Abe Teitman reads from the Torah in a chapel at the Amercan Jewish University, flanked by his daughter Tova Teitman Turk (left) and Rabbi Cantor Judy Greenfeld (right), along with other members of his family. Photos by Yona Engel/Klick Photography

How one survivor’s bar mitzvah journey transformed an entire congregation


Abe Teitman was 6 when his father was drafted into the Soviet army, never to be seen again, and 7 when his mother died of typhus. By 1946, when he turned 13, he found himself in a home for Jewish orphans in chaotic postwar Poland. The orphanage was a hard place where “nobody thought about a bar mitzvah,” he said.

More than seven decades later, on April 22, he stood in a chapel at the American Jewish University (AJU), looking dapper in a dark suit, polka-dot bowtie and a matching pocket square, preparing to be called to the Torah, at long last.

After he read a brief passage from the week’s portion, the crowd broke out in song, “Mazel tov and siman tov!”

As custom dictates, the bar mitzvah “boy” took to the podium to share some words of wisdom with the roughly 50 people who attended — family, friends and members of the Nachshon Minyan, which meets at AJU in Bel Air.

“Better late than never,” he said.

The Saturday morning service was the culmination of a journey not just for the 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, but also for the small but spirited congregation that gathers each week at the hilltop campus.

It was the first of what the congregation hopes will be many b’nai mitzvah for older Jews whose childhood and teenage years were interrupted by the Holocaust.

The final chapter of Teitman’s bar mitzvah journey began three years ago, when Hannah Mandel, then a recent Occidental College graduate and a participant in the AmeriCorps VISTA community service program, approached the minyan.

“There was a huge need for families to come together with survivors in the community for interaction,” Mandel said.

She had a proposal for the tight-knit, nondenominational congregation: pair 15 families with 15 Holocaust survivors, who would meet regularly for shared activities based on the survivors’ interests.

“I wanted them to have human interactions,” she said. “Not just, ‘What happened to you in the past?’ ”

Teitman, a former college history professor, was matched with Yona Engel and Lilia Arbona, a married couple who regularly attend the Nachshon Minyan. Soon, they were fast friends.

“He didn’t really get out a lot,” Arbona said. “Now he calls us, he wants to go places. … He has a community now.”

Teitman began attending the Nachshon Minyan as often as he could. On one occasion, he mentioned to Rabbi Cantor Judy Greenfeld that he had never had a bar mitzvah.

“She said, ‘We’re going to make you a bar mitzvah,’ ” Teitman said. “I thought she was just saying it.”

From left: Rabbi Cantor Judy Greenfeld, Abe Teitman, Nachshon Minyan’s Holocaust Survivor Program Coordinator Hannah Mandel and Nachshon Minyan Executive Director Sandra Gelfat at Teitman’s bar mitzvah.

 

He kept his remarks to the congregation short and sweet, saying, “a bar mitzvah should be happy, so I don’t want to talk about history.”

He did take a moment, however, to note the historic nature of the Torah scroll from which he read, brand new to the minyan.

His reading was the first since before World War II from a scroll that rode out the war in a decrepit barn outside of Prague. It was one of 1,564 so-called Czech scrolls plundered by the Nazis and collected as part of an effort to catalog the memorabilia of what they hoped would soon be an extinct race. Ironically, the nefarious project ended up saving the Torahs, which were later rescued by a Jewish philanthropist and taken to England to be restored and distributed.

“This Torah is really a lucky Torah,” Teitman told the crowd.

The scroll’s history made the event all the more meaningful for his friends and family who attended.

“To hear him read from it, it just brings such peace to my soul,” his daughter Tova Teitman Turk said.

Greenfeld sees the April 22 celebration as the pilot for many more to come.

“I just love the idea that across the generations, this is a place of connection,” she said.

To see that idea realized, Greenfeld turned to her longtime friend, Samara Hutman, director of Remember Us, the Bnai Mitzvah Project.

Remember Us connects aspiring bar and bat mitzvah students with the memory of a child who didn’t survive the Holocaust. The deceased child figuratively comes along for the ceremony of the living one, fulfilling a coming of age interrupted during World War II.

Teitman’s bar mitzvah marks the launch of a new program under Hutman’s direction, called Honor Us. Honor Us also will complete bar and bat mitzvahs interrupted by the Holocaust — but in this case, by helping shepherd survivors through the process many decades behind schedule.

Most Holocaust survivors who are alive today were children or teens when World War II threw their lives into disarray, interrupting any possibility of the Hebrew study and practice that traditionally precedes the rites of passage. Honor Us intends to begin correcting that.

But the explicit end goal of Honor Us is not to hold bar and bat mitzvahs for survivors. Instead, it hopes “to bring survivors closer to congregational life,” Hutman said.

During Teitman’s period of study leading to his bar mitzvah, he became close with Leo Blumenfield, a Nachshon teenager who recently completed his own bar mitzvah. Honor Us will model itself on their friendship by pairing bar and bat mitzvah students in their 80s and 90s with teens who previously participated in Hutman’s Remember Us program.

“We’re sitting in this very precious and finite moment with elders who have so much to teach us,” Hutman said, adding, “We’re going to soften the generational lines during this precious time.”

DJ Khaled. Photo by Reuters

I went to a $2 million bar mitzvah with DJ Khaled and the Clippers dancers


Last year, a friend presented me with a unusual opportunity: How would I like to make $250 for attending a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Hills Hotel?

My job — if you really could call it that — was to serve as one of 18 counselors for 35 kids. Our only role, as the event planner explained it in an email, was to “just make sure that they are OK, ALIVE, and HAVING FUN.”

The planner also explained why the event was in Los Angeles. The bar mitzvah boy’s family is obscenely rich, she explained, and they “essentially own” the small Southwest city where they live. But his mother hates it there, so they decided to have the bar mitzvah in Los Angeles.

I wish I could tell you exactly what this event ended up costing. The rumor I heard was $2 million, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, or even a conservative estimate. Between a superstar DJ, an appearance by the members of the Clippers Spirit dancers and rooms at one of the most iconic hotels in the region, the bar mitzvah bacchanalia was by far the most luxurious party I’ve ever been to.

The experience left me deeply ambivalent. Ostentatious wealth usually has the effect of repelling me, and it did this time, too. And yet, sanctimony aside, I couldn’t help but have a blast.

Here’s how it went. I showed up at the hotel on the appointed Saturday afternoon and my car was parked by a valet, courtesy of the bar mitzvah family. I arrived to a sumptuous lunch for the counselors. T-shirts were distributed with the name of the bar mitzvah boy and the word “Coach” on the back. We proceeded to the pool area.

That’s when the fun began. At first, the kids were timid. But slowly, they began to venture beyond the candy-and-soda-stocked cabanas. Soon DJ Khaled, the hip-hop sensation and social media superstar, arrived and settled in a cabana next to where the kids were stationed.

Initially, this seemed to be a coincidence, but the counselors whispered that the bar mitzvah boy’s father had paid Khaled to make a poolside cameo. A hotel employee tried to shoo away the kids, and Khaled made a point of loudly berating him while the kids watched, sniggering.

Soon, who else but DJ Khaled mounted the stage to perform a two-hour set.

Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal also stopped by the pool that afternoon but quickly turned around when a mob of teenagers greeted his poolside jaunt. Clearly, he wasn’t being paid to play it cool, unlike Khaled.

After the pool, the counselors were assigned kids and rooms. My two kids seemed polite and responsible, bordering on nerdy. They also were totally overwhelmed by the MTV-style experience they were having. It seemed too much to even contemplate. Neither had been to Los Angeles before.

Shortly, the three of us, my kids and I, were suited up and ready to rock. The bar mitzvah service itself was a hurried affair in a room off the lobby — a footnote to the celebration. We proceeded to the Crystal Ballroom to party.

The entrance to the ballroom is a long, descending spiral staircase. A crystal chandelier dips elegantly from the roof, announcing the luxury that was to meet us at the bottom. The kids jetted down the stairs, screeching with delight.

The scene that greeted us did not disappoint.

The bar mitzvah boy likes sneakers, and they decorated the table settings. The open bars were fashioned out of ice, with yet more sneakers frozen into them. Servers with glasses of Grey Goose vodka and other expensive spirits circulated through the crowd.

Halfway through the party, three pro basketball players arrived to kibbitz with the kids and sign shoes. Not being a basketball fan, I’m not sure who they were, except one was Nick Young of the Los Angeles Lakers (I think the other two were Clippers).

At one point, I sneaked off to look for the vendor dinner. I opened the door where I understood it to be, only to find an attractive woman in a cheerleader-type outfit stretching in a full split.

“Vendor dinner?” she asked.

I spluttered some response and she pointed me in the right direction. She was surrounded by other women in matching outfits — the Clippers Spirit dancers, I realized. I guess the Laker Girls were booked that night. The vendor dinner, by the way, was as sumptuous as any you’d hope to find at a five-star restaurant.

The Los Angeles Clippers Spirit dancers were among the bar mitzvah attractions. Photo from Facebook

Returning to the ballroom, we found the party in full swing. A couple of dancers, paid to encourage people to get on the dance floor, were working the room. The Clippers Spirit dancers came out during the blessing over the challah, which was performed by a rabbi in full ultra-Orthodox gear. I wondered if the rabbi could even look at them, or if that would be forbidden.

Soon, who else but DJ Khaled mounted the stage to perform a two-hour set.

It turns out Khaled spins a mean set — not that the kids would know, since they spent most of the time crowding him onstage and taking pictures to post online.

At one point, Khaled descended into the crowd. The rotund DJ had the poise of a supermodel or a politician, moving slowly, almost elegantly through the crowd, perfectly composed and looking from camera to camera so everybody could get a money shot. I confess: I took one, too.

In any case, while the kids where snapping their chats and tweeting their tweets, it mostly was the counselors who were lighting up the dance floor. The kids seemed too busy capturing and sharing the moment to truly take part in it.

Early the following morning, the kids headed to the airport and back home. Some of the counselors had been contracted to chaperone the flight, but not me. That meant I could hang around the hotel until checkout, at noon.

So, what did I do?

Well, what else? I donned the Beverly Hills Hotel slippers and robe, and made my way down to the saltwater pool. I got in and slipped under the surface. Frank Sinatra was crooning underwater: Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away … Yes, the hotel actually pumps lounge music into the pool.

All that, and I wasn’t paying a dime to be there. In fact, I was making money.

My natural inclination is to rebel against materialism and displays of conspicuous wealth. But was I having a good time? You bet I was.

Ed Elhaderi (middle) with high school classmates in Libya in 1967. Photos courtesy of Ed Elhaderi

From a culture of anti-Semitism to becoming a Jew


A Libyan’s nomadic journey of self-discovery and understanding

That hot afternoon seems like yesterday, but it was 50 years ago this month. I was 15 and living in Sabha, a small city in the Sahara Desert of southern Libya. An older cousin told me about the reports on Cairo Radio about the dire situation facing the Egyptian army.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said.

I didn’t fully understand the politics of what would come to be known as the Six-Day War, but I knew that what was happening was bad for us as Arabs and Muslims. All around me were other teenagers absorbing the tense mood and looking to vent their rage at the Jews.

I followed the crowd to the only Western-style establishment nearby, a bar. It was early afternoon and the place hadn’t opened yet. A few older boys broke down the door, and a crowd stormed in, breaking bottles and dumping alcohol onto the street outside.

Standing in a crowd, I joined the chants: “Death to the Jews!” “Drive the Jews into the sea!”

The truth is that I had never actually met a Jew. I grew up in a small nomadic village of 20 families, a collection of mud huts with palm-frond roofs that wouldn’t have looked much different 2,000 years earlier. Health care was so primitive that by the time I was a young boy, my parents had lost three children to illness.

Sunni Islam was the only way of life I knew. My preschool was in a mosque, where an imam taught us to read and write by drilling us with verses from the Quran. After that, our education was more secular — I went to mosque, going through the motions, but I was hardly devout. I never was exposed to any alternatives or avenues to question the life we had.

Our textbooks didn’t mention Israel, and people used the word Yahudi, Jew, only as an insult. The Jews had rejected the Prophet Muhammad, so they were considered to be condemned. The only Jews I saw were in Egyptian movies, in which they were portrayed as menacing, monstrous characters — hunched over and speaking with high-pitched nasal accents.

I did know Palestinian Arabs. My elementary school had once hired a young Palestinian as a teacher. Because he was Palestinian, the community welcomed him warmly and supported him generously.

