Someone Else's Simcha / Yehonatan Simchi's bar mitzvah – It's a dancing man's world
The road to Jewish adulthood is paved, it seems, with two gargantuan rabbis, iPhone prayer texts, and a whole lot of fun.
Location: Pitaya reception hall, Kfar Sava
Time: 7:30 p.m.
In the neighborhood: Rows of one-story workshops, glowing red in the late evening sun, with signs of all shapes and sizes popping out among rust-ridden iron bars and fence-high dry weeds ("Amnon's Garage," "A. A. Fish Smokers"). The rolling hills of the West Bank can be seen in the distance behind industrial warehouses.
Venue: A spacious room, divided by a drooping black and silver curtain. On one side, the reception area, with bar stools and high tables, along with several appetizer spreads. On the other side of the curtain, which is larger, 20 square tables dressed in white tablecloths with white napkins. Countless spotlights and party lights organized in military-like rows across the round ceiling provide an endless rainbow of color. A DJ booth towers over the dance floor, where a group of men conduct evening service, reading prayers off their iPhones.
Simcha: Yehonatan Simchi's bar mitzvah
Home: Yehonatan is the only child of loving parents Eli (50, a maintenance worker at Teva) and Shoshanna (a homemaker who says "age doesn't matter). The couple maintains a national-religious home in the city of Kfar Sava, about 30 minutes northeast of Tel Aviv. Yehonatan is in the seventh grade and attends the Noam Midrasha, a religious boarding school nearby (Eli: "He has a bed there, but he likes to sleep at home").
A brief history of time: Yehonatan's aufruf took place at the Western Wall, with the family spending the whole weekend in Jerusalem. Shoshanna: "It was a wonderful time, very exciting"; Yehonatan: "I wasn't excited." He read his Torah portion ("Emor," Leviticus 21:1-24:23) twice, once on Thursday and once on Saturday. About 50 close family members attended.
Fact #1: Eli and Shoshanna's plan to celebrate Yehonatan's rite of passage with extended family and friends was put on hold for a good few months after the family's time at the Western Wall, since during the Counting of the Omer, which runs from Passover to Shavuot, it is forbidden to hold simchas of any kind.
Number of guests: 200
Family history: Eli was born and raised in Kfar Sava, to a religious family of Yemenite extraction, while Shoshanna was born and raised on Moshav Tlamim, in the Lakhish region in the northwestern part of the Negev, founded by Tunisian Jews in 1950. Since Yehonatan is an only child, this is, naturally, the family's first bar mitzvah. Shoshanna: "It's obviously very exciting, like getting married." Maternal grandma Rachel, 70, breaks into laughter when asked if this is the extended family's first bar mitzvah. "I have 13 children, 55 grandchildren, and 6 great grandchildren," she says, smiling. "I started early."
Rites: The DJ welcomes the proud parents and the newly anointed grownup into the hall ("We wish you success in life, good deeds"). Hasidic tunes are heard overhead, as Yehonatan and his classmates, their kippahs and tzitziyot flailing, rush to the dance floor.
Never saw that coming #1: A man in oversized, inflatable rabbi costume, complete with golden bekishe and furry shtreimel, enters the floor, and the kids go berserk. Music changes to trance-music renditions of songs praising Rabbi Nachman of Breslov ("Rabbi Nachman, Nachman from Uman, Nachman from Uman, Rabbi Nachman from Uman"), as the gargantuan rabbi slips off the dance floor. Shoshanna: "We saw it online, and Yehonatan was very excited about it."
Never saw that coming #2: Half a dozen Breslov Hasidim materialize among the dancing kids, sending elation levels to the stratosphere. Someone produces a large tablecloth, and before you know it Yehonatan's diminutive, suit-clad figure is being flung in the air by a circle of friends and Hasidim, using the cloth as a trampoline. The young crowd then forms a train behind Yehonatan, rolling through and between the dinner tables (DJ: "Everyone join the happy train!").
Never saw that coming #3: Train stops at its final station (dance floor), and, with the introduction of a chair, new ways to fling Yehonatan in the air are found. With Hasidic music still blasting away, classmates use cloth napkins to fan the now perspiring bar mitzvah boy, with friends taking turns to perform several rounds of pushups under his resting feet. Waiters, meanwhile, silently construct a women's dancing section at the corner of the hall, using room dividers and tablecloths.
The DJ directs everyone's attention to a wooden structure located near the DJ booth and by the dance floor: A façade comprised of a red door, flanked by images of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. Yehonatan's classmates, dressed in traditional Yemenite garb and cap, wait outside the door, holding a sizable chuppah (Eli: "Adding a chuppah isn't a traditional gesture, just something to make it feel more festive"). At last, the man himself walks out the door, wearing gold from cap to shoes and holding a painted Torah scroll. Yemenite music fills the hall as the chuppah turns into a procession. Dad Eli and maternal grandfather Amos, 70, hitch a ride, as the party ends in flurry of Yemenite dancing, and with the guests at last returning to their seats.
Eli, Shoshanna and Yehonatan face the crowd, as Eli congratulates his son ("this is a day of joy, your big day"), and Yehonatan delivers the customary bar mitzvah speech ("As a Jew, I know I am now bar mitzvah"). Applause reverberates, and, with the advent of more Yemenite music, the dancing resumes. Shoshanna and the other women and girls trickle over to party in their enclosed section.
Music: Some Middle Eastern pop, Hasidic music, and traditional Yemenite Jewish songs.
Food: Appetizers: Fried, meat-filled "cigars", sirloin, kebab, and sabich (a traditionally Iraqi sandwich made of fried eggplant, cooked potato and boiled eggs). Tables laden with various mezze, accompanied by meaty, fresh-looking bread. Middle course: Choice of assorted tortillas, spicy Nile-perch fillet or tilapia fillet, burekas stuffed with chicken liver, and meat-filled filo pastry. Mains: A choice of brisket or grilled spring chicken, accompanied by cooked vegetables and white rice. Shoshanna: "Food is very important, the guests need to enjoy themselves."
Drink: Lemonade, orange juice and Coca-Cola reign supreme, with beer making a cameo appearance here and there.
Word in the ear: Eli, on the meaning of his son's rite of passage entering the fold of Jewish adulthood: "He's been an adult since he was 9 years old. This is a different generation. They know more and are much more exposed to what's happening in the world than we ever were."
In my spiritual doggy bag: The understanding that simcha producers have become both the safe keepers of certain Jewish traditions, and most likely the originators of others.
Random quote: A Breslov Hasid gives out small cards carrying Rabbi Nachman quotes, saying, "Take one, if you want." One guest jokingly adds, "If you will it, it is no dream?" to which the Hasid says: "Don't get me started with that Herzl! First he wanted all of us to go to Uganda, and now all the Sudanese are coming here!"
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