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A Year of Learning: One Family’s Bat Mitsvah Journey

Vera Sandronsky
May 3, 2016

by Vera Sandronsky

From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

YadABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, my husband Alan and I had to decide what we wanted for our daughter Rebecca’s bat mitzvah. Although we belong to a local synagogue and appreciate the importance of community in Jewish life, we felt that she needed to go through an independent process. Something seemed noticeably lacking in the synagogue’s b’nai mitzvah curriculum: an appreciation for Jewish culture, including the music, theater, and food traditions of our Western and Eastern European ancestors. Being Jewish had brought us a cultural richness, a sense of belonging that was primary to our identity and key to what we wanted to give our daughter. After all, our grandparents had not been religious Jews, yet they clearly lived a Jewish cultural life.

Alan and I, in our separate lives and in the course of our marriage, have evolved in our Jewish identities. I grew up secular, studied Judaism and Jewish history as a young woman, then joined a Conservative synagogue in my late thirties, after my mother died. He grew up in a Reform Jewish community, and in his first marriage found a home in a warm and intimate Orthodox community in Palo Alto, California. We were wed in a Conservative synagogue, where we were members for many years, until we became disillusioned after hearing too many sermons from the bimah that spoke to a worldview directly hostile to our beliefs. We next joined a Reform congregation that was welcoming and engaged us intellectually. We found a home there until we moved to another city.

The Sunday school program in our city’s only synagogue did not bring Rebecca (or us) closer to Judaism. The curriculum left our naturally curious and intelligent daughter frustrated and wanting more that could engage her mind and help her apply her Jewish learning to her life. Alan’s broad experience in Jewish life, however, including with an Orthodox community, had given him exposure to so many different approaches to Judaism, all claiming to be authentically true to a 3,000 year-old tradition, that he felt empowered to help forge a bat mitzvah path, authentic to our family.

We began a conversation with Matt Biers, a local high school English teacher who had been educated at the Reform Jewish Seminary in Cincinnati and had designed a radically different path for his son’s bar mitzvah: a family bicycle trip across the country that included talking with people about climate change and delivering a climate-change petition to Congress. Matt wrote a book about the experience, The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast. For his family, the bar mitzvah had been a coming-of-age ritual, not an academic course of study.

We next asked my husband’s Jewish film group what it meant for them to be Jewish, and what we should pass on to our daughter as part of her bat mitzvah education. The eldest member suggested that we educate Rebecca about Jewish culture. The idea seemed to resonate with Rebecca, because it meant we could explore the Jewish aspects of cultural experiences that our family already valued.

AT THE SAME TIME, we wanted our daughter to become comfortable with Jewish ritual by mastering basic skills, including reading and studying the Torah and learning the basic prayers, which would enable her to participate comfortably in any synagogue of her choosing. So Rebecca began actively studying with Arik Labowitz, a teacher with whom she had weekly Skype sessions and monthly sessions at his home office. One of the unexpected gifts of this year of study was that Rebecca was able to share her Skype sessions with another student, a young man preparing for his bar mitzvah, in whom she found a like-minded peer. Alan and I had very little involvement with these sessions, other than a few meetings with Arik to discuss plans for the service — such as ritual decisions (learn the haftorah or not?), and how we would include family members and friends.

Rebecca has always been a child who can engage in long conversations and is not afraid to ask difficult questions in her search for knowledge. As she wrestled with questions about her personal identity and place in the world, she discovered that secular philosophy offered a fertile ground for study and possible tools for finding her own meaning in her Torah portion — Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30), in which Moses addresses the people about how to live. Rebecca attempted to reconcile the moral absolutism of this text with the post-modern relativism of our liberal community. Her reading of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, which offered an ethical perspective beyond a specific set of rules, appealed to her, since it seemed to open the door to a broader understanding of the search for meaning in life. Her struggle to reconcile existentialism with the Biblical text would become a central part of her bat mitzvah preparation.

