Eileh toldot B'nai mitzvah... These are the stories of Sinai Temple's B'nai Mitzvah
(This essay was written by Rabbi Shapiro during the Winter of 2014 for publication in a volume of essays honoring one of our Rabbi's closest friends, Rabbi Larry Englander. It is offered here because the essay draws upon the stories told by hundred of our Sinai Temple children.)
Every January it is my custom to offer what I call a "Clergy Institute" at my congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although all are invited, the seminar primarily attracts Christian clergy and educators. During the several hours of each "Institute," I choose one aspect of Judaism and explore it with those in attendance.
In 2012, my topic was "Creeds and Catechisms: What do I believe? What must I believe?"
I chose the topic because Christianity does have creeds and catechisms while Judaism basically does not. I thought exploring why one religion went "creedal" when the other did not would make for fascinating learning. And I was correct.
During the morning, I focused on the beginnings of Judaism as the experience of a people. We looked at biblical texts that represented Jewish belief and commitment but still weren't anything like a required creed. We then looked further into Jewish history and saw how the rabbis of the Talmud came closer to defining Jewish faith but still stayed away from anything as formal as a required statement of belief.
The give and take in the room was lively and exciting. The clergy asked probing questions as we considered how each religious tradition grew the way it did.
Then at one point I realized I had overlooked a pretty significant Torah text. It did not change the basic thrust of the morning, but I admitted to everyone that I had forgotten the text and it would not be appropriate to ignore it.
So we read the text.
It comes from Deuteronomy 26. It is the passage in which Moses outlines what he expects our ancestors to do when they get to Canaan and have their first harvests. Moses says the people are to take some of their first fruits and present them at the Temple in Jerusalem.
What comes next is of crucial importance.
Moses tells our ancestors what they are to say when they get to the Jerusalem Temple. They are expected to recount how they got to this point. They are to recall how our ancestors were nomads, how they ended up in Egypt and were enslaved there, how God freed them, and finally how God brought them to the land of milk and honey.
What is critical about this passage is that it is the only place in the Torah where the people of Israel are told specifically what to say at a ceremonial moment. Elsewhere, one of the patriarchs or Moses may offer a spontaneous prayer. But this is the only spot where our ancestors are given a fixed script.
So, then, is this text a creed?
Remember, I had just spent the morning telling my clergy guests that Judaism doesn't have a creed.
Did Deuteronomy 26 prove me wrong? Had I introduced a text that disproved my whole argument?
I paused, and then it occurred to me. Deuteronomy 26 really isn't a creed. Not even close. It is a story. Our ancestors here were being told to remember their story because it would tell them who they were, what they had been through, and what defined them.
Suddenly, I was able to summarize the morning in a way that had never quite occurred to me.
"Christianity," I said, "has a creed. Judaism has a story. Jews are Jews because they tell and retell this great story."
A custom at Sinai Temple
It is in this context that I want to share the "stories" of several hundred families whose children have become Bar and Bat Mitzvah with me over many years at my congregation, Sinai Temple. I know their stories because of a custom I developed many years ago at Sinai. When I meet with a child and his or her parents months before they become B'nai Mitzvah, I always ask if the child is named after anyone. In most cases the answer is yes, which leads me to invite the child to write a speech about the person or people whose name(s) the child bears. "Tell me what made that namesake of yours tick. Was he tall or short? Did she play a sport? How did he make a living? Where was she born? Ask your family members," I say. "Tell me a story."
And that is what the B'nai Mitzvah do. They write a story about their namesake(s) and, when the Cantor calls upon them for their aliyah, I ask them to tell us how they received the name(s) by which we have just called them to chant the Torah blessings.
This is when the "name speech" is read. There are other highlights of the B'nai Mitzvah experience on Shabbat mornings, but the name speech is surely one of the most powerful moments in the service. When the 13-year-old child tells the story of someone who was precious to his parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, the temperature in the sanctuary rises. The small voice at the lectern goes beyond the young man or woman speaking. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah becomes a Jewish story teller evoking memories and feelings that touch the heart and soul of everyone present.
What do the children say about these namesakes who, according to Ashkenazic custom, are people they never knew? Not surprisingly, the B'nai Mitzvah first like to connect the life of the person deceased to their own. He loved baseball - me too. She liked animals - me too. He had a sense of humor - me too. She was independent - I am as well. He loved to read or listen to music - I am like that too.
But there is more.
Many of the speeches communicate messages that are sweet and personal.
Lisa writes, "Bubbe Milly loved to bake onion rolls and challah and I love to eat both of those foods." She is not the only one. Other B'nai Mitzvah speak about their parents or grandparents who used to enjoy delicacies from chicken soup to potato soup, gefilte fish, poppy seed cookies, pies, and cinnamon buns.