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Elhaderi receives the prestigious First Honor National Academic Award from Libyan Prime Minister Abdessalam Jalloud in 1974.

After high school, I went to the University of Tripoli, where I was neither politically active nor religiously observant. During my first year there, my father arrived to deliver tragic news: My mother had died. I channeled my grief into focusing on my studies, earning a place in the prestigious chemical engineering program.

Hoping for a career in the country’s burgeoning oil industry, I won a scholarship to study abroad in one of the top-ranked programs in my field, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Leaving behind my father and one younger brother, I set out for my first journey beyond Libya.

In Madison, I discovered a campus teeming with international students — Iranians, Nigerians, Europeans, Asians. Amid the activist ferment of the mid-1970s, each group freely and openly expressed its political and cultural identity.

I did that, too: When I moved into an office I shared with two other graduate students, I tacked up a large poster of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, wearing his iconic kaffiyeh and brandishing a semiautomatic rifle.

It was 1974, just two years after the murder of Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games and the same year as the terrorist massacre in the Israeli town of Ma’alot. Half of the department’s faculty and perhaps a quarter of its students were Jewish, yet it didn’t strike me that my choice of décor might offend anyone. Many colleagues undoubtedly reacted by steering clear of me.

And then, for the first time, I began getting to know Jewish people. The encounters happened organically, in classrooms and the student union. Two Jewish professors in my department were kind and understanding. Over one leisurely summer, I spent time with a Jewish philosophy professor who engaged a group of us over beers in leisurely discussions about politics and life. I was struck by how they were just people — wonderful, decent, normal people. They defied every stereotype I had been fed while growing up in Libya.

The contrast was so striking that not only did I begin to reconsider my assumptions about Jews, but I also came to re-examine every aspect of my life. Gradually, I came to see how the black-and-white worldview I had grown up with didn’t jibe with reality.

The more experiences I had with Jews, the more I felt drawn to them. I even began thinking that I wanted to marry a Jewish person (although I didn’t have a particular one in mind). Perhaps that would help me to cleanse myself of the hateful mindset of my upbringing.

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Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, after he received his doctorate in chemical engineering from USC in 1982.

After three years in Madison, I transferred to USC. A few months after arriving in Los Angeles, I was practicing tennis at the Ambassador Hotel when I struck up a conversation with an attractive young woman named Barbara and suggested we volley. When I told her my background, she said, unprompted, “I just want you to know, I’m Jewish.”

We exchanged phone numbers, and a week later, I called her. It took a couple of weeks before we connected again, meeting to play tennis and dine on Mexican food. We got along well. Not long after that, I went out of town to take a break from my studies and returned to find a note from Barbara telling me she missed me.

Before long, she invited me to meet her parents. Barbara’s father had lived in Israel, serving as an officer in its War of Independence. And one of her sisters’ boyfriends was an Israeli who had served in the Israel Defense Forces.

I’m sure that when they learned that she was dating a Libyan named Abdulhafied (the name I had grown up with and still used), they thought Barbara had lost her mind.

Still, we grew closer. After a couple of months, we moved together into an apartment her parents owned in Koreatown. At first, the arrangement was one of convenience, but soon our lives became intertwined. Barbara lovingly helped me through my doctoral thesis and cared for me in ways no one had since my childhood.

She also welcomed me into her family’s life, and, despite our contrasting backgrounds, her parents accepted me with love. Barbara’s family wasn’t particularly observant — they celebrated only Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover.

In 1980, we married at their Fairfax District home. At that point, I didn’t consider myself a Muslim, but rather a spiritual searcher. Together, Barbara and I had explored a nondenominational church called Science of Mind. Our wedding ceremony blended elements of Judaism with some of our own personal touches.

By then, my relationship with my aging father, still back in Libya, was distant. I spoke to him only occasionally, and his question was always: “When are you coming back?” I chose not to share the news of my marriage.

As we settled into our life together, Barbara and I had only limited Jewish observances: Rosh Hashanah dinners, Chanukah gift exchanges, seders hosted by her parents. Together, we continued our spiritual search, occasionally joining a colleague of Barbara’s at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.

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Elhaderi’s father, Elsaidi, in front of his home in the Libyan village of Hatiet Bergen in 1979.

Eager to start a family, we struggled with infertility for many years. We were just days from adopting a baby when the birth mother had a last-minute change of heart. Then, just a week later, Barbara learned she was pregnant. Our daughter, Jessica, was born in 1991 and, two years later, we had a son, Jason.

Not long after that, my father died. We had spoken only occasionally since my last visit to Libya, in 1979. I had shared little about my new life with him, knowing it would have been nearly impossible for him to grasp the pluralism and openness I had come to cherish.

Surely he couldn’t have imagined the next step in my spiritual journey. When Jason turned 12, he announced that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. We were living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and a neighbor, the Israeli-born wife of a rabbi, offered to teach him to read Hebrew and start some initial religious study.

He also began studying Judaism and his Torah portion with a Chabad rabbi at a shul not far from Barbara’s parents. I sat in on every class, slowly learning about Jewish prayer and customs, as Jason studied his haftarah and maftir. The more I absorbed, the more I felt drawn to Judaism.

On the day he became bar mitzvah, I stood on the bimah, filled with pride in my son and awe for the beauty of the service I could barely understand — and overflowing with emotions I could not fully explain.

The power of that day also made me start to ponder my own mortality. It pained me to realize that since I wasn’t Jewish, I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery beside my beloved wife.

Not long after the bar mitzvah, I told Barbara that I wanted to convert to Judaism. A rabbi we knew directed us to American Jewish University’s Introduction to Judaism Program, and Barbara and I enrolled.

Our 18 months in the class felt like a second honeymoon: While I learned about Jewish history, Torah and Jewish rituals, I felt closer than ever to Barbara, and I fell in love with Judaism.

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Ed Elhaderi and his wife, Barbara, celebrate his becoming a U.S. citizen in 1985.

When I met with my sponsoring rabbi, Perry Netter, then at Temple Beth Am, he asked only one question: “Why do you want to be Jewish?” Choked up with emotion, I couldn’t speak. I simply cried.

“OK,” he said, smiling. “You pass.”

Something else happened: The more I learned about Judaism, the more I saw parallels in my own upbringing in Libya. When I learned about the mezuzah, I remembered how in my childhood village, families posted palm fronds wrapped around verses from the Quran in their doorways. Words I learned from biblical Hebrew seemed to echo colloquial terms unique to the region of my youth.

Investigating, I learned that Jews had lived for thousands of years in Libya, including in my native region of Fezzan — although most left in 1948, and nearly all of those remaining fled just after the Six-Day War. My strong feeling was that I wasn’t so much discovering a new faith as uncovering a long-hidden part of myself, that perhaps some of my ancestors were Jews.

On the morning when I went before the beit din — the rabbinical court — to finalize my conversion, and plunged into the waters of the mikveh, I felt joy combined with a serenity that had eluded me for decades. I felt that I was returning to where I belonged.

Our family joined Temple Beth Am, where I felt increasingly at home, regularly attending on Shabbat and weekdays. At home, we shared weekly Shabbat dinners, at which I started offering each of my children a blessing.

I also engaged in regular Torah study and found particular resonance in Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom from Pirkei Avot: “Everything is foreseen, yet free choice is given.”

That essential tenet — that we can embrace God but decide our own fates — encapsulates much of what I hold dear about America and Judaism. I grew up like so many people in closed societies, knowing one way of life, having one set of beliefs, and taught to despise anything beyond that realm.

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Ed Elhaderi (far right) at his son’s bar mitzvah in 2006 with (from left) daughter Jessica, in-laws Ellen and Bob Levin, son Jason and wife Barbara.

The best guidance for overcoming that kind of internal and external strife is another piece of advice from Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.”

My own learning came full circle in November 2012, when Barbara and I traveled to Israel. We landed in the late afternoon, and by the time we arrived at our Tel Aviv hotel, Barbara wanted to rest, but I felt energized, so I took a walk. Traversing the streets of Tel Aviv and Jaffa until midnight, I marveled at the variety of people I saw — young and old, from so many ethnic backgrounds. I was amazed by the sights and smells and how alive the city was.

Scanning the faces I passed on the street, I could not help but think back to my youth, to the hatred for Israel and Jews that had been fed to me.  As we traveled the country — Jerusalem, Safed, the Golan, Rehovot — Israel entered my bloodstream. I felt at home.

The trip deepened my connection to Israel and to being Jewish. In synagogue on Shabbat mornings, I began to take notice of a part of the service that I hadn’t thought much about: the prayer for the State of Israel.

Now I say it each week with full intention: “Bless the land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy.”

Occasionally, as I say those words, I think back to my 15-year-old self, on that hot June afternoon on the streets of Sabha. And I say an extra prayer of gratitude to God for carrying me on this remarkable journey to myself.


ED ELHADERI is a real estate investor and developer who lives in West Los Angeles with his wife, daughter and son. He is writing a memoir about his journey from his Libyan childhood to his life as an active and committed American Jew. Tom Fields-Meyer is a Los Angeles author and editor who helps people tell their life stories in writing.

A bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Raising the bar (mitzvah): Why you should visit Israel


My oldest son became a bar mitzvah in November. We had a congregational Kiddush luncheon in his honor and a small party for him and his friends that evening. Instead of having the grand blowout party that seems to be the general expectation in my New Jersey suburb, we opted to go to Israel instead. It was the best decision I possibly could have made for these reasons (among others):

Visiting Israel is not just any trip

Sure, we could have gone to Paris or to see penguins in Antarctica, for that matter. But the trip to see the Jewish state is a special one, and one I wanted to save as a special one to honor my son becoming a bar mitzvah. The implicit message I wanted to send to my son was: “You have just pledged yourself as a full member of the people of Israel. We happen to live in an era of history in which Jews not only live in, but also govern, Israel. You, my son, are part of this history. The lives of the people who live here are inextricably intertwined with yours; the history that happened here is your history. Let’s go see your world.”

You get to focus on the mitzvah rather than the bar

When you take your kid to Israel, you don’t have to stress about the alcohol per head at your event. Instead, you get to think about the good deed you are doing by taking your child somewhere truly important and showing your kid that the world is bigger than the small sphere carved out for them at middle school. When your child attends a school where there are many lavish parties, the “bar” for the parties keeps getting set higher and higher. Worrying about the party takes an inordinate amount of the time, effort and money when planning for a child to become a bar or bat mitzvah. I was very grateful to take that worry out of the equation.

The math works in your favor

For the complete cost of a lavish four-hour party for 200 or more guests, you can have a weeklong vacation in one of the most fascinating places in the world. The photos you will take on your iPhone of your family in front of the Western Wall will be more precious to you than the professionally taken photos of your guests with cocktails in hand. The stronger sense of self and history that comes from this trip is, of course, priceless.

Israel is delicious

Whatever caterer you may find cannot equal the pleasure of Israel’s food. Whether you want to try kosher gourmet street food at Crave in Jerusalem, incredible gelato at Anita’s in Tel Aviv or savory falafel with hummus and tahini basically anywhere, you will be happy and full.

More time equals more memories 

While I am sure we would have wonderful memories of my son and extended family and friends at a blowout party, I will say I am profoundly grateful to have made the decision I made to go to Israel instead. While in Israel, we did everything from sample a Chanukah sufganiya (doughnut) per day (at least!) to arguing about the definition of terrorism. We learned about wild horses in a geological landform known as a makhtesh (what’s a makhtesh? Go to Israel and find out!) and about the Israeli Declaration of Independence in the hall where it was signed. The memories forged in Israel are profound.

Israel is family

In going to Israel with my children, I wanted to set the scene that Israel is more than a backdrop for a one-off family trip — it is a place where I hope they will return, with me and other family members and friends, to learn, to travel and to grow. I took a picture of them in front of the Western Wall and told them, “Every time you come here, you stand right here and take a picture of yourself, so that you will see how the stones don’t change and how you do.” And when they take those pictures, they will be able to frame them next to the pictures of their own mother standing in the same spot as a 13-year-old, as a 16-year-old, etc.

Nobody will miss your party

Look, I am a huge proponent of celebrating simchas, but not a single person has said to me, “You know, I feel bad you decided to go to Israel instead of having a party. I really missed the opportunity to look at you in an expensive dress and shout over a DJ as I eat elaborate hors d’oeuvres while drinking themed cocktails.” And I didn’t miss it, either. While I love celebrating with my friends at their parties, I have to say that I felt relieved to not have had to think or worry about my own.

