Proud doesn’t begin to describe my feelings as I watched my granddaughter — poised, competent, and radiant —- become a bat mitzvah last week at a small shul in Jerusalem.
And not just any shul— but the one where her father, aunt, and uncle had celebrated their own simchas years before.
Pride vied with nostalgia as I recalled these events and the pivotal role they played in my children’s lives, forging a lifelong connection between my family and the land of Israel.
On this trip, my daughter — who spent some 10 years living in Israel — served as our “personal Israeli,” raising her voice when necessary to negotiate prices and scrutinizing food labels to ensure that my grandchildren’s food contained no gluten or sesame. Happily, gluten-free visitors can do quite well — even scoring such Israeli standards as bourekas and malawach.
My 10-year-old grandson loved everything we did. Surprisingly, at least to me, he said his favorite part of the trip was touching the stones of the Kotel — though climbing Masada was a close second. I enjoyed that as well, although, in the interests of journalistic integrity, I have to report that I only made it halfway. I guess if I had to choose a highlight, in addition to the beautiful bat mitzvah ceremony, I’d opt for the lively tour of Ir David, conducted as a bat mitzvah gift by an Israeli cousin who doubles as a tour guide. For her part, the bat mitzvah girl herself was partial to mud baths.
One of the constant joys of a visit to Israel is running into people you know and not really being too surprised when you do. It’s not just another tourist destination. It’s a place where you meet others drawn by the same invisible thread of Jewish commitment and continuity.
One of the more significant results of the trip was the influence my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah had on an Israeli family we knew from their years in the United States. Mainly secular, they were so moved by the warmth and spirit of the Progressive synagogue that hosted our simcha that they may hold their children’s celebrations in the same place.
Ironically, I think, we Americans showed something new to those Israelis. Their country is not only about clashes between the charedi and the Women of the Wall. Nor is secular life the only alternative to Orthodoxy. There are vibrant places where “average” Israelis can enter into the tradition in a comfortable, non-threatening atmosphere.
A non-Jewish acquaintance challenged me before the trip, asking why we were celebrating the bat mitzvah abroad. When I said it was particularly appropriate to hold a religious ceremony in Jerusalem, she clearly was taken aback. “You’re an American,” she insisted. Yes — I replied, and a patriotic one at that. But what does that have to do with celebrating a religious ceremony in Israel? She didn’t get it. Neither do many Jews.
Israel is a beautiful country — and a wonderful place to vacation — whether for its topographical diversity or its religious and historical significance. I am also convinced that the night air of Jerusalem heals a variety of ailments, though I have no scientific proof to back that up. I am thrilled that my grandchildren got a taste of the Israel experience, seeing signs in the Hebrew they are learning in school, visiting places they read about in the Bible, and drinking the unique chocolate milk you can’t get here.
These are memories that will last a lifetime.