Eric offers up another kind of sweetness in his speech about his great-grandmother, Golda. "She never learned how to drive so my dad remembers taking the bus with her to the G. Fox Department store in Hartford for a day of shopping, lunch, and always a new toy. She was kind and loving and made the Jewish holidays a tradition for her family. Today, in our home we carry on the same traditions that Grandma Golda brought to my father's childhood. We have her dining room table, dishes, and silverware that were used so many years ago by her for the family. Her loving memory is always with us when we sit down at her table."
Melanie writes about her great-grandfather, Morris. "He liked to take my father to a local pond where they would enjoy a swim and after waiting for the ice cream truck, my father would run as fast as his four-year-old legs would take him to get a vanilla ice cream cone."
Lisa's father shared a similar kind of memory about the grandmother after whom Lisa was named. "Dad says his Grandmother Lenore knew how to listen to him intently. She was his biggest fan and support." Lisa's remarks echo what Samantha gleans from hearing her mom describe the grandfather who was her namesake. "My mom loves to think about the great ping pong tournaments she and her dad played every Sunday. She often tells me that she and her dad used to watch TV together and look at each other to see who was crying first. I wish I could have known my grandfather. I think he would have been my #1 fan."
The generational memories are broader as well. After all, the people whose names the B'nai Mitzvah carry weren't always senior citizens. As Lauren notes, "When people think of a bubbe, they picture a little old lady baking cookies. This picture is not even close to how my bubbe was because she couldn't cook to save herself. But I can tell you what she could do."
Lauren proceeds to describe the Bubbe Libba after whom she was named. Grandmother Libba was a woman of strong opinions and determination. During World War Two in New York City, Libba's cousin invited some soldiers to a family dinner before they shipped out. Libba struck up a conversation with one of the soldiers and, when he went into training, the relationship kept going. The two stayed in touch via letters. Eventually, the soldier asked Libba if she would marry him. She declined, but the letter writing continued and, when the soldier was sent to Alaska, Libba followed him. She spent six months in Alaska, came home still unmarried, wrote more letters, and, finally, after the war married that soldier. Those two lovers became the grandparents of Bat Mitzvah Lauren.
Jonathan remembers a powerful woman who lived a generation before Libba. She was Baila who survived tuberculosis, went on to marry, and, when her husband was away during World War One, worked as a bank teller and climbed the ladder to become manager of the bank. Years later, after mourning the loss of her husband, this same Baila was adventurous enough to go on a trip around the world.
There is also the very full story of Fran's great-grandmother, Faigel. As Fran describes her, "Faigel, or Fay as she liked to be known, was a strong woman and an artist. At one point in her life, she developed arthritis and gave up sculpting. But when she forced herself back to her art, she felt as if she had become a complete person again. She did her best work when she was in her 70s. She also wrote poems and every year she would write a poem about the previous year. She painted and played the piano too. When she started losing her eyesight and could no longer read the music, she began improvising. Even when times got hard for Fay, she remained a very positive woman."
Strength of character enabled these women and other loved ones to create beautiful memories for those who came after them. But there is another category of namesakes in the speeches of the B'nai Mitzvah. These people are remembered differently. They tend to be American born and their achievements are of a different order.
Born in America
One Bat Mitzvah girl remembers learning about her mother's mother who was one of only three women in her medical school class. She graduated at the top of her class in 1957 and became a pediatrician. Another student talks about his great-grandmother who was born into an immigrant family in New York City. She went to a high school for the arts, was conducted by Aaron Copland on one occasion, and ultimately graduated from the Columbia University School of Social Work.
After receiving a doctorate in social work, she became the first woman to receive the rank of full professor at the Columbia School of Social Work.
Katie's name speech is about the two great-grandfathers whose names she carries. The first great-grandfather was the youngest person ever in the State of New York to receive his CPA. He became the Chief Financial Officer of a major corporation and was also chair of the United Jewish Appeal in the New Jersey county where he lived. The second great-grandfather was born in Russia, but arrived in New Jersey when he was only two years old. He became a cardiologist and was Chief of Medicine at two hospitals.
Impressive achievement is the major theme in some of these speeches. Nathan talks about his namesake who was a journalist, an active Zionist, a lawyer, and a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. At Judge Nathan's funeral one of his colleagues commented, "Nathan was a man of remarkable attainments, of great strength and character, and possessing a very strong will." Speaking to the congregation on the occasion of becoming a Bar Mitzvah, Nathan the younger wrote, "Just like my grandfather, I hope I can accomplish much without sacrificing kindness, generosity, and a constant pursuit of principle over simply doing what is easiest at any given moment. I've got my work cut out for me."
Real role models emerge out of the B'nai Mitzvah name speeches. Many succeeded in the broader professional world; many were also involved in the Jewish community.
