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Starting From Scratch

Originally published in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, as "Starting From Scratch: Son Of Interfaith Parents Discovers Judaism Through Bar Mitzvah." Reprinted by permission.

Sept. 19, 2008

The bar mitzvah was something of a miracle.

That's what Rabbi Moshe Levin likes to say. And it's not such an exaggeration, considering that before 12-year-old Thomas Karatzas came to Levin's congregation with the intent of becoming a bar mitzvah, the boy had never even entered a synagogue, let alone read Hebrew or recited the Sh'ma.

But after four tutors and months of practice and study, Thomas stood proudly on the bimah of Congregation Ner Tamid of San Francisco Aug. 30.

"Judaism believes that people have choices," he said in his speech. "We can choose to be good or bad. The Israelites of old had choices, and today, we also have choices. I had a choice. I chose to have a bar mitzvah."

The decision was strictly his own.

Thomas grew up in an interfaith household. His father, John Karatzas, was raised Greek Orthodox. His mother, Isabelle Karatzas, grew up Sephardic Orthodox in Morocco and France. But she didn't like the rigidity of Orthodoxy, and when she was her son's age, instead of committing to an adult Jewish life, she decided she no longer wanted to be religious.

When Thomas was born in 1995, Isabelle and John decided their son "would know about both religions, but we would never decide on one for him," Isabelle said.

Consequently, Thomas knew about the faiths that shaped his parents' lives, but never practiced either.

But about six months before his 13th birthday, on a cool January day, he came home from the French American International School and announced: I want to have a bar mitzvah.

His mother tried to convince him not to. Even into adulthood and parenthood, she remained wary of Jewish ritual and prayer.

"I was not enthusiastic. He had to convince me that he was genuine about his decision, that it wasn't only because he wanted a party or gifts," she said.

Thomas is a thin boy with rumpled brown hair and a friendly face. He is easy-going and soft-spoken, but when he has an opinion, he speaks up--with conviction. What's his favorite song to play on the electric guitar? "'Sunshine of Your Love' by Cream," he says without hesitation.

So Thomas wanted a bar mitzvah, and he wouldn't change his mind. He told his parents he wanted to deepen his understanding of and connection to Judaism, and most importantly, he wanted to bring together both sides of his far-flung family.

Since the Karatzases knew next to nothing about San Francisco's Jewish community, they had no idea where to look for a rabbi or a synagogue that would take on Thomas.

"It's a beautiful story" how they found both, John said.

One day in March, John ran into their landlord, a kindly Holocaust survivor by the name of Leon Rajninger.

"Leon, we need help," John said. "We don't know where to go to have a bar mitzvah for Thomas."

"Don't worry," Leon answered, "I'll take care of it."

Leon introduced the family to his rabbi, Moshe Levin of Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue not far from the Karatzas' home in the Sunset District of San Francisco.

"I was thrilled we might have the opportunity to connect with a young man and his family who really are on the fringe of Jewish identity and community," Levin said.

Thomas began going to synagogue each Shabbat with his father, who "embraced wholeheartedly" the ritual and prayers of the service.

"I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood in New York, and since I grew up with that culture, I felt comfortable in synagogue," he said. "I was just happy that Thomas had found a community to join."

Every Saturday, Thomas met with the cantor for a tutoring session, but soon realized that wasn't enough. In May, he began meeting with another tutor three times a week, in addition to his sessions with the cantor and attending Shabbat services.

Meanwhile, he started spending time at Club 18, a JCC of San Francisco program for middle- and high-school students. A staff member suggested he go to Camp Tawonga, and since studying for his bar mitzvah was the summer's only plan, he decided to take a three-week break from his studies and go to camp.

The day before his bar mitzvah, per his mother's request Thomas participated in a tefillin ceremony, a traditional but largely forgotten practice that 60 years ago was considered "the key moment for a bar mitzvah boy," Levin said.

Thomas' Jewish relatives flew in from Lyon, France, for the event, as did his Greek Orthodox grandparents from New York.

"I really wanted all of my family together," Thomas said.

Thomas took his late grandfather's name, Yehudah, as his Hebrew name. He wore a tallit his grandmother bought for him, as she has done for all of her grandchildren.

After the service, Thomas' family and friends celebrated that evening with a party at his home, with drinks and Moroccan food made by his maternal French-Moroccan grandmother.

Thomas said his Jewish journey is just beginning. He hopes to go to Israel next summer, where his grandfather is buried. He wants to go back to Camp Tawonga, and to continue attending Shabbat services.

Last week, Levin called him to the bimah to lead the congregation in the Mourner's Kaddish, in honor of his grandfather, whose yahrzeit was earlier in the week.

"Because it was the boy making the choice, the focus was not on the party, not on the presents, not on the invitation list, not on the caterer, the music or the band," Levin said of Thomas' bar mitzvah. "I've been a rabbi for 39 years and have officiated at a few thousand bar mitzvahs, and rarely was the focus so exclusively upon the actual essence of bar mitzvah."

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." Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. 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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head). Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) 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. 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. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Stacey Palevsky is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

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