The weeks go by and my son goes to several parties like this a month. I am not sure he really will be able to distinguish one from another when all is said and done — and when he is, it is usually because the spending was so extreme. At the end of the day, I don’t want to impress my friends and neighbors — I want to impress upon my son what it means to be part of the Jewish people. And for that goal, this trip was a great success.

Kveller is a thriving community of women and parents who convene online to share, celebrate and commiserate their experiences of raising kids through a Jewish lens. Visit Kveller.com.

From left: Orna Banai, Sharon Elimelech, Evelin Hagoel, Einat Sarouf and Yafit Asulin co-star in “The Women’s Balcony.” Photos courtesy of IMDb.com.

Israeli comedy probes religious and gender conflicts


The Bukharim Quarter of Jerusalem, the locale for the movie “The Women’s Balcony,” was settled by Jews from Central Asia in the 1870s and ’80s.

Their synagogue was the center of their spiritual and communal life, and they and their descendants took their religion seriously, though not rigidly, making allowances for human weaknesses and personal quirks.

During the past 30 or so years, the once tolerant and easy-going neighborhood — like other parts of Jerusalem — has been changed by an influx of ultra-Orthodox Charedim, and in the Israeli film, we sense the beginning of the transition.

The demographic transformation of Israel’s capital is a weighty topic, but the message is conveyed with a great deal of humor, leavened by the always-popular topic of the war between the genders.

As the film opens, neighbors are hurrying along the cobble-stoned streets to join in a bar mitzvah celebration, with the women and their husbands carrying pots of home-cooked food — no catering at a fancy hotel in those rugged times three decades ago.

At the synagogue, the men sit downstairs, stealing occasional glances at the women up in the balcony, who enthusiastically throw candy as the bar mitzvah boy approaches the bimah.

Precisely at this happy moment, the balcony collapses, seriously injuring the rabbi’s wife and putting the rabbi himself and the building out of commission for the time being.

In these dire straits, the young charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) appears as a savior, offering the congregation temporary quarters and himself as the interim spiritual leader. But soon the congregation learns that the new rabbi’s service comes at a price. He preaches that the crashed balcony was God’s punishment for the immodest garments worn by the women and urges the men to buy scarves to cover the hair of their wives and daughters.

Tension rises when Rabbi David, who also has put himself in charge of repairing the synagogue, decides to dispense with the balcony altogether and exiles the women to a shuttered ante room, out of sight of the men.

When the women protest and go about raising their own money for a new balcony, Rabbi David underhandedly diverts the money for the purchase of new Torah scrolls. The docile men heed the rabbi’s edicts, but the women, led by the formidable Etti (Evelin Hagoel), organize a resistance movement.

They take a leaf from the women in Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” who ended the endless war between Athens and Sparta by denying sex to their husbands and lovers until the men agreed to stop fighting. Though the concept of a sex strike is “not something one can say out loud in a religious community,” Emil Ben-Shimon, the film’s director, observed in a phone interview, the women achieved the same result by moving out of their houses.

Forced to choose between their wives and the unbending rabbi, the men folk finally grow a spine and bid farewell to Rabbi David.

Ben-Shimon, 41, has had a successful 15-year career in Israeli television as writer and director, but always dreamed of making a feature movie. Finally, he asked his ex-wife, Shlomit Nehama, to write the screenplay and set about finding the right neighborhood to re-create the Bukharim enclave of 30 years ago.

Ben-Shimon, who lives in Jaffa, said, “I was shocked to see that about 90 percent of the residents of the old Bukharim neighborhood were now Charedim and there were separate sidewalks for men and women. … People looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

The director noted that “The Women’s Balcony” was last year’s biggest box-office hit in Israel and that “audiences loved it.” However, there was no feedback from the Charedi community “since its members usually don’t go to movies. … Their rabbis won’t let them,” Ben-Shimon said.

It took the director about three years to complete the film and he has started work on his next project, which probably will be set in Jaffa.

“The Women’s Balcony” opens March 3 at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles and the Town Center in Encino. 

Loren Evans (left) grasps the Torah during his bar mitzvah at Breed Street Shul. Photos by Lynn Levitt.

A bar mitzvah amid tears — and kvelling


This was a day that Loren Evans’ family thought they would never see.

In a heartwarming ceremony featuring an unlikely front man, Loren — a high-functioning autistic 18-year-old — celebrated his bar mitzvah at a landmark Los Angeles synagogue.

The young computer whiz also suffers from selective mutism, an anxiety disorder which makes it nearly impossible for him to speak to anyone except family members, let alone headline an oration-heavy bar mitzvah.

With the help of a volunteer leader from Camp Chesed, a camp for young people with special needs, and a Chabad rabbi, Loren stood on the bimah and participated in the ceremony to his fullest ability.

“Loren was glowing brighter than I’ve seen him glow in a very long time,” his mother, Gilda, said. “It brought him great joy, meaning and fulfillment. I think he smiled more than I’ve ever seen him smile.”

The bar mitzvah took place on Dec. 25, Christmas Day as well as the first day of Chanukah, at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, one of the city’s most historic houses of worship. About two dozen or so friends and relatives attended.

Loren, who lives with his family in Tarzana, currently attends Pierce College and has an affinity for electronics and computers, which his mother says he hopes to parlay into a future in the gaming world.

However, Loren’s family, longtime members of Stephen Wise Temple, previously had doubted he would be able to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and sister in the bar and bat mitzvah tradition.

“I had always assumed Loren’s personal challenges would prohibit it,” his mother said. “We weren’t sure it was feasible.”

camp-jaquesJacques Hay, a man the Evans family knew well, had other plans, offering to make all the bar mitzvah arrangements.

Hay, a short, bubbly man with gray stubble, owns a store in Northridge that sells awards, plaques and trophies. For the past 21 years, he has run Camp Chesed, a Reseda-based, two-week-long summer camp for Jewish children with special needs. The camp is free for all campers, and its operations rely on private donations Hay works to obtain.

Loren attended Camp Chesed for the past five summers. Several Camp Chesed alumni and their families were present for his bar mitzvah.

A few weeks before the big day, Hay called Gilda to invite the family to a Chanukah party for Camp Chesed campers, counselors, alumni and families. During that same call, he proposed giving Loren a bar mitzvah.

“When he said to me it’s something Loren deserves, the tears began to flow. I asked Loren and he didn’t hesitate,” Gilda Evans recalled.

Hay met with Loren once before the bar mitzvah for a 1 1/2-hour tutoring session about the Chanukah haftarah portion that would be read on his special day. They went over the prayers and what Loren’s role would be.

At the ceremony, Loren stood smiling next to Hay’s friend Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky of Chabad of Westlake Village — who made the more than 50-mile trip to officiate.  Loren carried the Torah in the procession around the chapel. He then followed and pointed at the text of his haftarah portion while the rabbi sang. Sapochkinsky gave voice to the voiceless and the ceremony reduced many to tears.

Gilda; Loren’s older brother, Louis, and grandparents Ernest and Ida Braunstein were in attendance. His older sister, Leigh, watched via Facetime from Boston, where she works for AmeriCorps.

From left: Family members Louis Evans, Ernest Braunstein, Gilda Evans, Loren Evans and Ida Braunstein gather on the bimah at the Boyle Heights synagogue.

From left: Family members Louis Evans, Ernest Braunstein, Gilda Evans, Loren Evans and Ida Braunstein gather on the bimah at the Boyle Heights synagogue.

Loren’s 92-year-old grandfather joined the man of the hour on the bimah. Behind them, an ornate mural depicted lit chanukiyahs and commandment tablets, a permanent fixture in the sanctuary, which recalls the heritage of the 101-year-old synagogue. A Holocaust survivor who has macular degeneration, rendering him blind, Ernest Braunstein recited an aliyah from memory. His 88-year-old wife watched alongside Gilda in the women’s seating section.

Louis beamed with pride as he aimed his cellphone at the altar so his sister Leigh could watch from the East Coast.

“I’m just happy he got to have a bar mitzvah like my little sister and I did,” Louis said. “Now it’s all three of us. It’s so great for my grandfather. All the culture, tradition and heritage is really important to him. He, along with the rest of the family, really loved seeing him up there.”

Gilda was quick to credit Hay, saying, “It was all due to the generosity of [Jacques], who is one of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life.”

During the summer, Hay’s Camp Chesed hosts about 40 campers of all ages. For every camper, there are two to three counselors, usually volunteer high school and college students. Hay’s campers span the gamut of special needs, although he estimates more than 80 percent are on the autism spectrum.

In recent years, Camp Chesed has treated campers to trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios, as well as flights over the greater Los Angeles area in two-seater airplanes.

At the ceremony, Hay was modest and shrugged off the amount of time and energy he pours into performing good deeds.

“This is what Camp Chesed does,” he said. “It’s a very special camp.”

Hay told the Journal he has had seven campers bar mitzvah’d under his watch. Four years ago, he helped coordinate a Breed Street Shul bar mitzvah of another Camp Chesed alumnus, a young man with a brain tumor.

“Eighty thousand Jews used to live within a five-mile radius of this place,” he said of the synagogue. “It’s the oldest and maybe most respected synagogue in Los Angeles. Coming back here is like going back to the future.”

Once the hub of the city’s Los Angeles Jewish community until many Jews migrated to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley after World War II, the Breed Street Shul later fell into disrepair and was vandalized. An ambitious restoration project that includes seismic retrofitting and repainting is under way. The large, iconic Byzantine-style sanctuary remains closed for that work. The smaller chapel to the rear, where Loren’s bar mitzvah was held, is now used mainly as a community center serving the largely Latino population of Boyle Heights.

Founding and board president of the Breed Street Shul Project Stephen Sass, who was present for the bar mitzvah, has overseen the restoration for the past 16 years. Sass said the shul hosts a Jewish event such as Loren’s bar mitzvah four or five times a year.

Gilda, who knew little of the shul’s history before Hay filled her in, deemed it a perfect setting for the occasion.

“How appropriate is that? It’s amazing to have a young man overcome seemingly impossible odds and accomplish this wonderful mitzvah in a place that also overcame impossible odds to be restored as the place of worship it is today,” she said.

Gilda went on to say that she hopes more people with special needs draw motivation from what Loren was able to do.

“I hope this will serve as an inspiration to other young people who have challenges, obstacles they perceive too difficult to overcome, and who might be able to accomplish the same thing. I hope this will inspire them to take another look at it, adopt another viewpoint and perhaps find a way to have the same wonderful experience.”

After the bar mitzvah and a bagel brunch, 450 guests attended a Chanukah party for Camp Chesed alumni and families on an Encino estate, home to a prominent camp donor. Loren was bestowed with the honor of lighting the menorah welcoming the second night of Chanukah.

Elon Gold: Three weeks in Israel and I go blond and gay


It was my first kiss — on camera. 

I was filming a TV pilot in 1998 where I played a Jewish guy marrying a shiksa, the first of many similar roles. In the rehearsal, I cautiously leaned into actress Cynthia Geary and gently kissed her lips. The director stopped me. He pulled me aside. 

“Are you gay?” he asked. He was nonjudgmental, matter of fact. 

“No, why do you ask?’ I said.

“Because it looks like you have no interest in kissing that gorgeous woman,” he said.

I explained to him that I had every interest in kissing her, but this being my first TV kiss, I didn’t know how it works. With tongue? Without? Do you just go for it, or hold back and let her lead? I was losing my TV kiss virginity, and I was nervous and scared to be too aggressive and have the actress blow a rape whistle on me.

Cut to almost 20 years later. Just last week I was in Tel Aviv on a set with a full production crew, filming a web series called “Bar Mitzvah,” in which I play a gay dad who takes his son to Israel for his bar mitzvah. Only now, this was going to be my first on-screen kiss … with a man. 

I was nervous — dreading not only my first man-on-man smooch, but also a repeat of my maladroit, first TV kiss. Now, my fear was the director taking me aside after I sheepishly and awkwardly lean in for a kiss and asking me, “Are you straight?” To which I would reply, “Yes! And if it looks like I have no interest in kissing this man, I don’t!”

This all started when my manager called me with an offer to co-star in a web series created by Gal Uchovsky, known as “The Simon Cowell of ‘Israel Idol’ ”; Ilan Peled, a popular Israeli actor/comedian; and Eytan Fox, who had one of Israel’s biggest hit movies, “Yossi & Jagger.” 

“It’s filming in Israel for three weeks and you play a gay dad,” my manager said. 

