Sweet Rain at a Western Wall Bar Mitzvah

Although they're strictly secular, a family from Israel's north holds the celebration of their son's transition to manhood at the most sacred of sites.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: The Western Wall

Time: 11:30 A.M.

In the neighborhood: Streets slick after a sudden bout of late-winter rain and packed with cars waiting for the motorcade of British Prime Minister David Cameron – in Israel on a state visit – to pass by. Near the entrance to the Western Wall, ultra-Orthodox men walk with heads bent over in the rain, their hats protected by plastic covers.

Venue: A sheltered area located just above the security checkpoint but before the Western Wall plaza, where Oshri of the Tupei Simcha (Drums of Joy) band sets up shop and prepares a festive reception for the man to be. The original plan – a parade through the Old City leading to the Kotel, the Western Wall – was thwarted by the stormy weather.

Simcha: Nimrod Winterman’s bar mitzvah

Number of guests: 15

A brief history of time: Nimrod, a shy, lanky boy of 13, was born to Yossi, 52, and Miriam, 45, both high-tech workers residing in the northern city of Karmiel, halfway between Lake Kinneret and the coastal city of Acre. Youngest-born Nimrod has two sisters: Yasmin, 20, who serves in the IDF’s Artillery Corps, and Inbar, 18, a high-school senior.

The Wintermans do not like to be bogged down by convention and opt for intimate family getaways instead of mass banquet-hall shindigs – so that "there’s time to actually be with one another, talk to one another and not, you know, [have to deal with] the whole dancing and [gift] checks thing,” says Miri.

In keeping with their quest for the unique, the sternly secular family chose to hold Nimrod’s event at the most sacred of Jewish sites – the Kotel. Yossi: “We were looking for something different from the standard [for secular people]. We didn’t want to end up with the synagogue, reception hall, ‘thanks for coming’ type of thing.” Miri: “Obviously every Jew feels connected to the Kotel, it’s part of our genes, no?”

Rites: The Wintermans and their guests slowly arrive at the covered meeting area, shyly inspecting the members of Tupei Simcha as their drums and clarinet blast out liturgical favorites. However, the intimate gathering soon turns into a boisterous party, as dozens of high-school students from Haifa, who had arrived at the Western Wall as part of a school field trip, spontaneously surround the bar-mitzvah boy and his pleasantly surprised parents, roaring through the lyrics. Soon enough, what would have been a modest intro to the day’s festivities feels and sounds more like a heated, and happy, soccer match.

And as the spirits soar all around, Nimrod, smiling in his white button-down shirt, claps away alongside Yossi and Miri, who both look happily stunned by the mayhem. Tourists stare at them blankly from the other side of the wet, reinforced-glass partition.

Nimrod at the Western Wall. Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

Next, band leader Oshri blesses the bar-mitzvah boy (“May you have a house with a garden and without a mortgage”), each phrase followed by a thunderous “Amen!” In a rare moment of silence, a teacher’s megaphone roars in the background: “Everyone to bus No. 4!” as the students moodily make their way back home.

The Wintermans head to the Western Wall. Once inside the plaza, the small group passes by the almost-empty holy site, occupied by the few souls willing to brave the weather, and continues to the covered synagogue situated in Wilson’s Arch, at the northeast corner of the Wall.

Indoors, the ladies are sent off to the women’s section, just above the men’s, and kept out of sight using one-way glass. The male Wintermans and guests are then led by Haggai – an employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who will be leading the ceremony – to a table at the far end of the cavernous hall. Haredi men in various states of alert, some slouching in their chairs, pray in front of the massive stones, whose cracks are filled with crumpled notes.

Haggai smoothly sails through the ceremony, blessing the prayer shawl, dealing with the phylacteries (“the tefillin your grandfather and your great grandfather, and your great-great-grandfather used”), and bringing out the Torah scroll from the ark (with candy raining from the women’s section). Every sound is relayed via a tiny microphone to the ladies upstairs. (Miri: “We still didn’t hear anything and yet somehow threw the candy at the right time”).

Next, family members take turns reading from the Torah, until it’s Nimrod’s time to shine. Seemingly cool throughout the service, and with his father proudly looking on, Nimrod recites his portion. Once done, the candy rain resumes, and the male Wintermans take to singing and dancing around the small podium, as Haredi men inch closer to take a good look at the festivities and to snatch some candy.

Next the scroll is returned into the ark, and it’s Nimrod’s time to pose for the cameras. Leading the bar-mitzvah boy to the opposite wall, the photographer puts him in a number of pious-looking poses (“Put your hands on the Wall and look up”), until everything is over and everyone reconvenes outside.

Music: Prayer and liturgical songs.

Food: Airborne candy.

Drink: Water.

Word in the ear: Miri, on the family decision not to have a Reform or Conservative ceremony: “A friend of his had a Reform ceremony, and they stood there together, since there isn’t a women’s section, and sang and even played music. We even attended a Reform ceremony in one of the places around here. Playing the guitar in a synagogue – no, we didn’t really relate to that.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: The fact that one can find a connection with tradition and holy sites regardless of personal beliefs or practice.

Random quote: One little boy begs his dad to give him a note to place in the Western Wall, before entering the Kotel compound: “Dad, give me one!” “At the Kotel!” “But the Kotel’s wet!”

Want to take part in Someone Else’s Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: HaaretzSimcha@gmail.com

The Wintermans eschewed a Conservative or Reform bar mitzvah. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
The Wintermans eschewed a Conservative or Reform bar mitzvah.
No special women's section for this part of the bar mitzvah.
Drums and a clarinet blasted out liturgical favorites.
9 of 9 |
The Wintermans eschewed a Conservative or Reform bar mitzvah. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
1 of 9 |
No special women's section for this part of the bar mitzvah. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
2 of 9 |
Drums and a clarinet blasted out liturgical favorites. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Nimrod Winterman's bar mitzvah

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