Family & Education

A different kind of barmitzvah for Rafi

With the pandemic stopping tourist flights to their home in Israel, the idea of a big party for Nathan Jeffay’s son was out of the question. So he took him time travelling instead


We are standing at the “new” Kotel. The stones of the Western Wall prayer plaza have been visited and touched by millions. But the stones in front of us, part of the same ancient structure, were hidden for centuries, and we are among the first to see them since they were uncovered.

Some 27 years ago, I stood at the Western Wall plaza, a barmitzvah boy, on a dream two-week holiday with my parents. The rest of my class in Manchester got a disco with orange squash and a Take That singalong; I got an Israel adventure.

The main event was at the stretch of Kotel where pilgrims flock and politicians hold photo-ops; the place that, we were taught at cheder, is all that remained of the Temple. Little did I know as I stood there in my itchy grey suit and Stockport County tie, reading my barmitzvah portion, that excavations were going on under my feet, which would reveal that the wall we visit is just the tip of a larger structure that hides underground.

Now, my son and I have this whole slice of underground Jerusalem to ourselves. We go while tours are mostly paused because of coronavirus, and our rare access-all-areas pass allows us off the beaten track shown to most visitors. It feels surreal to have our own private visit to the distant past.

The pandemic has forced us all to rethink how we mark symbolic moments in life. Around the Jewish world, lots of people will spend the festival season that is now starting grappling with this. Many, whose synagogues are not functioning normally or at all, will feel severed from their community. For some, traditional meals will be eaten away from the wider family, and this hurts.

In Israel the holidays — and by extension my son’s barmitzvah — will all be spent under lockdown. It is a let-down. Since carrying him as a baby into Israel, as my family moved from the UK, the thought of his barmitzvah was always exciting. Family would flock in from the UK. There would be hikes, outings, large celebrations, potentially preceded by an international trip. It would all take place in the biggest succah imaginable.

But it consists of much smaller events. This one so small that it is just Rafi and me, in a tunnel.

The section we are standing at was excavated three years ago, by archaeologists who were staggered to find it alongside a theatre, built by the Romans during the century or two after they destroyed the Temple.

I reported on this find for the JC when it was uncovered, and remember the archaeologists’ excitement on finding what they called “Jerusalem’s lost theatre.”

The Romans made a bold statement by building here, hoping to stage the kind of plays that were generally dedicated to their gods, right by the newly-desolate Jewish holy place.

It seems a sad image: the once-glorious Jerusalem, Jewish people banished, with the Temple vicinity turned to much more mundane uses (incidentally the Romans never bothered to finish building the theatre). But then Rafi and I consider another aspect of the story of the time.

Where were the Jewish people? They were not in Jerusalem, but they were more active than ever. Some of them were pioneering the Judaism that is familiar to us today. In new locations, especially the Galilee, the fathers of Judaism as we know it were adapting and enabling a faith that had been centred on the Temple to adapt, survive and eventually flourish in a scary new normal.

While sacrifices had been central, the value of prayer, charity and study was emphasised. The sacred space was no longer accessible, so the importance. of sacred time, namely Shabbat, was stressed.

Deep underground, amid the frustration of cancelled barmitzvah plans, it dawns that adaptability in crises, and an ability to maintain our tradition in hard times is deep in our Jewish DNA. We do it by overhauling the way we relate to it, and embracing a new normal, however far it is from our ideal.

It occurred to me that the word simchah has a double meaning. We use it when we mean function, like a wedding or barmitzvah, and joy. The pandemic may have scuppered our function, but it will not drain the joy out of the occasion.

It turns out that Israeli tourism has some great socially-distanced activities that are likely to help the industry build itself back up once the pandemic calms and local organisations across the country, including the Jerusalem Development Authority, are working hard to promote them. We travelled as much as possible, shifting the emphasis from barmitzvah events to barmitzvah experiences, managing to do so before the second lockdown.

During August, Israel’s many bed-and-breakfast facilities, or zimmers, were doing a roaring trade. Instead of the traditional hotel setup, zimmers are normally individual units surrounded by outdoor space, well suited to today’s hygiene recommendations.

Scuba diving naturally takes place at a distance from others, and the coral reef of Eilat provided a mesmerising backdrop for Rafi, a competitive-level swimmer, to take his first dive.

While walking tours are not naturally socially distanced, tours on Segways are. The strange-but-fun two-wheeled vehicles need a couple of metres between them (I learned the importance of this when I fell on my face), so you are never close to other riders. In Jerusalem, Zuzu Tourism books tours that take you inside the Old City, and tours that show you a string of other sites.

After our Kotel tunnels adventure we used our wheels to explore more sites of change. We went to the area of the Machane Yehuda market, tasting our way around the restaurants, cafés and street food of Jerusalem’s different ethnic traditions. Jewish people from around the world, many of them prompted to leave their countries by persecution, have come to Israel and adapted to a new country, while retaining their taste traditions.

At the market, these many traditions come together, a microcosm of the Israeli culinary scene: a unique creation that grew from the energy of people brought to Israel by the twists and turns of life. Whoever came up with the expression about making lemonade when life gives you lemons had not been to Machane Yehuda. The folks there are much more creative: they would make them into a huge range of dishes, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Moroccan, Ethiopian and so on.

Our favourite Segway stop was the Montefiore Windmill, the landmark of 160-year-old Mishkenot Sheananim, the first neighbourhood built outside the Old City, built by the British Jewish banker and philanthropist Moses Montefiore.

Thinking that a windmill would help to keep people fed, he constructed one, though he did not factor in the lack of wind, inadequate technology and the fact it was badly suited to local wheat, meaning it was not much of a success.

Nevertheless, eight years ago it was restored, and can today mill flour. Rafi and I climbed inside, up its ladders, to the top. The site manager set the mechanism free and the wind started turning the blades.

As we crouched at the top of the windmill, watching this piece of old-fashioned technology spring into life, we reflected on Sir Moses’ s flair in adapting Jewish life to new circumstances. The Old City, in the mid-1800s, had become overcrowded and insanitary, and Sir Moses realised the Jewish community needed space to grow.

He set up Mishkenot Sheananim to coax people to move out of the Old City, a daunting thought because they could not imagine life elsewhere, and also because of security: would they be safe without the city walls to protect them? He built a big wall around the neighbourhood, and locked the gate at night.

The construction of this neighbourhood was a key moment that enabled Jerusalem The Symbol , confined within the city walls, to expand and become a modern city

There are no rose-tinted spectacles worn during our travels. Israel, for all its achievements, is a complicated and messy society, and we discuss this. In Jerusalem we see scraps of banners from the previous night’s protests against the government, a sign of Israel’s deeply-divided society. We see that while Sir Moses wanted to banish poverty, it is still rife. And we see signs of deep religious-secular frictions.

But the contradiction of Jerusalem is that while it highlights all of this, it also symbolises hope, and can provide a sense of stability in times of flux. The vision of Jerusalem has given strength to Jewish people, and others, during the most turbulent times.

Some of its unchanging stones have defied the Roman destruction of the city two millennia ago and more recently witnessed wars, intifadas, earthquakes and pandemics, and other imaginable crises that left people asking: “Will Jerusalem ever function normally again?”

Standing amid this history, grasping the stones like I hold on to the safety bar of a roller coaster, it is clear that the answer is yes.

Here it is easier-than-anywhere to foresee, despite the awful reality of the pandemic, the world getting back to normal.

And though the whole barmitzvah is so different from how I imagined, this seems like an apt setting and an apt thought to mark my son’s initiation into a tradition characterised by our sense of grit and resilience.

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