My first thought was, getting paid to do what I love — comedic acting — in a land I love, how could I say no? But then like any real Jew, I went right to the negative thoughts. I’ve never been away from my family for more than a week. And what about all my relatives, rabbis and everyone else I encounter as an observant Jew, who have always chastised me about playing a guy who’s married to a non-Jewish woman? There’s only one thing that could be worse to them than that: playing a guy who’s married to a non-Jewish man! 

My first concern about the length of time away from my family was instantly alleviated by the deal itself; with four kids in yeshiva, I couldn’t turn down what they were offering. 

But it was my second concern that I really had to grapple with. Every TV sitcom I ever did, the producers cast me against a non-Jewish wife. I always promised everyone that one day I’d be able to have my own show and I would make sure my TV wife was Jewish. That day never came. I did have my own show: I pitched and sold a sitcom to NBC called “In-Laws” about my experience living with my Jewish wife’s parents. But when it came time for casting, the producers and network wanted to go shiksa — and there was nothing I could do about it. There I was again, playing the Jew who marries out of his religion. “You’re not helping our problem with intermarriage!” I heard over and over again. 

My defense was always the same. As an actor, I will take on any role, including that of a serial killer. It’s just a part I’m playing. I don’t kill people in real life. And I happen to be married to a nice Jewish girl from Scarsdale, N.Y., and we are raising our kids in an observant home. But that wasn’t enough for everyone. It was like I was single-handedly responsible for the end of the Jewish people.

The cast of the web series “Bar Mitzvah.”

After “In-Laws,” I got cast opposite Pamela Anderson — a lovely woman and the ultimate shiksa! — on another sitcom. After that, on the hit show “Bones,” I was playing the boyfriend of a woman who is not Jewish and half black. I could just hear my not-so-casually racist aunt saying, “A half-shvartze shiksa!? What’s he gonna play next — faygala??”

Well, yes. That’s exactly what I’m proudly playing. A homosexual who is married to a man and has a child whom he is also raising to be gay. When my character finds out, while in Israel, that his son is attracted to a young girl, he spirals out of control and just can’t handle it. 

“My son, straight? You think he’ll grow out of it?” I hopefully ask my husband after hearing this terrible news. 

It’s a funny script and a great role. One I wouldn’t turn down because of Jewish-peer pressure. 

In fact, the only relative I had any concern about offending was my younger brother Ari, who is gay. He was glad that I was going to portray a Jewish, gay man in a positive light. He is a well-known recording artist in the gay community and is very out and proud of both his Jewishness and his gayness. “Another gay role going to a straight actor!” he complained, mostly in jest. His bigger concern was that I would play the role stereotypically. 

“No effeminate lisps or limp wrists, please!” he warned. 

The truth is, by the time I was cast as the gay man, I had already wrestled with what it meant to be the straight brother. Being an observant Jew and having a gay brother whom I love and accept with all my heart can sometimes be conflicting. I’m an advocate for gay rights, and yet I’m also a Torah Jew who loves and learns Torah regularly, knowing it doesn’t exactly have wonderful things to say about a man lying with another man. But I don’t believe you have to take sides. Gays should never be judged negatively for who they are, and the Torah shouldn’t be scorned for calling homosexuality a sin. Let’s not forget that in the Torah, there’s all kinds of heterosexual sex that’s also a sin. This is a much bigger topic that I can’t tackle alone. I just wish people would be more accepting of those who marry outside of their religion, or inside their gender. Especially considering that a close friend of mine who married a non-Jew, who converted to Judaism, almost single-handedly rebuilt our synagogue. The running joke in our congregation is that, “A shiksa built our shul!”

With that in mind, and the knowledge that you can’t ever please everyone anyway, I took the role. I slipped into my first class El Al seat — another reason to do it! — with excitement and anticipation of what lay ahead of me in the Holy Land.

My first day, they had me in a wardrobe fitting where I was trying on the gayest outfits I’ve ever worn. Then, to gay me up even more, they took me to a hair salon and dyed the top of my hair blond. Now I looked and felt the part. The next day we began filming and all my trepidations of whether or not I could play this role — and fears of what relatives and fellow Modern Orthodox Jews will think — went away.

And the kiss? It was three seconds longer than I would’ve liked, but it was nice. The gay director was happy with his two heterosexual actors sharing a sweet, “real” moment between these two “husbands.” It didn’t hurt that I had been away from my wife for almost a month, so, frankly, it was good to get any action. 

While I may not be looking forward to the wrath of negative comments and emails when this web series premieres, I am looking forward to continuing to make Jews and non-Jews everywhere laugh, and to keep on playing roles that challenge me as an actor and entertain audiences — whether my Aunt Ruth approves or not. 

I’m back in L.A. now, filming a TV pilot this week and preparing for my big annual “Merry Erev Xmas” show at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood next week. I walked into the door of my home after my long but fruitful trip and passionately kissed my wife. There were no cameras, no actresses or actors, just me and my high school sweetheart. And no director took me aside to ask if I was gay or straight. Because, you know, you can’t fake real love.


Elon Gold is a comedian, writer and actor whose latest viral video has more than 1 million hits and counting. His annual “Merry Erev Xmas” at the Laugh Factory will take place Dec. 24. For times, tickets and information, visit this story at laughfactory.com.

A Bar Mitzvah with 1.2 million guests


I rarely pay attention to walls when I’m in a synagogue. I’m usually more focused on the people, the prayers and the rabbi’s sermon.

On a recent Shabbat, though, I couldn’t stop looking at the walls. I was at a bar mitzvah service for my friend Steve Kessler’s son, Benny, with about 80 other guests. The service, led by Rabbi Lori Shapiro of the Open Temple in Venice Beach, featured some beautiful rituals I had never seen before, because I usually pray in more traditional synagogues.

And yet, as meaningful and poetic as the service was, what really blew me away was what I saw on the walls: 1.2 million little holes, each one representing a Jewish child who perished in the Holocaust.

The service was held at the open-air Goldrich Family Foundation Children’s Memorial, which is part of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pan Pacific Park.

The holes are the sort of inspired design element that bridges architecture with storytelling. Instead of trying to imagine the loss of 1.2 million souls, you actually get to see 1.2 million holes.

Those tiny, little holes, of varying sizes, riveted me, because Benny Kessler had chosen to honor one of them.

He was sharing his bar mitzvah with a Dutch boy named Hijmie Bachrach, who was 7 when he was murdered at Auschwitz along with his parents and two sisters. A faded black-and-white photo of Hijmie (pronounced “Hymie”) lighting a menorah was on the cover of the program, right beneath a color photo of Benny doing the same.

Benny spoke movingly about Hijmie during the service. He had invited Hijmie’s first cousin, Avraham Perlmutter, who’s now 89 and living in Los Angeles, and wished him, “Mazel tov on the occasion of your cousin’s bar mitzvah.”

Perlmutter had always referred to his cousin as Hijman (“Hyman”). But when he contacted surviving family members in The Netherlands to let them know about the event, the family asked if Benny could use the more endearing Hijmie, which is how they remember him. They also sent photos of the boy, which found their way into Benny’s program.

As the service unfolded, the little hole that represented Hijmie became a little story. Here was a cute, rambunctious Jewish kid from Den Haag (The Hague) whose life was brutally terminated in 1943 before he had a chance to have his own bar mitzvah. And now, 73 years later, a Jewish kid in California was bringing that child and that story to life.

Hijmie Bachrach during a kindergarten Chanukah celebration in 1942 in The Hague, Netherlands.  He was killed in Auschwitz the following year.

Just as he lit a menorah in his own photo, Benny was now lighting one of the 1.2 million souls represented on the wall.

Benny’s special morning was the first such event to be held at the Children’s Memorial, which is a story in itself. My friend Steve knew about the idea of twinning b’nai mitzvah kids with children of the Holocaust, as he had seen two of my kids do it. When he and his son attended a school trip to the museum earlier this year, during which they visited the Children’s Memorial, they fell in love with the idea and the venue.

So they asked Samara Hutman, executive director of LAMOTH, if it would be possible to hold the service inside the memorial, and she said, “Of course!” Hutman used to run Remember Us, the organization that arranges the twinnings, before she merged it with the museum when she was named executive director there a few years ago. The program still holds a special place in her heart.

Benny’s bar mitzvah teacher, Shapiro, loved the idea of the unusual venue, and she brought along her cantor/musician and created a soulful and uplifting service.

I couldn’t help suggesting to Hutman during the lunch that maybe she and the rabbi should start a b’nai mitzvah program at the memorial for unaffiliated families looking for something different. They can call it “A B’nai Mitzvah for 1.2 Million Kids.” 

What better way for Jewish kids to connect to their ancestors and to Jewish peoplehood than to share their most special day with a Jewish kid who could never have one?

They could hold a service every week for the next 500 years and still have plenty of Jewish souls left on the wall.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Read all about it


While there are many excellent young adult novels with Jewish characters, some of which mention a bar or bat mitzvah, there are probably fewer than a dozen that tackle the subject directly. Those that do usually take the young protagonist on a journey of personal growth that mirrors his or her newfound knowledge

 of what it is to be a young adult with a Jewish identity. Here are five worth picking up.


The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah

by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Simon and Schuster, 2008

Middle school angst meets intermarriage in this short but engaging book for kids ages 10-12. Caroline is a preteen who hasn’t really thought of herself as any religion because her parents — Jewish mother, Christian father — did not raise her with one. But when her best friend prepares for her bat mitzvah and Caroline’s Jewish grandma dies, Caroline takes a closer look at her Jewish side. 

The author sensitively and humorously handles identity issues that can arise when a child’s parents have different religious backgrounds, and astutely portrays a young girl wanting to embrace her Jewish identity without rejecting her parents’ values. Caroline eventually discovers that because her mother is Jewish, she automatically becomes a bat mitzvah on her 12th birthday, which ties up loose ends nicely. Fans of Judy Blume’s novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” will not be disappointed with this enjoyable book.


13: Thirteen Stories that Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen 

edited by James Howe 

Atheneum, 2006 

Many well-known authors of young-adult fiction have contributed to this anthology of short stories that are true to the collection’s title. It includes stories by Bruce Coville, Meg Cabot, Todd Strasser, Ann Martin and Ron Koertge, and other authors — all popular writers with strong teen followings. These well-developed stories focus on issues such as changes in friendships, innocent early sexual awakening (gay and straight), gang experiences, general teen idealism and fears, among others. 

Among the selections is the standout Jewish-themed story by editor and respected author James Howe, titled “Jeremy Goldblatt Is So Not Moses.” Told from a variety of perspectives, the story is about how a bar mitzvah gets hilariously out of control when the bar mitzvah boy decides to focus on meaning rather than spectacle (read: actually doing real-world mitzvahs instead of a pressured performance and party). He prevails, earns the rabbi’s respect and even wins the girl. The story should be required reading among bar and bat mitzvah planners — especially parents. An audiobook of this story is available, and is short enough to play in the car while driving your preteen to a soccer game. The family discussion that is sure to ensue is well worth the modest audio price.


About the B’nai Bagels

by E.L. Konigsburg

Atheneum, 2008 (re-issue)

It’s New York, circa 1970, and Mark Setzer is studying for his bar mitzvah. He is also having typical relationship problems involving his best friend, who recently moved away and has started hanging out with snotty rich kids. What’s worse is that his mother (eventually known as “Mother Bagel”) becomes manager of his B’nai Brith-sponsored Little League team, and his older brother is essentially blackmailed into being the team’s coach. When the team improves because of their help, the B’nai Bagels actually have a chance at the championship. 

Although on one level this story is about baseball, the focus is really on one boy’s growth as he learns to negotiate family obligations and figure out what is fair and right. Although Mark and his family attend synagogue on Saturdays, he feels pressured to miss services in order to practice with the team. When an anti-Semitic slur is invoked by a teammate, Mark realizes that his sessions with the rabbi have given him the confidence to respond, thereby bringing more meaning to his bar mitzvah. Newbery award-winning author E. L. Konigsburg is a master of this type of preteen novel, which hits all the right notes about young people learning to navigate their changing worldview while staying true to themselves.


