions for centuries--from the chanting of the Torah blessings to the celebration of the Thread Ceremony, a Hindu custom celebrated when a boy turns thirteen.

A desire to underscore shared values has inspired family living in the Finkel-Talvadkar home. "The value systems of our religions, particularly the emphasis on family, fascinates me," says Vivek.

The Thread Ceremony, Vivek relates, takes its name from the circular thread which the boy is given as he is told, "Now you are a man." The thread was once worn permanently, slung around the shoulder and head, as one wears a purse. Vivek described the family's reenactment of the ancient ceremony, which began with the symbolic cutting of Dev's hair. Dev then shed his silk finery and donned simple cotton garments and a wrap. "Dev picked up a stick," his father described, "and circling the hall, he asked everyone's blessings, gathering from them food and money in his simple cloth, sustenance for his journey. Linda fed him sweets, just as the mother of old fed her son for the last time as he moved from her protection to life with the guru. Dev then left the hall, and returned as we reenacted the welcoming ceremony. He donned his former finery, we lit a fire and served the feast."

Four days after this Thread Ceremony, Dev celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Magen Hasidim, a l00-year-old synagogue belonging to the Bene Israel Jews, who, though living in an isolated part of India, maintained their traditions over thousands of years.

Kissing the mezuzah as he entered the synagogue, Dev lit the ancient oil lamps, stood on the bima (stage from which the ceremony is performed) surrounded by family, including his parents, his sister, Kiran, then, his grandparents Vasant R. (meaning spring) Talvadkar and his wife Shobha V. (meaning beauty). Middle initials, which stand for one's father's name and signify lineage, are important in the Hindu culture.

Donning his traditional blue and black tallit (prayer shawl), Dev was symbolically enveloped by a blend of cultures woven into its design and fabric. The raw silk was from India, and the tzitzit (fringes) were imported from Israel by fabric artist Shirley Waxman, creator of the tallit. The four corners bore the four initials of his given name, his father's Hindu name, his mother's family name and his father's family name.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony echoed the rituals of generations. Opening the ark, Dev removed the Torah, marched with it around the interior of the synagogue and offered his tzitzit (fringes) to the assembled congregants to kiss. He then recited the traditional blessings he had learned back home at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md. His father read a Torah blessing in translation. The Torah portion, Miketz, read both in Hebrew and Marathi, told of Joseph's meeting with his brothers in Egypt.

Linda and Vivek met twenty-two years ago on a TWA flight from Bombay. He was attending Harvard Business School and she was returning from a winter vacation in Bombay. She had always been interested in Asian and Hindu religions.

"As a member of the Hindu religion, practiced by 85 percent of the Indian population, I had no idea about Jews or the presence of Jews in Bombay," says Vivek, who is now division manager of corporate finance services, part of the World Bank Group. "I learned about Judaism from Linda."

The two married in 1980 in a civil ceremony in Cambridge, MA, and a Hindu ceremony in Bombay later in the year. "I wore a shaloo, a red silk sari embroidered in red thread," she recalls, "and circled Vivek during the ceremony, as is the Jewish practice."

Two years later, she continues, "we had a Jewish ceremony in our house. We built our own chuppah (wedding canopy) poles and draped them with my father's tallit (prayer shawl), and blessed each important person in our lives."

The Hanukkah lights burn brightly in the Talvadkar home in Northwest Washington, DC--but so does the light of Diwali, a Hindu festival of light which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. On the day of that festival, the Talvadkar home overflows with school and family friends.

Vivek's father's wife Jennifer turned Linda on to the possibility of celebrating Dev's Bar Mitzvah in Bombay. "She connected us with her uncle, who helped us with the arrangements," says Linda. "Dev had always wanted a simple and private Bar Mitzvah, which matched the Bene Israel practices."

As Linda entered the balcony of Magen Hassidim on the day of Dev's Bar Mitzvah, she was reminded of the synagogue where her grandparents worshipped in Russia. "A Bar Mitzvah here, I told myself, would be the precious link to both cultures we had worked so hard to preserve."

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. Hebrew for "tassel" or "fringe," the name for specially knotted ritual fringes (strings). They appear on the four corners of a tallit (prayer shawl worn during prayer services) and tallit katan (small shawl, worn by observant Jews every day under their shirts). A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Helen Belitsky

Helen Belitsky is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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