Bar Mitzvah Elliot recalls his namesake, Elliot, who was a successful attorney and also a founding member of Sinai Temple. Elliot served on the Board of Trustees and as President of the Brotherhood. He also loved being an usher on the High Holidays when he could greet so many of his friends.
Seth mentions his great-grandfather, the first private Hebrew tutor in Springfield to drive a car and go to the homes of the children he taught. Another namesake was president of the Conservative synagogue in Springfield. If he wasn't at work, everyone knew he was most likely at the shul keeping busy.
In Brian's Bar Mitzvah speech, he says that his great-grandfather was committed to Jewish life and used to contribute funds to his Orthodox shul for the purchase of coal to carry the community through the New England winters.
Not surprisingly, tzedakah is a major theme in telling the stories of generations past. The charity is coupled with the earlier generations' experience of poverty.
One great-grandfather drops out of school at an early age because the family needs more income. Later, when he manages to become an insurance salesman, he doesn't forget his modest roots. If clients couldn't afford insurance premiums when they were due, he would sometimes pay the premiums for the clients. He didn't want them to lose coverage. On other occasions, when clients didn't have the money to pay him, he would accept chickens as payment.
One great-grandmother was interested in politics. She worked with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he was rising to power as Governor of New York State. She was even invited to his inauguration, but she couldn't attend because she didn't have the money.
Along with poverty, the theme of loss comes up in the speeches. Allison explains the challenges her great-grandmother faced in Brooklyn. Great-grandmother Shayna lived in a small apartment with her two parents, her husband, and her two sons. Before the boys even entered kindergarten, Shayna's mother and husband died. She was left to care for her ailing father and the boys and went to work in a sweatshop. Life was harsh and exhausting. To say the least, Allison comments, Shayna was "truly a single mom" before the term became popular.
What may have sustained these hard-working people is the fact that many of them had come from places where life had already been terribly demanding. In most cases, the people recalled in the B'nai Mitzvah speeches had not only been born into poverty, they had also lived in danger of their lives. That is because they had their origins in the anti-Semitic world of Eastern Europe.
One family among all those represented in the B'nai Mitzvah speeches actually has Sephardic roots extending back to the 1840s in America. All the others came from or more probably fled Poland, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Hungary. The speeches mention cities such as Minsk, Warsaw, and Kiev. Although some of those in the immigrant families were born in the United States, most were born in the "old country" (often in the 1890s) and came here as small children or teenagers.
And what was life like in Europe?
Interestingly, the B'nai Mitzvah speeches do not say too much about that - probably because most of the people after whom they are named left Europe as children. In one sense, life in Europe didn't matter for those who successfully made it to America. On the other hand, one of the Sinai Bar Mitzvah students does comment on life as a Jew in Europe. In what must certainly be an understatement, he notes that his great grandfather served in the Czar's army during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and then left for America with his family. The Bar Mitzvah then explains, "He had a rough time as a Jew in the Russian army!"
Looking back at those times, some unexpected historical references come up in the speeches. Sean's great-grandfather was drafted into the Turkish army. He escaped the army, went to Egypt, and then on to Palestine where he worked in a Rishon LeZion winery. Daniel's great-grandfather grew up in Lithuania and, during World War One, volunteered to join the Jewish Legion, which consisted of several all-Jewish battalions in the British Army. (Two early Zionist leaders, Zeev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor, hoped that a Jewish military unit like this would participate in liberating Palestine from the Ottomans. This did indeed happen.)
Another one of the name speeches offers a fascinating historic echo. Adam writes about his great grandfather who lived in Vienna and whose surname was Herzl! Adam doesn't comment about any connections to another famous Viennese Herzl family, but the name itself rings loudly. Unfortunately, Adam's namesake, Arnold Herzl, manages to leave Vienna as the World War Two begins but, like many Jews, only finds his way as far as Shanghai. He gets no closer to the freedom he is seeking in America and dies in Shanghai during the war.
Coming to America
But most of those described in the speeches do come to America and, when they arrive, their stories are "the stuff of history."
One of those remembered arrives in New York but cannot leave Ellis Island because he has come alone and has no one in America to speak on his behalf. After a few weeks, he purchases an ad in the Yiddish daily, The Forward, explaining who he is and asking for help. A few days later a distant cousin appears and provides the guarantees required to release the new arrival into the streets of New York. He goes on to making a living as a peddler and several years later opens up his own grocery store.
Abby's great-grandmother sells shoes by day and goes to school at night. Others become tailors, furriers, and upholsterers. One family moves to a coal town in Pennsylvania. Lee's great-grandmother used to join her brothers at the train tracks in that town. They would pick up coal which fell off the railway cars and bring it home for their stove. Lee's great-grandmother also used to draw water for family baths from a well, heat the water on the stove, and then pour it into a huge wash basin that everyone used for the weekly bath.