My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

by Paula J. Freedman

Abrams, 2013

“Hin-Jew” is an unusual term that readers of this book will soon discover means “half-Hindi, half-Jewish,” and it characterizes 12-year-old Tara Feinstein’s co-mingled identity. Although her mom is Hindu and her dad is Jewish, it never bothered her much. But as she begins planning her bat mitzvah, Tara begins to think more about God: whether he exists, and if so, what her relationship with him should be. Ben-o, her good friend (and possible boyfriend), is Catholic and can’t help her, and there’s too much going on in her life, anyway — lessons with the rabbi, working on the class robotics project, and the unfortunate accident regarding an important family heirloom. Should she go through with the bat mitzvah even if she doesn’t quite believe in it all? Leave it to middle school enemy Sheila Rosenberg to seal the deal by telling Tara that technically she’s not Jewish. Tara is a delightful, strong-willed, authentic and questioning tween. Her growth and eventual understanding of her place in our multicultural world proves she can honor both cultures and still be herself. 

 


Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be

by Bert Metter, 

illustrated by Joan Reilly

Clarion, 2007

This short book (68 pages of text) is packed with everything a bar or bat mitzvah needs to know. Children will find answers to a wide range of questions, with chapters such as “How the Ceremony Came to Be” and “Party Time” containing child-appropriate information in a breezy, affable style. Another chapter, “Judith Steps Up,” tells the story of Mordecai Kaplan’s 12-year-old daughter Judith, who in 1922 had the first bat mitzvah in the United States. Another chapter includes reminiscences from actors and sports figures, including deaf actress Marlee Matlin, about their bar or bat mitzvahs. With a chapter on ceremonies in other places around the world — such as North Africa — source notes and a bibliography of books and websites, this book provides a thorough guide for children and their families. 

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Community spirit


As the 50th anniversary of my bar mitzvah approached in February, I began to ask myself if it left any lasting marks. 

Five decades after turning 13, I still had the tallit and a pop culture museum piece — a half-used bottle of Jade East, a strongly scented cologne popular with teenage boys at the time — to remind me of the day the Jewish community said I was a man. But what else did I have? 

My bar mitzvah took place in Temple Beth Emet, a suburban Orange County synagogue located just down the street from Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, and I wondered if anything, magical or not, remained of the day. 

Certainly, history remembers the time: Held in 1966, it was when the Vietnam War heated up under our commander in chief, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and both the Gemini 10 spacecraft and TV show “Star Trek” were launched. 

Looking into my personal time capsule, however, there was no drama or trauma during the two days of services (Friday night and Saturday morning). There was no stage fright or teen rebelliousness, though weeks before the event, I do recall losing an argument with my father over his insistence that I wear a red sport coat to the bar mitzvah party. 

I remember that my service, speech and haftarah reading (from Isaiah) were uneventful, with the only memorable thing being the congregation laughing from the “ick” face I made after drinking a little wine after leading the Friday night Kiddush. And I still have some vinyl that I received as a gift — two copies of the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album!

Like any good bar mitzvah boy, I thanked everyone at the end of my speech — the rabbi, Aaron Tofield, and the cantor, Philip Moddel, for teaching me, and my family and friends for showing up. I remember that in preparing my speech, the rabbi, my mother (who grew up in a time when a Jewish woman did not have a bat mitzvah) and my father (who had an adult bar mitzvah about 10 years after mine) each made a big deal about who I should thank at the end of the speech. The message being: “Don’t leave anyone out.” 

Back then, I thought it was a polite, adult thing, even though many kids rush through it because it sounds like the credits. Today, I understand it as the genesis of my understanding of the importance of community.

See, those months leading up to my debut as a Jewish man taught me more than the basic liturgy and how to wrap tefillin. What I really came away with — in addition to a Cross pen — was a budding appreciation for Jewish communal life. 

When my bar mitzvah class and the vinyl recording of my cantor singing my haftarah failed to clear my confusion on the finer points of leading the Musaf service, a friend sat down and tutored me. When it was time for Shabbat morning services on the big day, my parents came forth to wrap me in a tallit, and when I chanted my Torah blessings, the congregation affirmed them with a solid, “Amen.” When it was time to celebrate, synagogue members shared a Kiddush at the shul, and later, friends and family visited us at home. 

Yes, there were gifts and checks, but a 13-year-old doesn’t completely understand is that the sharing of resources is community, too — another way of showing love. What a newly minted “man” like me could understand was that my community had showed up. They were there to kvell, pat me on the back, wish me “Mazel tov!” and tell me what a great kid I was. They were there to welcome me into their world.

Some might say the bar or bat mitzvah experience, especially the excessive parties in the ’60s, contributed to the creation of the Me Generation, which tended to emphasize the individual over community. But at my bar mitzvah celebration, I discovered a better balance between the two. 

On that day, I discovered I had a tribe, and that I was now a member with communal responsibilities who was expected to grow. The community had watched me come of age and now was celebrating that passage. What could be more reassuring? Or welcoming? 

As I ponder this 50 years later, I wonder what possibly could leave a longer-lasting mark — that is, besides having to wear that red sport coat? 

Edmon J. Rodman writes for several pub-lications and news services from his home in Los Angeles and maintains the award-winning blog Guide for the Jewplexed. He is a founder of the Movable Minyan, a chavurah-style, independent congregation

Israeli teen stabbing victim celebrates bar mitzvah at Western Wall


An Israeli teen who was stabbed by two Palestinian teens while riding his bike in Jerusalem celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall.

Naor Ben-Ezra was joined at the celebration by members of the medical team who treated him at Hadassah Hospital after the October 12 attack in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of Jerusalem, according to the Times of Israel.

“I didn’t think I was going to have a bar mitzvah after I was stabbed, ” he told reporters, adding, “I feel like I am 90-95 percent better than I was before.”

Naor was put in an induced coma and connected to a respirator after the attack and is still undergoing rehabilitation.

One of the teen’s assailants, Hassan Mansra, 15, was killed by security officials during the attack. The second teen, Ahmed Mansra, 13, of eastern Jerusalem, was treated at the same hospital after he was seriously injured by a car as he attempted to flee the scene.

James Franco’s bar mitzvah spectacular


Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer has helped plenty of students prepare for bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, and, in some ways, the one he officiated on Oct. 3 was no different. It involved months of serious study, a special bar mitzvah speech and even a mitzvah project.

“It was like any other bar mitzvah — except not,” the Portland-based rabbi said in a phone interview with the Journal.

The “not” is because the bar mitzvah boy in question was 37-year-old actor James Franco (“127 Hours,” “The Interview,” “Pineapple Express,” “Freaks & Geeks”). The actor’s belated coming-of-age ceremony was a prelude to what may have been one of the biggest mitzvah projects in history, serving as a massive fundraiser for Hilarity for Charity, a movement led by comedian, actor and frequent Franco collaborator Seth Rogen to inspire change and raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease among the millennial generation.

A sold-out Oct. 17 variety show-style event at the Hollywood Palladium, which has a capacity of 4,000 people, was a hot ticket and included a performance by Miley Cyrus. In a phone interview with the Journal after the event, “Conan” writer Rob Kutner, who wrote material for the event, said Franco referenced the week’s Torah portion (Noach) in his speech, saying that as he’s only now become a man, he shouldn’t be held accountable for anything he did before. (Franco is known for some eccentric behavior, especially in social media.)

Another segment featured Rogen requiring Franco to have a “circumcision.” It was performed by actor Jeff Goldblum (going by the moniker “Rabbi Jeff Goldblum”), and — in a bit Kutner came up with — actor Zac Efron played Franco’s about-to-be-severed foreskin, uttering its last words, which included, “While you have the mohel, why don't you have him cut away some of your eyelids so you can finally see?” referring to the star’s famously squinty smirk.

Malina Saval, an editor for Variety who was covering the event, called it “spirited, sweet and meaningful in places that one would not necessarily expect.”

“The crowd rocked out and danced the horah to Haim's guitar-heavy rendition of 'Havah Nagilah,' Seth Rogen, dressed as Tevye, sparked a sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up starring in their Hebrew school production of the play [“Fiddler on the Roof”] and over $2 million was raised for Hilarity for Charity, which provides care and support for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Talk about tikkun olam!” she told the Journal via email.

While the event was a spectacle of a fundraiser, it also proved to be a chance for Franco — whose mother is Jewish — to connect to a tradition that he never really felt a part of before, according to Mayer (aka Rabbi Brian). Two weeks before the media-filled fundraiser, the actor stood with the rabbi in front of a Torah and chanted in Hebrew and English before a small crowd of people from Franco’s production company.

James Franco and Rabbi Brian (courtesy of Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer)

How did this particular rabbi get there? At the intersection of Hollywood and Jewish geography, it’s all about who you know. In this case, it was Suzi Dietz, one of the Hilarity for Charity event producers. Nearly two decades before, while still a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Mayer, now 45, had presided over Dietz’s son’s bar mitzvah.

The two talked to “figure out what would be meaningful and make sense,” Mayer said, noting that the original plan was to have the religious ceremony and the fundraiser the same night. But he suggested a way to “do it with a little bit more kavod [honor]” would be to have the ceremony first — which took place at Dietz’s house — so that it could be taped and edited into a version that they could share at the Palladium. The idea was to make the experience itself “much more intimate — a real bar mitzvah — as opposed to a goofy thing on the stage,” he said.

Franco is known for his voracious appetite for learning, having studied in programs at schools including Columbia University, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Brooklyn College, Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University.

“The image that he has of being a mensch, that he’s a serious student, I can vouch for that,” the rabbi said. 

About nine months passed between the first conversations and the bar mitzvah. The rabbi and actor started by exchanging detailed emails, in which the rabbi outlined choices and asked for responses. Then they moved to phone calls.

“Then, like every other bar mitzvah boy, he sent me a speech, which was really adorable,” Mayer said.

“It’s a whole other world with a celebrity — but it was also like every other bar mitzvah. If he did more or less Hebrew reading than some 13-year-old is not important to me,” the rabbi said. “That his heart was in the right place was paramount.”

Franco did recite the Shema — in Hebrew — while holding a Torah, a moment that the presiding rabbi proudly described as emotional and beautiful.

“It was kind of like a renewal of vows,” he said. “He always knew he was Jewish and now he's officially proclaiming it and officially standing at Sinai.”

In his speech commemorating the occasion, Franco said: “Here I am, finally, 25 years after I turned 13. But what I realize is that I didn’t need to go to any mountaintop or across the sea to find my place that I have been connected all along. Judaism has been a part of me my whole life. And like the scarecrow in Oz, all I’m doing now is getting a little reminder that I have been here all along.”

While celebrity bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies aren’t his bread and butter, Mayer, who held a pulpit at Temple Judea in Tarzana for two years as a student rabbi and then another three after ordination, does specialize in outside-the-box Jewish observance and connection. According to his website, he “left organized religion” in 2000, and since 2005 has run an organization called Religion-Outside-The-Box (rotb.org), whose mission statement is “Nourishing the spiritual hunger.” There are more than 3,000 subscribers to his Wisdom Biscuit newsletter, which contains material that he described as “filling, digestible and yummy.”

It makes for serving a different kind of congregation, he said, citing as examples a woman who lives on a yacht, a priest from Malta and a same-sex couple from Australia who flew to Palm Springs so they could legally marry. “Whoever wishes spiritual nutrition, I'm going to feed them. I don't care about age or affiliation. If there's a need, I'm glad to be there.”

In Franco’s case, Mayer, who attended the Palladium party as well, said he’s learned from the experience of working with this most prominent student.

“No matter the circumstances, meaningful ceremonies can be done. I’m really proud to have been able to take what probably started as a pipe dream way of doing a fundraiser and help that thing of meaning to come out,” he said. “The world is weird and awesome and I'm glad to be part of it.“

Actor James Franco has bar mitzvah


Actor James Franco was bar mitzvahed in a religious ceremony at the age of 37.

The ceremony was held on Oct. 3 and included the actor wearing a prayer shawl and chanting from the Torah.  Franco posted a photo on Instagram, including a message: “I am now a MAN! Got Bar Mitzvahed tonight!!! Finally!”

The message included an invitation to the Hilarity for Charity variety show at the Hollywood Palladium on Oct. 17, to raise awareness and money for Alzheimer’s disease, sponsored by actor Seth Rogen and his wife, Lauren Miller Rogen.

Seth Rogen announced Franco’s bar mitzvah for the charity event in July.

Miley Cyrus will headline the bar mitzvah event.

“The Rabbi wouldn’t do it on the actual event, so he did it last night at our friend’s house and we filmed it and we’ll show it at our fundraiser,” Rogen told the culture website Vulture.

Masorti rips bar mitzvah rite for autistic kids held in Orthodox synagogue


A foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel slammed a bar mitzvah ceremony held at an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox children with autism.

Sunday’s ceremony in Rehovot was presided over by an Orthodox rabbi that the nine children and their parents did not know, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel said in a statement.