Since we had made a conscious decision to include Jewish culture in her bat mitzvah preparations, we sat down as a family to discuss how to do so.

We watched The Tomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, produced by Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. This entertaining production tells the story of his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomaskefsky, who immigrated from Ukraine and became pioneering stars of Yiddish theater in America.

We heard the Klezmatics at the new San Francisco Jazz Center. At the end of the concert, the crowd danced in the aisles.

Rebecca learned to make two traditional foods, latkes and challah, from good friends. The one who taught her how to make latkes became her adopted Yiddish grandfather, with whom she could talk openly with about her ambivalence and the struggles that became more noticeable in the weeks before her ceremony.

For spring vacation, we traveled across the country to New York. On our first day we saw an original play written and performed by a Russian-Jewish Theater group on the Lower East Side. On another day we had lunch with Lawrence Bush, the editor of Jewish Currents, and then joined him in a meeting at The Nation magazine to hear several people discuss recent events in Palestine and Israel. As observers to this meeting, we took in the diversity of opinions in the room, including the opinions expressed by activists in the Israeli Jewish community and a Palestinian representative. My husband and I were reminded of the culture of dissent that has been the hallmark of many Jews.

After the meeting at The Nation, we attended a lecture by Bush about Jewish progressivism, which took place in a small theater in Greenwich Village. The discussion after the talk turned to Israel and the Holocaust, and our daughter made a comment to which one of the most senior members of the audience responded. This woman, who had lived through Nazi Germany, gently conveyed a point of view that our daughter did not natively understand, since anti-Semitism is outside her personal experience. It was moving to see the two of them trying to find common ground across generations on a difficult topic.

The day’s adventures vividly brought home to us that in addition to music, theater, and food traditions, critical discourse and an ability to appreciate different points of view were fundamental to what we wanted our daughter to breathe in as part of her Jewish tradition.

FOR THE FALL HOLIDAYS during our daughter’s year of study, we knew we had to try something new rather than recycle previous years’ holiday services, which had failed to inspire us. Our search took us to Rabbi Michael Lerner’s services in Berkeley, California, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, brought new life to our holidays with his direct appeal to our intellect and his use of prayer translations that could stand on their own as memorable writings. He also spoke clearly about the daunting political challenges of our times, and his services showed us how Jewish ritual could provide an avenue for understanding and taking action. Each of us discovered that we did not have to leave ourselves behind at religious services, but could use them as a time of awakening and joy. Our daughter felt comfortable in this synagogue and even shared with Rabbi Lerner the connections she saw between a book she had recently read, by Madeline L’Engle, and her impressions from the service.

When spring rolled around, Rebecca’s teacher Arik asked all of his students to take an active part in their Passover seders, and this helped ignite a very lively discussion in our house on the first night of Passover as we read through the haggadah we had been using and adapting for several years (Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder) in preparation for our extended family seder. Rebecca cared about the ideas and the presentation of the seder, and together we made changes to our text. Previously, it had been Alan and I who would make the text fresh for ourselves and our guests. This year, our daughter found her seat at the table.

For Shavuot, we again traveled to Berkeley for an all-night study session (our first with Rebecca) at the Berkeley Jewish Community Center. She chose to attend sessions with her Skype study partner, who was also present, while Alan and I made separate choices for some sessions and shared others. Then we all gathered in the cool night air of the JCC courtyard for delicious food and conversation. Rebecca’s excitement about this evening was palpable, and she and her friend campaigned for her to stay later than our planned departure time to drink in more of the ideas and electric discourse. How could we say no? This all-night tikkun, attended by at least three hundred Jewish men, women, and children of various ages, stimulated our minds and nurtured our desire for Jewish community.

