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Ruthie’s Bat Mitzvah

MusicThe Bat Mitzvah of my daughter Ruth Leah Ross was held at Belgium House on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University (in a time before the coronavirus). We began at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning with what my wife Sarah describes as a “marrano prayer service.”

I had insisted that Ruthie read the Torah as part of her Bat Mitzvah (I was to be her teacher). From the start, however, Ruthie had been against the idea. The feminist movement has not quite made it to her (Orthodox) social circle, and she did not want to appear freakish to her friends.

I explained to Ruthie that as far as I was concerned the cantillation notes and the melody that go with the singing of the Torah are an integral part of Torah. I reminded her that she first became aware of Torah not as dry chapter and verse, but in synagogue as a very little girl hearing the Torah’s melody as she scurried to get candy from the candyman. On her bat mitzvah, I reasoned with her, a day when she accepted personal responsibility for the Torah, it made sense for her to receive not a muted, silenced Torah, but a Torah full of melody and song. Ruthie listened patiently to my arguments and then told me that there was absolutely no way that she was going to read from the Torah.

So I resorted to a tried-and-true parenting method: extortion. Ruthie would get her bat mitzvah party only if she would consent to read from the Torah. When she saw that I was serious, she relented—on one condition: none of her friends could be in attendance. That is how we ended up with our marrano bat mitzvah service.

Ruthie’s reading of the Monday Torah portion was beautiful, and right after she finished singing and just before my other kids pelted her with candy, I was pleased to hear her let out a sigh—which indicated to me that she had taken this seriously and now had a palpable feeling of relief and accomplishment.

The bat mitzvah party itself was called for 9 a.m. In America, unless you wanted to be very lonely, you could never call a celebration for such a time on a workday—very few friends and family would take off from work. Israel, however, supports people who miss work to attend religious life-cycle events. For the most part, if you show up to work at 11:30 and say that you had a bat mitzvah to go to that morning, your explanation will be accepted as perfectly reasonable and understandable. Sure, you will still need to get that project done or submit that proposal by its deadline, but those few hours that morning will not be considered vacation time nor will you be thought of as shirking your work responsibilities.

Within Ruthie’s bat mitzvah, I found symbolized the possibility for coexistence in this country. Ruthie choreographed a special dance to the Hebrew song “The Queen of Hearts” (if we’re not talking about reading Torah in front of her friends, Ruthie has not the slightest objection to performing solo in public). This song is by a performer named Asala, who happens to be an Israeli Arab Druze woman. I would like to think that Ruthie’s choosing this particular artist holds out hope for the future, a time when Arabs and Jews will meet each other not just over the boombox, but locked in each other’s arms as they dance together at family celebrations.

TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.

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