Masorti professionals who have worked with the children toward their bar mitzvahs were not informed of the ceremony, the statement said. The Torah is not read during services on Sunday by any branch of Judaism.

“What happened, in essence, is that the children, who had all volunteered to be in our program were taken to an unfamiliar synagogue, propped up and posed for a photo-op instead of given a legitimate and respectful bar mitzvah,” said Rabbi Robert Slosberg, the chairman of the Masorti Foundation.

“We were neither invited nor informed of the ceremony. In a situation where all services for children with disabilities are provided by the municipality, Mayor [Rahamim] Malul coerced these parents and their children into participating in a sham bar mitzvah and spat in the face of Masorti Judaism.”

The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities has been taking place for 20 years in Rehovot under the auspices of the Masorti movement. The celebration was at first to be moved to the president’s residence in Jerusalem after Malul, the central Israeli city’s mayor, canceled the ceremony in April because it would be held at a Conservative synagogue.

The ceremony at the president’s residence was supposed to be co-officiated by one Conservative rabbi, Mike Goldstein, and one Orthodox rabbi, Benny Lau, according to Conservative officials. But an invitation sent out by the President’s Office listed only an Orthodox rabbi.

“With this group of children from Rehovot, the shameful saga and game has ended,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel. “We were hoping for a better ending, but at least the children and their parents are not left ‘hanging’ in the air. We can’t do anything more for them.”

The Masorti movement said an emergency mission to Israel is being planned that will include high-level government meetings to discuss the marginalization of the movement.

Twin peaks: Tips for planning a double b’nai mitzvah


Having two b’nai mitzvah on the same day in the same service is common at my temple here in Los Angeles, and it comes with a unique set of challenges. I have seen my friends who have had children called to the bimah on such occasions cringe at the competition that can follow and the inevitable comparisons that take place.

But what do you do when both b’nai mitzvah are your children? That’s what happens when you are lucky enough to have twins.

My partner and I spent more than a dozen years learning, practicing and honing our skills to be parents who treated our children, Harrison and Juliette, as separate individuals. We put them in different classes at school, encouraged them to pursue unique hobbies, and we gave them equal but separate time with their doctors. Most important, we tried our hardest never to compare them to each other — we never even referred to them as “The Twins” (a phrase they hated).

They are completely different people and yet when the time came this past year to plan their b’nai mitzvah, the pressure of preparing one ceremony for the two of them made it easy at times to forget that. (And, even worse, it allowed us to fall into the age-old trap of “compare and despair”!) Think about all the distractions: Your mother is texting you lists upon lists, out-of-town guests are coming, bubbes are kvelling, the rabbi’s assistant is calling, tutors are rescheduling, caterers are emailing, the whole shtetl is giving mountains of unsolicited advice — and all twice as much as for a single bar or bat mitzvah!

So how do you stay centered and not compare? How do you keep both children on track and make a meaningful, unique experience for each?

Start at the beginning with their religious learning experience. My kids learn at different speeds and in different ways. One is more linear in thinking and the other more abstract and creative. Try scheduling separate times — not even back-to-back, when they might overhear one another while waiting — for them to meet with the Hebrew teacher or tutor so that their learning styles can be accommodated. 


Harrison wanted to be lifted on a chair during the horah, while Juliette declined; Juliette and Harrison were both on the dance floor at their party.

This will add more shlepping time to your week and may require extra help. However, it is important for the kids to have that one-on-one time, and make separate mistakes, so they can learn on their own and feel a sense of unique accomplishment.

Watch out for potential pitfalls related to the service as the learning process continues, and adjust course as necessary. It’s not uncommon, for example, for some children to read more verses from the Torah than others, as they are able. That’s fine — some kids are faster learners and have an easier time with languages or melodies. I found it important, though, to then give the other child an extra prayer or task in order to make it equal and avoid hurt feelings.

I allowed the children to go in totally separate directions when it came to their speeches  about their portion, which includes Moses at Mount Sinai and the golden calf. My daughter was more polished and had a more scholastic approach. My son, who enjoys video games and draws cartoons, was more comical. It was like “Downton Abbey” versus “South Park.” 

There are other little things you can do, too, outside of the service itself.

Invitations: To make sure the invitation reflected both kids’ flair and taste, I asked them to pick colors to incorporate into the invite. The result was one invitation that reflected each child’s style. Juliette and Harrison created their own list of friends to invite, and although some names overlapped, it gave them a sense of ownership of the event. You could also ask them to choose a preferred postage stamp when mailing the invites to friends. 

When in doubt … alternate: I kept a tally and alternated which child’s name went first for every element of the b’nai mitzvah. That included invitations to the morning service, evening party and Friday night dinner; the temple bulletin; video montage; cake; programs; kippot; and balloons.

Clothes: Take your children clothes shopping a few days apart. It may be more practical to go binge shopping in order to check off multiple items from your to-do list, but that makes it more likely you’d loose sight of the fact that this is a special moment. Also, you will be more present and can help your child make the right decision on attire that will feel comfortable, look good and reflect who they really are.

Party: I had Harrison and Juliette pick a favorite dessert item, hors d’oeuvre and separate song list for the DJ (it couldn’t have been more obvious — think Green Day versus Lil’ Mama). I even had my friends who are bakers create two different cakes: chocolate and salted caramel.


To individualize the event, have each child choose a favorite dessert for the party.

In the end, for us, everything worked out great. The morning services left me joyful. When the evening party was just beginning, I looked at my kids and couldn’t believe that these separate and unique young adults were the same ones who sang the Shema in unison while getting ready for bed after returning from Jewish summer camp so many years ago.

Then the moment was broken with a tap on my shoulder from my daughter, who informed me that “under no circumstances” would she be lifted on a chair, as is tradition, during the horah.

I started to sweat! What would people think? Could one child be held up and the other not? Was it bad luck? Would it look wrong? And most important: What would my mother say?

Then, a miracle: I took my own advice, turned to my daughter and said, “You know what? You and your brother are separate people. You don’t have to go up on the chair just because he does. Your brother can go on the chair, and you and I can watch. Moses didn’t go up on a chair — why should you?”

Bar mitzvah film school


Over the years I’ve attended several bar mitzvahs — most of them at the movies.

Not being Jewish, I’ve only attended one actual bar mitzvah — which took place during the Nixon era — and the only memories I have of it are eating Baked Alaska and trying to swipe whiskey sours from the bar. As a result, I still look to the movies to educate me on this coming-of-age ceremony.

One of the earliest films on the subject is a drama aptly titled “Bar Mitzvah,” produced in 1935. Although it was an American production, the entire film is in Yiddish with English subtitles. “Bar Mitzvah” stars Yiddish theater pioneer Boris Thomashefsky in his only feature film appearance. Thomashefsky, a Ukrainian immigrant, is credited with bringing Yiddish theater to America at the end of the 19th century, and with his wife, Bessie, founded the National Theater in what would become New York’s Yiddish Theater District.

The film, based on Thomashefsky’s play of the same name, tells the story of a woman thought to be lost at sea for 10 years who returns home on the eve of her son’s bar mitzvah to find her husband remarried, resulting in “shock, tears and laughter,” according to the National Center for Jewish Film. Largely uncirculated for years, “Bar Mitzvah” has been restored and is available on DVD.

Decades followed during which bar mitzvahs in movies were rare, if not altogether absent. And when they appeared again, they were often portrayed with satire, humor and an abundance of angst.

In 2006, British filmmaker Paul Weiland reveals his anxiety in “Sixty Six,” a “true-ish story” about his bar mitzvah. Set in 1966 London, Weiland’s film tells the tale of 13-year-old Bernie Reubens, a sickly nerd who feels he’s invisible to the world around him. When his rabbi describes Bernie’s upcoming bar mitzvah as “an epic two-day festival at which you are the absolute center of attention,” the boy becomes obsessed with making it the “ ‘Gone With the Wind’ … of bar mitzvahs.”

But Bernie’s elaborate plans are soon thwarted, first by his financially strapped parents — who have planned a much cozier event — and then by his fear that England will make it to the World Cup final, which falls on the same day as his bar mitzvah party (imagine trying to compete with the Super Bowl here in America). When the English team does make it to the championship, guests begin making excuses as to why they can’t attend his celebration.

Weiland decided to turn his childhood trauma into a movie after telling the story at his 50th birthday party, where his film industry guests encouraged him to do so. Helena Bonham Carter was so impressed by the anecdote, she asked Weiland if she could play his mother in the film, which she did.

The 2006 comedy “Keeping Up with the Steins” offers another angst-ridden tale of bar mitzvah planning, but this time, the parents are the ones with the grandiose aspirations. The film opens at Zachary Stein’s lavishly produced “Titanic”-themed party on a cruise ship featuring celebrities, a yarmulke-wearing killer whale, and the bar mitzvah boy making a spectacular entrance on the bow of a Titanic replica, proclaiming “Today, I am king of the Torah!” Determined not to be outdone by his professional rival, Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) vows to throw his son Benjamin “the biggest bar mitzvah in the history of bar mitzvahs!” Adam decides on a baseball-themed event at Dodger Stadium, with Neil Diamond singing the national anthem and Wolfgang Puck catering the bash with chicken paillard baseball mitts and sausage foie gras shaped like Louisville Sluggers.

But Benjamin wants no part of his parents’ elaborate plan. He’s more concerned with trying to understand the meaning of his Torah portion and overcoming his “haftarah phobia.” And while his parents are busy treating his bar mitzvah as a fierce competition, Benjamin prefers a more meaningful theme to celebrate his rite of passage — family. The boy nixes the overblown plan in favor of a downsized backyard event, serving mom’s matzah ball soup, grandma’s brisket and Neil Diamond performing “Hava Nagila.”

Benjamin’s “haftarah phobia” seems fairly common among 13-year-olds preparing for their big event. Another example can be seen in the 2000 comedy-drama “Keeping the Faith,” where a New Age rabbi (Ben Stiller) is helping an anxious boy prepare for his bar mitzvah. “I suck,” the boy declares about his singing, but the rabbi encourages him to embrace his “suckiness,” successfully boosting the boy’s confidence if not his vocal ability.

Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann’s 2006 documentary, “Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah,” gives us an intimate and humorous look at four 12-year-old boys and girls, each from different Jewish cultures, preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. The film reveals the behind-the-scenes anxiety and drama of these preparations, as well as an ambivalent view of Jewish traditions and their varied interpretations.

One of the most memorable bar mitzvahs in recent movies comes courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2009 film, “A Serious Man.” Although the action takes place in a 1967 Minnesota suburb, much like the one where the Coens grew up, the story is not necessarily autobiographical. In fact the brothers’ original idea, as revealed in the film’s DVD bonus documentary, “Becoming Serious,” was to make a short film about a bar mitzvah boy who visits an aged rabbi. The rabbi was based on one the Coens knew, whom they describe as an “aged kind of sage who said nothing, but had a lot of charisma.”

Instead, the Coens developed their idea into a feature, with the bar mitzvah supplying the film’s climax. In order to keep things as authentic as possible, the Coens cast a real cantor as well as actual members of the Minnesota congregation they used in the film.

The highlight of the film is when Danny, the bar mitzvah boy, disoriented from having just smoked marijuana in the temple bathroom, gingerly makes his way to the podium. Once he reaches his destination, the zonked-out boy is stunned by the gazing congregation and by the long pages of Hebrew text sprawled out in front of him. Danny finally manages to pull himself together and complete his task. Afterward, he has an audience with the synagogue’s wise old rabbi who offers Danny words of wisdom, quoting from the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love.”

The Coens were concerned about how synagogue members would react to the unorthodox scene as well as their satire of Minnesota Jews in general. But they needn’t have worried because, as they explain in the DVD doc, “Everybody connected to the synagogue knew about the getting high scene, and they all had a sense of humor about it.”

So, what have I learned about bar mitzvahs from these movies? They can be diversely extravagant, intimate, competitive, stressful, comical, solemn or psychedelic. But invariably, the parties are a raucous festivity where each newly crowned Jewish young adult can proudly proclaim, “Today, I am king of the Torah!”

Overcoming oration during a bar/bat mitzvah speech


As Jerry Seinfeld famously pointed out, studies show that people’s No. 1 fear is public speaking. Death is second. 

“This means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy,” the lauded comic once remarked.

This joke touches on something very real for many of us. Why are we more afraid of public speaking than we are of the grave? And why, year after year, do we continue to throw fresh-faced teens into the lion’s den that is delivering a dvar Torah on their bar or bat mitzvah day?

