Location: David Moshe Talmud Torah
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In the neighborhood: Low, multistory residential buildings line the streets of Kiryat Kretshnif, a neighborhood housing the devotees of the Kretshnif Hasidic dynasty in the central Israeli city of Rehovot. A few ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, women walk about in the otherwise vacant streets, silent under a low cover of gray clouds.
Venue: A gated compound of aging, one-story structures with classrooms for Talmud Torah students of all ages. In the first-year classroom, excited 3-year-olds, donning yarmulkes and sporting freshly cut hair and curly peyot (earlocks), sit along elongated, low-standing tables, facing a wide whiteboard.
Simcha: David Moshe Lichtenstein’s introduction to the heder
Number of guests: 30
A brief history of time: David Moshe, 3, named after the former Kretshnif Admor, or grand rabbi, David Moshe Rosenbaum, was born to Baruch and Sarah Lichtenstein, and raised in a Haredi home alongside little Yaakov. Aside from Torah study, dad Baruch, a smiley, willowy redhead, also spends his time in the Talmud Torah, offering help to students with learning difficulties. Says Baruch: “Some kids find it hard to tell the difference between letters like beit and kaf.” He performs his role as part of a national civil service agreement with the Israeli Defense Forces, instead of doing the standard, required military service.
The introduction to the heder, or religious elementary-school classroom, is part of the khlake ceremony in which 3-year-old boys are given their first haircut, given their first yarmulke and tallit (prayer shawl), and begin their formal religious studies.
Rites: Before leaving the house, the Lichtenstein family is abuzz with excitement as Baruch as Sarah prep the budding Torah scholar, helping him put on a black hat and matching vest, while their two little boys pick on each other in Yiddish, running around the small room. To the side, a freshly written copy on parchment of the Book of Esther lies drying in a tiny workstation, evidence of Baruch’s newfound passion for Torah scribing (“I was sick of carrying a big book, so I decided to make a small version for myself”).
David Moshe is bundled up in dad’s great, visibly worn tallit, and carried to the Talmud Torah like a little white blot in the gray street, the fabric completely blocking the child’s view (Baruch: “It’s so he won’t see anything profane on the way, like a dog”). Sarah, meanwhile, lags behind with a huge double baby stroller, one wheel of which keeps falling off, carrying little Yaakov as well as many of the party favors for the day’s happy event.
Alex, the vivacious middle-aged professional musician otherwise known the school’s security guard, greets the delegation with his trumpet. In the classroom, David Moshe’s maternal and paternal grandparents await, along with the two first-year classes and the head melamed, or teacher, Dod’l. On the wall hang artistic impressions of the Great Temple in Jerusalem and panels teaching the days of the week in Yiddish.
After a few opening words from the melamed, with the children answering his playful questions in unison, the gray-bearded man commences with the day’s formalities, which begin with the new pupil reading the alphabet out loud, with the nervous help of Baruch seated by his side.
Next, following the reading of the appropriate verses, a bottle of honey is introduced, with a small blot of the sweet stuff placed on four letters of the alphabet (aleph, mem, tav, spelling out emet, or “truth,” and tzadi, the first letter of the word tzaddik, or "righteous one"). Then, David Moshe, with his father’s guidance, licks every honeyed letter, proceeding to nibble ceremoniously at a hardboiled egg, a visible letdown from the honey’s sweetness.
Finally, it’s time for the enormous honey cake, generously provided by David Moshe’s maternal grandparents, and decorated with verses from the Book of Isaiah (“The Lord God hath given me the tongue of them that are taught, that I should know how to sustain with words him that is weary; He wakeneth morning by morning, He wakeneth mine ear to hear as they that are taught”; Isaiah 50:4).
The children are all treated to the cake, with Baruch and Sarah handing out goodie-bags decorated to look like mini tallitot.
Music: Liturgical children’s songs.
Food: Honey, one hardboiled egg, cake, sweets, and more cake.
Drink: Soft drinks and water.
Word in the ear: Baruch, on buying David Moshe’s first tallit: “We were so excited that we bought it a month in advance.”
In my spiritual doggy bag: That the Hebrew letter is perhaps the most dominant feature of ultra-Orthodox life, especially if it’s in cake form.
Random quote: Alex the guard, on studying music in Russia, from which he emigrated 25 years ago: “I only graduated from two universities, I know that doesn’t count for much in Israel.”
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