Someone Else's Simcha / A hard-rock bar mitzvah for an easygoing family
Breaking away from the Orthodox religious establishment, one Tel Aviv family seems to maintain tradition, on its own terms.
Location: Beit Daniel Center for Progressive Judaism, Tel Aviv / Dekel Country Club
Time: 6 p.m.
In the neighborhood: A verdant row of buildings and trees, facing the city's largest green lung, Yarkon Park, which runs along both sides of the slow-moving Yarkon River. Young couples pack beach bags into economy cars parked along the way, as the day's intense heat beings to wane and young mothers lazily push their children up and down on a shaded swing set.
Venue: Location #1: Beit Daniel, where a banner advertising "Egalitarian Reform Marriages" hangs over the doorway of a modern-looking building. Marble stairs lead to the synagogue's sparkling main hall, where daylight streams in. A curving fresco serves as the backdrop for the ark, with quotes and art continuing all around the rotunda. In a semi-circle before the ark and podium, casually-dressed men and women sit in orange chairs. Location #2: The nearby Dekel Country Club, for a pool-side dinner and party.
Simcha: Ron Friedenstein's bar mitzvah and pool party
Home: Ron lives in Tel Aviv along with parents Inbal (44, a marketing professional) and Hen (46, a manager at a set design firm), as well as his older sister Tomi, 18, and younger brother Gal, 10 and sister Goni, 3. The Friedenstein residence is a secular one, situated in largely secular surroundings. Inbal: "A lot of atheists live in the neighborhood. There's a different spirit to things. But we won't give up on tradition. We gave up on religion, but not on tradition."
Fact: Beit Daniel's Rabbi Meir Azari draws a link between political events and a softening among Israelis toward non-Orthodox Judaism, which they had once scoffed at. "When the center was opened in 1991, we had to fight for every bar mitzvah. But ever since the Rabin assassination [in 1995] there has been a dramatic increase in Reform bar mitzvahs and ceremonies. There's a Jewish population that won't set foot in an Orthodox synagogue again, for political and social reasons."
A brief history of time: Inbal and Hen's relationship (Hen: "We live together, but we never got married") represents a second time around, with both partners experiencing a past marriage, wedding and all (Reform for Hen, Orthodox for Inbal). Did the fact that they were married in religious ceremonies in the past influence their choice to remain unmarried? Hen: "I think so"; Inbal: "We decided not to go down that route. Our life is great the way it is."
Number of guests: 100
Family history: Ron is not only the tallest boy around (1.8 meters, or 5'9", of towering adolescence), but also the oldest boy in his family, and, thus the first to celebrate a bar mitzvah in many years. One person who had very much looked forward for the happy event was paternal grandfather Moshe, 82, a survivor of Auschwitz and Mauthausen. He died one month shy of the happy day. Inbal: "Hen's family decided that we had to go on, that his father would have been more upset if we had canceled it."
Rites: Rabbi Azari and Cantor Freddie take to the twin podiums overlooking the egalitarian crowd, and open the early-evening session. A few communal songs later, Ron receives the tallit of maternal grandfather Zvi. A few of Ron's friends, wearing shorts and back heavy metal t-shirts, sneak out a back door.
The Torah is removed from the ark, and the Friedensteins come up to the podium, standing from oldest to youngest: Paternal grandmother Aviva, 78, maternal grandparents Zvi, 67, and Joy, 66, along with Ron's parents and siblings.
Rabbi Azari passes with the Torah, in a symbolic act representing the passage of the holy test through the generations. The scroll then travels around the hall, and returns for Ron's reading of the portion ("Balak"), which he chooses to recite rather than sing. Rabbi Azari, smiling: "You owe us a song at your wedding." Inbal: "His voice is changing, and the tune didn't really sit well for him. The rabbi was very nice about it, said it was about doing it, not singing it." Candy passes from hand to hand around the room as the crowd readies to pelt the bar mitzvah boy.
Ron finishes the three readings, and with a signal from the rabbi, all sugary hell breaks loose as candy of all shapes and colors comes raining down on Ron's towering frame, with the bar mitzvah boy ducking and running for cover. Children, including little Goni, in a red dress, storm the stage to claim their spoils. One skinny, freckled girl returns with a large handful, smiling proudly to her mother.
Next, family members go one by one to the podium to address the crown and congratulate Ron: Aviva wishes Ron continues to "grow and flower"; cousin Achinoam, 13, who was born two weeks after Ron ("I liked boys' games, you liked girls' songs"; big sister Tomi ("I got you as a present when I was 5, and it was love at first sight"); brother Gal ("I hope you get a lot of money and presents"); cousin Tomer, 8; and, finally, the proud parents, standing high above the crowd (Inbal: 1.78 meters or 5'8", Hen 1.87 meters or 6'1"). Hen: "If we had been told we could dream up the boy we wanted, he would have been just like you."
Rabbi Azari then explains why he's skipping the "Baruch Sheptarani" blessing, in which the parents announce the release of the bar mitzvah from their home ("Growing up takes a little longer these days. You get to have him back after the ceremony"). The synagogue portion of the evening culminates with the reading of a prayer for the well-being of IDF soldiers, and also for the well-being of the State of Israel. Cousin Ne'ama, 18, and sister Tomi, both of whom will soon join the army, give the reading.
Music: Upon arrival at the second location, soft rock plays as the crowd sits down for dinner. Following the meal, Ron (who plays a mean bass) joins the members of his band ("We've been playing together for the last two years"), complete with female singer, rocking out covers of such metal anthems as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Avenged Sevenfold's "So Far Away."
Food: Catering done South-American/Israeli style, with chorizo, spring chicken, and kebabs made on an open grill, plus sides of hummus, tahini, and a variety of salads. Later in the evening, popsicles are handed out, to cool down those who have yet to take a dip in the pool.
Drink: A variety of sodas of the Coke and Sprite family.
Word in the ear: Hen: "In family life, and in this country, sadness and joy are intertwined. Cancelling [the bar mitzvah] wasn't even an option. The proximity of events is very unfortunate, very sad for us, but it was important for us to go ahead with everything anyway."
In my spiritual doggy bag: Finding new ways to include tradition in one's life, as opposed to dropping it altogether.
Random quote: One elderly guest to another, enjoying a cigarette outside the synagogue: "Did you bring your swimsuit, or are you going to jump into the pool naked?"
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