November 29, 2012
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Grandpa’s bar mitzvah

Community Newspaper Group

Last August, I was visiting my grandparents at their home in Los Angeles. I live in Moscow and travel often to the U.S., and I try to make it a priority to fly to L.A. at least once a year to visit.

Sitting in the living room with my grandparents on that summer night, I inquired about a family member who was turning 13 and whether he will be having a bar mitzvah, and how I could help him celebrate.

Grandma says to me, “Why are you worried about your cousin, if your own grandfather never had a bar mitzvah?”

“Papa, you never had a bar mitzvah?” I asked, not so surprised.

“No, I did not, Avraham, and it’s your fault, too!” Papa tells me.

Grandma and Papa lead good, ethical lives, but are not Orthodox. My mother embraced observant Judaism in her early 20s and I was raised in a home full of the spirit and way of life of Chabad chassidim.

For me and my eight siblings, our grandparents have always been a pivotal part of our family life. Despite the cultural and religious differences that divide us, we always find myriad ways to connect, as families should, with love and joy.

The one subject that was a challenge, though, was religion. As a teen, I was tested to the core; my grandparents never wanted me to practice my faith or religion by rote or accept without questioning.

Out of respect, I never urged them to increase their observance in Judaism. They are my elders and teachers, not the other way around.

“Papa, how is it my fault?” I asked, thinking that the response was sure to be interesting.

Papa reminded me of a ride he gave me in 1997 from his home in the Hills to the Valley in Encino, to visit with Mr. Lionel S., whom I had met the previous summer on a trip to Alaska.

In July 1996, I was spending my second summer in Alaska working for my Chabad outreach mentors, Rabbi Yosef and Esther Greenberg, who serve as remarkable Chabad representatives to one of the last frontiers. I was standing on Fourth Avenue outside the Alaska Visitor’s Center in downtown Anchorage; I had a pair of tefillin and packets of information about the Chabad Jewish Center. My task that morning was to greet tourists and passengers disembarking from cruise ships who may be interested in a kosher meal or Jewish services during their stay in beautiful Alaska.

It was always a delight to meet tourists from all over the world who were usually very surprised, or not surprised at all, to see a young Chabad student reaching out to fellow Jews on the street side, in Anchorage no less.

Then I saw a tall, elderly man with his wife coming out of the visitor’s center and heading to Fourth Avenue, I approached them with a smile and greeted them. The man looked at me sharply, and in a loud stern voice told me to keep on walking. Shaken, I said, “I apologize; I was greeting fellow Jews who have come to Alaska.”

“Then go find someone else to bother,” he shot back. “I want nothing to do with you!”

My head was spinning; I was hurt inside, yet knew I had done nothing disrespectful. It was obviously what I represent — being a religious Jew, wearing a beard and a kippah on my head — that upset him so.

“Sir, with all due respect,” I quickened my step, stood beside him, and looked directly into his eyes. “I assume that an Orthodox Jew has done something very wrong to you and therefore you won’t talk to me. Please, tell me how you have been wronged, so I, as another Orthodox Jew, will not repeat the same mistake in the future.”

The man calmed down and asked me to sit down with him and his wife on a nearby bench. For the next hour, I sat enwrapped listening to Lionel S.’s story:

“I was born in London in 1929. My father was a soldier in the British allied forces against the Nazis. Before my father went to the front, he begged my mother to take good care of me and make sure that I will be bar mitzvah. As the Germans pounded London during the blitzkrieg, my mother and I fled to Wales to escape the bombardment.

“Life was extremely difficult, we were poor and we lived from hand to mouth. My mother, however, wanted to prepare me for my bar mitzvah as she promised my father, so she brought me to the synagogue in Cardiff for bar mitzvah lessons. A few other boys were gathered there and I sat through my first class listening carefully, trying to take my mind off the war and our troubles. When my mother came to fetch me, the bar mitzvah instructor told my mother that the classes would cost one pound sterling. My mother, who was penniless, begged the rabbi to forgive the costs. He responded, ‘Sorry, no pound, no bar mitzvah!’

“My mother was humiliated. She took me by the collar and we left the synagogue. That was the last time I ever set foot into a synagogue! I never had a bar mitzvah and my father, who never returned from the front, never had his last wish fulfilled.”

Lionel and I were crying on the bench, and I could not find words of defense for what had been done to him and his mother. I could have argued that the teacher or rabbi was feeding many children and also had to survive. He may have been using the funds for saving other displaced families... I looked at Lionel and said, “I am now a rabbinical student, and I promise you that if parents do not have the means to make a bar mitzvah for their son, I will always remember your story and will not charge the parents for their son’s bar mitzvah.”

Lionel was satisfied with my response, but I could sense his deeper hurt, from having never celebrated his own bar mitzvah.

“Lionel, come, let us go put on tefillin and have your bar mitzvah and fulfill your father’s last wish.”

And so, the short young rabbinical student and the tall, elderly, and formerly antagonistic, man walked down the Anchorage street to Lionel’s hotel suite, where I was privileged to put tefillin on Lionel for the first time in his life and celebrate his bar mitzvah.

Lionel was thrilled and excitedly called his children in the lower 48 to tell them the story of his Alaskan bar mitzvah.

A year later, I was visiting my grandparents in L.A. and I asked my grandfather to drive me over to Lionel’s home so I could visit him again.

And now Papa told me that after that meeting and hearing Lionel’s story of his belated bar mitzva, he, too, was ready to have one.

My grandfather was reminded of his own childhood. He was born without a father — he died in a Typhus epidemic in 1918 while his wife mother was still pregnant. He was raised by his hard-working mother, but never had a father to take him to the synagogue to have a bar mitzvah.

But I had never followed through, I never made the request, and that is why it is my fault that, until today, he had never celebrated his bar mitzvah!

“Tomorrow morning, Papa,” I promised.

“Great! I will have my bar mitzvah in the morning.”

At 6:30 am on Friday, Aug. 10, 2007, my 88-year-old grandfather and I went to the back patio of his home, where I helped him put on my tallit, gently wrapped the hand tefillin around his arm, and placed the other one on his head. Papa made the blessings and said the Shema and then I received the most loving and long embrace from Papa, while we sang together “Siman Tov U’mazal Tov.” Grandma and Papa were both moved to tears of joy.

This was absolutely the most moving highlight of my personal and rabbinical life — to be able to come full circle with my own grandfather.

My grandfather quickly called my mother in Detroit and sent emails and follow up calls to my eight siblings living around the world. I went to Radio Shack and bought my grandfather a large screen for his computer as his bar mitzvah present, so he can continue to stay in touch with all of his grandchildren and his more than 20 great-grandchildren for many happy and healthy years to come.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz works at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Article reprinted from the Judaism website Chabad.org. To learn more about bar mitzvah visit www.chabad.org/BarMitzvah and www.chabad.org/BatMitzvah

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