Back in New York City, one gets the feel for tenement living when Ben describes what his great-grandfather did during the summer. To keep the family's food cold, Great-Grandfather used to haul ice five floors up to their tiny kitchen.
It was a long journey from Europe, but those who made it were actually most fortunate. Family members who stayed in Europe beyond the 1920s encountered terrors no one could have anticipated. Several of the B'nai Mitzvah are named after people who experienced the Holocaust.
To be exact, three of the B'nai Mitzvah are named after relatives who were never able to leave Europe. Emily carries with her the memory of a great-great-aunt who owned what was said to be a beautiful millinery shop in Lodz. She did not survive the war. Alissa is named after a great-grandmother who worked hard to send many of her relatives to America, but decided to stay in her Russian shtetl to be with the rest of the family. She did not survive. Dan writes about a great-great-grandfather who was a rabbi. His name was Peretz. Dan's speech concludes, "No one really knows when Peretz died. One day he simply stopped writing."
Then there is the story of Stephen's great-grandmother, Steffi. She was born and raised in Germany, but when she saw what was happening, she made preparations to get the family out of Germany. She took small amounts of money from her bank account, hid the money in a ball of yarn, and knitted through a series of short train trips to Switzerland and Holland. Each time she took a little more money to safety until she was able to purchases exit visas for herself and many of her relatives.
Sarah portrays her family (great-grandmother, great-grandfather, and their four children) standing on the deck of a ship leaving Europe and later reaching America on May 30, 1938. Meanwhile, Gabe tells the story of his great-grandfather's audacity in Belgium. When the Germans invaded Belgium, Gabe's namesake somehow got his family onto a boat heading for England. When that boat sailed for freedom, Gabe's great-grandfather grabbed some kind of rope, threw himself onto another ship, and followed his family out of Belgium. Several months later they were reunited safely in England. In one other case, the separation was much longer. Kenny's grandparents in Breslau were engaged to be married in 1937. Nazi activities prevented the marriage and split the two apart for seven years until each arrived separately in London where they were finally married in June 1945.
And two final Holocaust references: one of the B'nai Mitzvah is not named after a deceased relative at all. She is named in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat (who was not Jewish) and still risked his life to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Which brings to mind the great-grandmother of one other child at Sinai Temple. Like many, one of this child's parents is Jewish; the other is not. Like many, she is named after a family member who is not Jewish. In this case, Jennifer speaks with pride about her great-grandmother, Gerta, who hid Jews in her family's farmhouse. Gerta was captured by the Russians at one point and imprisoned for two years. After the war, she immigrated to Canada and purchased a farm in Saskatchewan in order to begin a new life.
And those are the stories from a generation of B'nai Mitzvah at Sinai Temple in Springfield, Masssachusetts.
What we have are several hundred youngsters telling stories the way Jews have always told stories to remember the past and thereby build a foundation for the present and future. There is something special about these stories, however, because they are so very personal. They create history by linking one particular individual whose name and story are told to his or her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Biology links the children to their namesakes as do heirlooms, pictures, recipes, and memories. And when the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child stands on the bimah and tells the story of his or her namesake, there is a sense in which that person lives again. The chain of tradition and memory is strengthened.
There is even a Hebrew term for this process. The word is "toldot," which comes from the verb Y - L- D, "to give birth." The noun "toldot" therefore means "begettings" or "generations" or "stories."
All of which suggests that the best Jewish stories may be stories about the generations. Stories like these B'nai Mitzvah speeches recreate a world that is part of the Jewish past. Hopefully, stories like these help guarantee that the children of those who tell them will have rich stories on which to build their own.
"Eileh toldot b'nai mitzvah."
These are the stories of Sinai Temple's B'nai Mitzvah. They represent what one generation has told the next.
1 As I prepared the story of these B'nai Mitzvah speeches, it occurred to me that this essay was a more fitting tribute to Rabbi Larry Englander than I at first realized. I say this because I remember talking with Larry many years ago about the way in which he spent his time as a rabbi. At the time I was an associate rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple. One of my major tasks was to work with B'nai Mitzvah students in preparing commentaries on their Torah and Haftarah portions. I asked Larry to describe his role with B'nai Mitzvah - expecting he might tell me that as the "senior rabbi" of Solel he had hired other people to work with the B'nai Mitzvah. Of course, Larry in his characteristic way responded that he would never give away the B'nai Mitzvah. What else should a rabbi be doing if he wasn't teaching children? So, Larry, this one's for you. It's about children and teaching and learning with them.
2 In order to maintain confidentiality, I have changed the names of the children and their namesakes. However real children who are real members of Sinai Temple described these very real family members in the speeches they wrote for Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Their honest words and the recollections of their families are the core of this essay.
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