I’m a latecomer to the world of barmitzvahs. Not only am I one of three sisters, I had two daughters before my youngest — a son— was born. I’m ashamed to say that I thought a barmitzvah was more about the big party — the venue, the caterer, the music, the outfits — than anything else. How wrong I was.
When my son Alex turned 12 last March, my first phone call was not to secure the venue, caterer, or music, but something far more critical — the barmitzvah teacher.
Alex had recently gone through the stress of taking his 11-plus exam so I knew I needed to find the right teacher, who would not only teach, but also inspire my son. Luckily for everyone, we found a rabbi who strikes the perfect balance between authority and his trade-mark friendly approach.
What a difference since the 11-plus! Alex is older, more mature and, critically, can concentrate better. Mostly, this means an enthusiastic attitude, although performance throughout this long year has sometimes waned. As boys mature later than girls, it’s certainly good that they wait until the age of 13. Having a barmitzvah at 12 would be a seriously bad idea.
But it’s turned out to be more than just a year of learning. Last summer, Alex visited Beit El Institute in Jerusalem’s Strictly Orthodox Mea Shearim district, to get his first set of tefilin. It was an interactive experience where he oversaw how each set is created — from the writing of the parchment, tying it with calf hair, and sewing the box, to inserting the parchments into each box. Witnessing the process, will, I believe, make the ritual of wearing tefilin more meaningful.
During this trip, he also learnt about his family history. In Tel Aviv my father, his opa, walked him down the once-bustling industrial Rehov Eilat, situated next to the now-trendy Neve Tzedek. There, Opa showed his grandson the exact spot where his own father Yechezkel Matyas, who had lost so many of his family in Auschwitz, successfully built up a metal business when he moved to Israel from Transylvania after the war.
For the other side of the family, we travelled to Petach Tikva, to meet 88-year-old great-aunt Sarah, who proudly produced black-and-white photographs dating back to the late 19th century. She laid the photos on the kitchen table, and impressively recounted seven generations of the family history, many of whom Alex’s own father didn’t even know.
Then, in September, we set off to Amsterdam to posthumously recognise my mother’s wartime rescuers Aad and Fie Versnel, as Righteous Gentiles. Soon after this emotional ceremony came the Torah portion Ha'azinu where the dying Moses states: “Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of [other] generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you.” So, in order to live lives of true meaning and purpose we must build the experiences of our elders into our own memories.
For my son, who is living in the “I” generation — iPad, iPhone, and “I want” — it’s particularly important to connect to his roots, and consider the struggles endured by those in generations before him.
Recently, on a day off from school, instead of spending hours glued to a screen, Alex and some school friends went to GIFT’s charity warehouse to package foods for families in need. GIFT — “give it forward today” — has a whole range of initiatives for bar- and batmitzvahs. It’s even happy to help children create their own customised charity project. Alex is also part of the Jewish Care’s B’nei Mitzvah programme, where, once a month over six months, he attends a different site and learns about the different aspects of the charity’s work. His barmitzvah is also being twinned with a young Dutch Holocaust victim, who shared his birthday. Eduard Vigeveno, born in Rotterdam on March 5 1931, did not have the privilege of reaching barmitzvah age, never mind celebrating one. He was murdered when he was 12 in Sobibor extermination camp.
For £35, Yad Vashem UK organises this, and requests that those twinned become a “Guardian of the Memory”, lighting a candle for the victim every Yom HaShoah and/or Holocaust Memorial Day.
And now his big day is upon us, and we’re reflecting on a year of contemplation, transition and action. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good party, but now I realise it’s not the key component. Instead it’s the icing on the cake.
For tefilin at Beit El Institute, Jerusalem, visit: www.1800beitel.co.il