To Dexter Frank, an effervescent 11-year-old with freshly bleached hair, a speech in front of an entire congregation sounds more like waterboarding than a rite of passage steeped in tradition. 

“It sounds like torture,” Dexter told the Journal, his own bar mitzvah at Temple Israel of Hollywood about a year and a half away. “I wish the speech could be in front of three people, not 300.” 

Recalling her own visceral terror at her 2002 bat mitzvah at Temple Isaiah, public speaking coach Chiara Greene can certainly relate, but she also knows how mastering the art of public speaking can help teens throughout their lives. 

“I know, for myself, that fear is rooted in how you feel about yourself,” she said. “It can be specific to something like giving a speech, or broad and can hold you back in a job interview or college admission interview later in life.”  

She has launched a service, called Rock the Bimah (rockthebimah.com), to help youngsters deliver a dvar Torah with confidence. “I want kids to get over the fear so they can actually enjoy the service,” she said.

Greene said she also works with clients on their ability to captivate an audience with compelling storytelling. 

“Throughout history, great storytellers speak in present tense. It creates the world as if it’s happening and you become involved in it, sucking you in,” she said. “It’s not something we’re taught in school.”

Not all teens dread speaking to a crowd, of course. Chaz Frank, Dexter’s twin brother, said he doesn’t share his brother’s trepidation. 

“I don’t care. I’ll get up and speak in front of anyone,” Chaz said. There was no fear in his eyes at the prospect of speaking to a standing-room-only audience packed with peers, elders, strangers and (as brother Dex pointed out) a large extended family. 

“I’m really not afraid,” he insisted. “I’m just really looking forward to the party at the end of it.” 

And who can fault him? Bar mitzvah parties are often an extravagant reward for all the hard work that precedes them. But the hard work is a reward, too. And when that work is undertaken with a supportive tutor, cantor or rabbi, even teens who quiver in anticipation can find their bearings and leave their jitters behind. 

“My philosophy is that the rabbi should work directly with the kids on the speech,” Rabbi Jon Hanish of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills said. “So often we’re talking from the bimah and sending out newsletters. This is a rare chance to connect one on one.”

A graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Hanish works with b’nai mitzvah students to evoke realism in their performance and allow them to be themselves. 

“I want them to write and speak in 13-year-old voices. I’m not worried about them giving the world’s greatest presentation. I’m worried about them being who they are and presenting who they are to the community,” Hanish said.  

Finding one’s authentic voice to present to the congregation is critical. For 13-year-old Donovan Greenberg, one of Hanish’s pupils, that part of the process began with a question.

“It started with him asking me what I thought it meant to believe in God,” Donovan, who celebrated his bar mitzvah April 18, said. “It was really enjoyable talking openly about things like that with the rabbi. He never challenged what I believed. He never said I was wrong, which made it easy and really fun.” 

At the outset, Donovan wasn’t necessarily dreading his speech. His focus was on his Torah portion and making sense of it. Parashat Shemini makes mention of an alien fire offered by two sons of Aaron and how they are subsequently consumed in a fire that came forth from God. Hanish drew on his film background and sparked a discussion with the help of Steven Spielberg. 

“The rabbi showed me a clip of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ the part where the Nazis open the Ark and the fire comes out. That was actually based on my portion. It made me look at the movie and my portion in a different way. Things like that multiplied my interest a million times over,” Donovan said, recounting the experience excitedly over the phone. 

As for the particulars of delivering the speech on the big day, Donovan kept it simple, following the advice of Hanish. “He told me to tell the congregation about my Torah portion like I was just explaining it to a friend. That helped me a lot. In the end, it felt like just talking to my dad about my Torah portion,” Donovan said. 

Paul Greenberg, Donovan’s father, applauded Hanish for allowing his son to find his own answers to central questions raised in the portion’s text. 

“The rabbi never spoke down to him. He worked to find out Donovan’s true opinion on things,” he said. “The rabbi constantly … made him question things and didn’t just give him answers. It allowed Donovan to come up with his own answers. They were truly Donovan’s words.”

Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal of IKAR in West L.A. emphasized preparation when she spoke to the Journal about her work with her b’nai mitzvah students. 

“The process for us starts when they’re younger, looking at the text and asking questions. ‘Why did this happen? How does it relate to my life?’ We want them thinking about the Torah and how it applies to them early on,” Rosenthal said. 

IKAR students give a mini dvar Torah in front of their peers in sixth grade, a year before they have to do the real thing in front of the entire congregation. It serves as a taste of what’s to come. The following year, some four months before the service, Rosenthal gives her students their parshah and tasks them with formulating questions on the material. Meetings over the next few months involve examining rabbinic commentary and engaging in open dialogue about their questions, the goal for the students being to apply the meaning of the text to their own lives. 

“If the portion is about gossip, maybe they’ve been the victim of bullying in secular school and can connect on that level. For the most part, kids of this age aren’t asked to think in this way about the Torah,” Rosenthal said. “They don’t necessarily believe us when we tell them they can put themselves in the text.”

For the speechwriting, Rosenthal provides a basic structure: introduction; question; recite Torah; cite text study; one’s own interpretation; then a challenge or call to action to the community. Rosenthal made it clear that kids often deviate from this structure, making the process a very individualized one. The structure exists merely to give a foundation. The onus is on the student to prepare, study, put in the work and find his or her connection to the text. 

Rosenthal said the approach is invaluable, sometimes in unexpected ways. “I had one student who was adamant that she wouldn’t perform a speech. I told her she didn’t have to, but that she was required to go through the learning process. Afterwards, she felt such a sense of ownership over her ideas that she couldn’t imagine not getting up in front of everyone and sharing,” Rosenthal said.

“Every kid is so different, and every kid has something so remarkable to say.”

10 Torah-‘inspired’ bar/bat mitzvah themes


The contemporary bar or bat mitzvah has become quite a production, but you can still create a spectacle that’s connected to substance. You can even let the Torah portion inspire you, so that your inappropriate excess is also informative and educational. (Well, sort of.)

Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

You and your guests can frolic like the party animals of the first week of creation by experiencing that night-to-morning transition (“and then there was evening, and then there was morning”) to the beat of trance and house music at dawn with a Daybreaker dance party. Be sure to serve coffee instead of cocktails. 

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

Siblings (in this case, Jacob and Esau) battle for a birthright. Through a persuasive costume, a humble protagonist becomes a hero, then a refugee, running into an uncertain future. Celebrate Toldot’s teen dystopian literature DNA by identifying reception tables as “Hunger Games” districts, based on guests’ professions and socio-economic status, or “Divergent” factions, based on their personalities. The former facilitates networking, the latter will identify how people attack the smorgasbord.

Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

If you’re always misspelling “dessert” and “desert,” this Exodus-themed party will cure you of that in no time. Bring your guests to an isolated, sandy area near Palm Springs, spend 40 minutes wandering through the desert — remember, no one is allowed to ask for directions — and then enter “The Promised Land” (an air-conditioned hotel lobby). For dessert, serve bundt cakes shaped like Mount Sinai. 

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

The infamous golden calf was made of melted-down donated jewelry and valuables. It’s the perfect excuse to collect all the money and jewelry you receive, and trade it in for a ticket to Comic-Con to see your modern-day idols. 

Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

This portion about keeping kosher can become a learning opportunity featuring Los Angeles’ finest food trucks. If you include a dairy truck and a meat truck, be sure to separate them with a giant challah mechitzah

Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

Behar starts with shemitah, the injunction to let the land rest every seventh year; it’s time to identify one annoying friend from your guest list and ask them to “give it a rest” this year. Alternately, forget the text and focus on the work, life and style of comedian and original co-host of “The View,Joy Behar. 

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

The red heifer was a mystical animal with the power to purify the ritually impure and impurify the ritually pure. More important, it provides the perfect excuse to celebrate with a bucking, oscillating mechanical bull. (Let guests know, though, that by touching it they may have to leave the “camp”; be sure to provide coffee, snacks and Netflix to prevent excessive complaining.)

Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

A king who sets out on a journey with a donkey that periodically speaks to him is obviously the narrative inspiration for “Shrek,” so take the whole gang to Universal Studios to experience meaning, Hollywood style. Start with Transformers: The Ride, clearly a metaphor for the angry transition to adolescence … but with alien robots.

Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

This portion celebrates the Israelites and their connections: “For what great nation has a god so close at hand as is the Lord whenever we call?” See? It’s all about who you know. So, who do you know? Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida, Snoop Dogg, Beyonce, Madonna and Donald Trump have all appeared at bar and bat mitzvah celebrations — it never hurts to ask.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

Full of more slaying, fleeing and siege-laying than an episode of “Game of Thrones,” this portion will make you want to embrace the best of the HBO series. Mark reception tables as “House Stark” and “House Lannister,” and suggest that instead of gifts, guests bring sworn oaths of loyalty. Extra points to blonde women who show up with dragon eggs (even if they’re Judith Leiber clutches). 

How to make a money tree for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduation gift


The gift of cash is always welcome, especially for occasions that mark the beginning of a new journey, like bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations and weddings. But instead of just writing a check or sticking some dollar bills in an envelope, consider giving a money tree.

On a money tree, dollar bills are folded origami style into flowers and tied to branches. And because it takes three individual dollar bills to make each flower, giving an amount in $18 increments is easy (6 flowers = $18, 12 flowers = $36, etc.). Folding the money isn’t hard, and next time you have to give a present, you can skip the gift card.

This stylish way to give cash proves once and for all that, yes, money does grow on trees.

What you’ll need:

  •    Dollar bills
  •    Wire
  •    Branch
  •    Vase or planter

 

Step 1

With the currency facing up, fold in the left and right edges about 1 inch, so you can still see the president’s face.

Step 2

Take each of those folds you just made and fold again at the corners, inward toward the center line. Each side will now look like the point of a paper airplane.

Step 3

Fold the whole bill lengthwise at the center line to create a trapezoid shape, like a triangle with its top cut off. Repeat with two more dollar bills so you have three folded bills, and stack them on top of each other. Tie the folded bills together at their centers with a piece of wire.

Step 4

With the three bills wired together, there will be six “spokes” coming out of the center. Open the folds of the bills to create the petals of the flower. Don’t be afraid to force the petals open; the wire around the bills will keep them from coming apart. (Notice that the six-point flower almost looks like a Star of David.) When the flower is finished, tie it to a tree branch using the rest of the wire. Repeat with the remaining flowers, then place your branch in a vase or planter. If you don’t have a branch, you can just make the wires longer so they act like stems, and place the stems in a vase.


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com. Follow him @jfongstyle.

Woman arrested for sexual abuse of teenagers at a bar mitzvah


A 32-year-old woman was arrested for alleged sex crimes at a bar mitzvah in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Lindsey Ann Radomski reportedly exposed her breasts to several guests at a bar mitzvah party before engaging in oral sex with a 15-year-old boy, Azcentral.com reported.

Radomski, who was charged with sexual abuse and sexual conduct with a minor, told authorities that she was intoxicated and did not remember the encounter with the boy.

Police said that after the 80 to 100 guests had left the party at a private home, Radomski invited several boys into a private room and let them fondle her breasts. After the other boys left the room, she performed oral sex on a 15-year-old boy.

She had previously exposed herself to adults and children at a backyard pool.

Radomski is a yoga instructor and had recently undergone breast augmentation surgery.

Adolescent angst gets a do-over with ReBar program


If you could change one thing about your bar or bat mitzvah, what would it be, and why? 

Reboot, the think tank that aims to imagine ways of modernizing and revitalizing Jewish tradition, sought to answer that question Nov. 15 with its newest program, reBar. It partnered with the nonprofit Pico Union Project, which hosted the event, as well as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The locale — the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles — seemed fitting for the nostalgic event, which consisted of storytellers reflecting on their own awkward transitions into adulthood. Following a Havdalah service led by Pico Union Project’s founder, singer/songwriter Craig Taubman, the storytelling show began.

“So, just to bring the energy up a little bit, we’re going to start with a silent 20-minute meditation,” joked co-host Ethan Kuperberg, writer for Amazon Prime’s hit TV show “Transparent.” 

Fellow co-host Ethan Sandler got straight to business by explaining the premise of the evening. “We’ve come here tonight to talk about rites of passage,” he said.

Sandler went on to play a vinyl recording of his bar mitzvah haftarah. “See if you can hear me become a man,” he challenged the audience. The recording of a young boy going through the tropes ensued. Ten seconds in, Kuperberg said: “I heard it happening.”

