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

By Helen Belitsky

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.”


About Helen Belitsky

Helen Belitsky is a freelance writer based in Maryland.