AFTER OUR DAUGHTER returned early in the summer from camp, the September 5, 2015 bat mitzvah date loomed large in all our lives. The focus on preparations became an occupation for all three of us. Rebecca had procrastinated about sitting down to practice the prayers, her Torah portion, and the writing of her drash. We wondered why this process had become so difficult. During the summer we’d had many family conversations that revealed some resistance on her part to the very notion of becoming a bat mitzvah. Yet she had also showed an ongoing drive to find meaning in her study. Now I wondered whether she had taken on too tall a mountain to climb.

Rebecca’s effort to incorporate Sartre’s existentialism in her wrestling with her Torah portion had proved to be quite difficult. Alan and I wanted to support her search for meaning in the Torah portion, and to provide her with assistance while allowing her to have her own experience of struggling with the text. How best to navigate this was often unclear. At times in the summer, her bat mitzvah journey seemed like a trip to a foreign country, and we felt ill-equipped to make sense of what we were observing and how to prepare for the uncertainty ahead. Alan and I even wondered if we really wanted to keep moving forward, if to do so meant so much angst for our daughter and for us.

We let Rebecca know that in order to finish the writing of her drash, she needed to set some limits for herself. I began to climb the mountain beside her, by reading what she had written, offering comments and emotional support, and helping her navigate the logjam of expectations she had brought to the completion of her talk.

To help her through this time of toil, we reached out to her adopted Yiddish grandfather. We had Shabbat together and Rebecca was able to talk freely to him about her struggles. The serious attention he gave her reminded us how fortunate we were that our daughter had other adults to support her. We also recognized that as her parents we did not need to have answers to all of her questions; in retrospect this seems so obvious, but we had to experience our own churning to arrive at this understanding.

In the days leading up to the bat mitzvah, I felt the love and support of many friends who helped us get ready. At the ceremony itself, we sat in a semi-circle to surround Rebecca, and all of our guests had the opportunity to recite blessings for the reading of the Torah in Hebrew. Our daughter reached out to her audience with her welcoming words for both our Jewish and non-Jewish guests. The ceremony, which we enhanced with carefully chosen secular readings, was filled with warmth and even some unplanned moments of humor. As the party began, I reflected with delight on the happy faces of our guests and on our daughter, relaxing and enjoying this time with her friends.

Rebecca’s drash ultimately addressed what it means when we turn away from our own ethics to do whatever is easiest in the moment. She discussed references in the Biblical text to poison weed and wormwood, a bitter shrub that grows in Israel. She observed that turning away from what is right is a spiritual poisoning, a turning away from what is good, or, she wrote, “if you wish to interpret it this way, turning away from God.”

“What is good?” Rebecca asked. “The way I see it is that good is a lens through which we see the world. We all have our own lens and see things differently. Now, this can seem depressing, the idea that the world has no set meaning and is therefore meaningless. But I think that’s overly simplistic. When there is no meaning, we can make our own meanings and make them the best that we possibly can. Everyone can and everyone does.”

Our life, she continued, is originally an empty canvas that becomes colorful because we paint meanings onto it, but the actions that paint our life’s canvas do not always match our moral sensibilities. She ended her drash with the following: “The Torah is a way to begin a discussion about being human and living life, and what to do with your life. The discussion starts with a line, and then becomes a question which then becomes another couple dozen questions. The key is exploration, beginning with one line.” These words brought meaning to the struggle she had waged with the text.

L'haimLooking back on her bat mitzvah year, Rebecca says that she began it with skepticism but with belief that she would get something out of it. The most rewarding activities for her were those that were the least structured, such as the tikkun in Berkeley, in which she could choose what she wanted to study. She also liked the Jewish gatherings with friends and family in which she could have lively discussions, share jokes, hear stories and eat delicious food. Her design of the logo for the bat mitzvah invitation, an LP record with L’Chaim written on it, represented a lovely blending of Judaism with her passion for music.

She continues to question the importance of her Jewish identity, and her reflections back over the year do not lead her to tidy answers. I have come to understand that I do not, cannot, have the answers for her, but I can listen lovingly to her questions.

Vera Sandronsky lives in Davis, California and is a Water Attorney for the State of California.

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