ReBar is Reboot’s newest project, which, after more than a year of planning, was finally unveiled in Los Angeles. In January, reBar will celebrate its debut in San Francisco with a live show, after which it will travel east, according to Reboot’s executive director Robin Kramer.

Lisa Grissom, Reboot’s L.A. program manager, said that since working on this project, “I’m inspired to go back and relearn my Torah portion.”

In this particular event, she told the Journal, “We wanted to blend the Jewish lens with the lens of other cultures.” Because the Pico Union Project serves diverse communities, as reflected in the evening’s catered spread of bite-sized tamales and a punch bowl filled with sangria, the partnership was a natural next step for Reboot. And so event organizers broadened their central question to incorporate all cultural rites of passage.

“I’m not 15 years old anymore — and thank God,” said Karla T. Vasquez after reflecting on her fiesta rosa, an El Salvador tradition.

Invited storytellers included Vasquez, Esther Chung, Andy Corren, Mark Anthony Thomas and Sara Wilson. Singer/songwriter Madison Greer — who is also the executive personal assistant at the Pico Union Project — accompanied by her own piano playing, sang a sultry, sad rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” 

The last story was recited by host Kuperberg, who reviewed his bar mitzvah as if it were an episode of groundbreaking television. (His grade in retrospect: a slightly above-average C plus.)

“OK, last thing tonight,” said Sandler, as both hosts took the stage at the end of the evening. “We thought we could create a rite of passage tonight.” 

They asked the audience to close their eyes and picture themselves at age 13. “Who were you? What did you love then? Who did you love then?” 

And as the audience was transported back to a time long gone, the hosts snapped them back to the present with one more resounding question: “Who are you now?” 

Gabe Baskin trains guide dogs for the blind


When Gabe Baskin was preparing for his bar mitzvah, he wanted to find a community service project that would tie into his Torah portion of Re’eh, meaning, “to see.”

“So I thought there is no better way than helping others see,” said Baskin, now 17.

He reached out to Guide Dogs for the Blind, a Colorado organization that trains dogs to assist the blind and visually impaired.

Baskin and his family attended multiple meetings and learned the skills necessary to prepare the Labrador puppies for the rigors of guide dog school.

Living with the family for about a year and a half, the puppies learned commands like “sit,” “stay,” “come” and “stand,” and were housebroken  and trained not to chew on anything, Baskin said. In addition, he exposed them to numerous situations and public places that they might encounter as guide dogs.

“The dogs are always learning and always training,” said Baskin, who is currently training his third puppy, Collier.

For his part, he said, “I learned to be really appreciative of what I have. We hear about the challenges [of the blind and visually impaired] and I am grateful for all that I’ve been blessed with.”

A senior at Denver Jewish Day School, he is applying to colleges across the country, playing soccer, basketball and baseball, and is active in his local BBYO chapter. This year he is also serving as a StandWithUs MZ teen intern, organizing Israel advocacy and educational events for his peers.

It is this connection to Israel, Baskin added, that motivated him to support his cause there as well by donating money to the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.

“Adulthood is not all about getting, it’s a lot about giving,” Baskin said. “To be living, you need to be giving.”

He recently spoke to JTA about his important heroes, his emotional Jewish experience and the latest book he read for pleasure.

JTA: Who’s your hero and why?

Baskin: My parents are heroes. They’ve taught me important values and upheld them themselves. They are tikkun olam-oriented, and giving is an important part of our lives.

What are some important qualities in a hero?

I think a hero needs to be genuine and passionate about his or her cause. Everyday heroes are very important. They put in the work despite not getting the recognition.

What do you think you want to be when you grow up?

Maybe a sports journalist, maybe an orthodontist. I haven’t decided, but something in the humanities.

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

I really like Sukkot. It’s nice to have dinner in the sukkah with my family and friends. We have a lot of traditions that are nice to do every year.

Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience?

This past summer, [before going to Israel] going to the gates of Auschwitz. It’s the saddest part of our history and was a moving experience.

What’s the latest book you read for pleasure?

“A Thousand Splendid Suns,” by Khaled Hosseini. It was a really interesting perspective on women in the Middle East and shed light on something I might not have learned about.

 

Gifts of art from the heart


As bar and bat mitzvah celebrations have become more sophisticated and often more costly over the years, so, too, have many of the gifts. While many 12- and 13-year-olds continue to welcome fountain pens or jewelry, it’s not unusual for a celebrant to request an iPod or contributions toward a tablet or new computer.

Those wishing to give a more personalized gift with Jewish meaning have more to choose from than at any other time, but it’s still difficult to find items created specifically with bar and bat mitzvah kids in mind. That’s started to change in Israel, where Judaica artisans have begun to design affordable items for this niche market.

Dvora Black, who works from a studio in her home near Jerusalem, creates multicolored bar and bat mitzvah photo frames with a personalized message and dedication in Hebrew. For boys, a pair of tefillin, the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the Tree of Life are set against a Western Wall background. For girls, the landscape of Jerusalem is surrounded by Israeli wildflowers and doves. Black also sells wall-art blessings, great for sons and daughters of all ages. Depending on their size, these cost anywhere from $35 to $50 (dvorablack.com).

Black said she created the wall art “because I have children and always bless them on Friday night during Shabbat, and it’s the kind of thing I would want my child to receive. I made them for my own children and added them to my portfolio.”

While there are no gift-giving rules for b’nai mitzvah, she acknowledged, “A bar or bat mitzvah is a special occasion. It’s not just another birthday.”

Yair Emanuel, a well-known Jerusalem Judaica artist (emanuel-judaica.com/store), has created jewelry boxes for bat mitzvah girls that range from $25 to $46. One is painted with Jerusalem-inspired themes; another features embroidery.

Emanuel also makes colorful wooden yads, or pointers, used during Torah readings ($29).

Emanuel’s extensive line of hand-painted raw silk and other tallitot, though not specifically for b’nai mitzvah, are very popular gifts. They range from $90 to a little more than $200.

The artist, who was raised in a “very religious home” but described himself as “moderately” religious now, said he began designing pastel and brightly colored tallitot for women more than 20 years ago.

“At the time there were not many women wearing tallitot, but that’s changed in the past 15 years or so. Most [of my customers] are progressive Jews who don’t want to wear tallitot designed for men,” Emanuel said. 

Some of his female clients own several tallitot, “to coordinate with their clothes. I have one customer with 17 different tallitot. For her, they are not only a ritual object but a fashion accessory.” 

Avner Moriah, a respected Israeli artist who has created two large murals for the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as “The Moriah Haggadah” and Scrolls of Esther for individual collectors, among other projects, has designed a series of signed prints depicting scenes from the weekly Torah portions.

His works, including landscapes, have been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as many others.

Moriah (avnermoriahprints.com), who is currently creating an illuminated Torah, decided seven years ago to design 16-by-12-inch weekly portion panels, both as works of art and educational tools.

The panels depict both images and textual excerpts from the weekly parasha.

“I thought it would be a way to help every child visualize the text. There are so many kids with ADD [attention deficit disorder]. I’m dyslexic, and I suffered as a child. This way, the parasha means something to the kids.”

As with his other work, Moriah draws inspiration from the ancient cultures of the Middle East.

“Since in Jewish culture there was very little art done at the time, I look at art done around the Middle East during that period. If you look at the Book of Genesis, you see that the themes can also be found in different cultures, which isn’t surprising because there was a lot of interaction between the different traditions. I went to the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, the Metropolitan Museum; I looked at the art of the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Greeks.”

Given his focus on Judaic themes, many people assume Moriah is observant.

“I am Jewish, but I’m not religious,” he said. “I think the fact that I am not religious lends me much more freedom. I have no inhibitions about looking to other cultures.”

He is the first to admit that “it is very unusual to find a secular Israeli who delves into the texts,” but he finds no conflict between his love of Jewish texts and lack of religious observance.

An established landscape artist, Moriah shifted gears at the start of the Second Intifada, when he felt unsafe painting outdoors as bombs were exploding in much of the country.

Although many of Moriah’s pieces are of museum quality and costly, he has kept the price of the weekly Torah portion series relatively low, “because it’s a bar  or bat mitzvah gift. If I go overboard, it would defeat the purpose,” he said.

The ultimate bar or bat mitzvah playlist


Tired of listening to Kool & the Gang at b’nai mitzvah parties? Here is a playlist of 13 songs that will bring the shy boys and boy-crazy girls to the dance floor, while following in the talmudic tradition of adding a little commentary to the big day.

“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
The Beach Boys (1965)
That would be today, fellas.

“I’ll Be There for You”
(theme song from “Friends”)
The Rembrandts (1995)
Invite 300 of your closest friends!

“Get the Party Started”
Pink (2001)
Best. Entrance. Song. Ever.

“Fire”
Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Don’t forget bubbe and zayde during the candle lighting.

“I Want to Take You Higher”
Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
Lift that chair in the air!

“Shiver”
Coldplay (2000)
Is it me or is the synagogue freezing?

“Gimme Little Sign”
Brenton Wood (1967)
No party is complete without a signing board.

“Suit & Tie”
Justin Timberlake (2013)
You’d better dress up, boys.  

“Happy”
Pharrell Williams (2013)
Clap along if you feel … like “Havah Nagilah” is played out.

“Beautiful Day”
U2 (2000)
Sure is.

“Parents Just Don’t Understand”
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (1988)
Sorry, Mom and Dad, but the next 13 years will be even harder.

“Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Drake (2013)
Not if this Jewish rapper has anything to say about it.

“Best Day of My Life”
American Authors (2013)
Until your 16th birthday, that is.

 

The Purim Bar Mitzvah


An extraordinary event, perhaps transformational, occurred here in Malibu California during Purim.   Before I tell you more, let me provide a personal context.

It may seem paradoxical, but although I am a FFB (frum from birth), my first natural reaction is to be  a skeptic. Frum means, of course, a religiously observant and strictly orthodox Jew.   Thus, many believe that I, as a Chabad rabbi, should be certain of everything, but I now confess, in print, I’m not. Not even close!

Actually, in growing up, I was just like many boys ­– preferring fun and games to religious study.  I was rebellious.  I asked lots of questions, and I was not always satisfied with the answers. My teachers were more successful in communicating with me lofty ideas only when they seemed relevant to me and therefore resonated.

Like most of us, I am a product of my upbringing and the memories of my parents.  As a rabbi, I know that Jews must delve deeply into our wonderful history, but we must also move forward.

Let me share a story I heard from Rebbitzen Blumah Leah Lokshin OBM, my Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother), who passed away this past year at the age of 103.  My bubbe grew up in Moscow, where her father served as the chief Rabbi.  There was a kind woman who worked in her home as a maid and was not Jewish, but she had come to love and respect my grandparents.  This woman saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of Jews. Her benevolence was secret and never revealed. So what did this heroic woman do? Well, her son was one of the local Catholic priests who was responsible for the ongoing pogroms where Jews were robbed of their property, and even raped and murdered. 

One can only wonder what type of darkness persuaded  a “man of G-d” to facilitate the murder of innocent men, women and children.  His mother, the maid, would discreetly find out what her son (the Catholic priest) had planned for the next would-be victims and share the information with my great-grandfather.   While this story of her goodness is not isolated, because many Christians saved Jews, so many European Christians were overtly hostile toward Judaism, and they have mistreated Jews.

In America, we have seen a Christian tradition that, however inconsistent at times in acceptance of Judaism and Jews, has been unlike the tragic history of Europe.   Christians in America have been relatively hospitable to Jews.  Still, I have continued as a skeptic, and I have remained suspicious.  That maid in Moscow should have inspired me to recognize the goodness in many Christians, but I also recalled, again and again, the pogroms.  In my heart, I do believe goodness will prevail, just as it did in the Purim story.


Now, it is increasingly clear to me that while bigotry and prejudice in our society continue, and there is no shortage of anti-Semites, that we are undeniably in a great and historic period of reconciliation with our Christian neighbors.

Since I became a rabbi 20 plus years ago, I have found myself struggling with how to reconcile tradition and the old with the novel and the new.  I know for certain that we pass on, from one generation to the next, certain tenets and values of Judaism that are immutable.   But what of the hatred and oppression that Jews have faced in a variety of societies?  Is religious animosity also permanent? Are we part of a self-fulfilling prophecy?    Is there a “the more things change, the more they stay the same” syndrome? Or, beyond the divisions in the world, is there hope?

On Sunday, March 16, I was honored to conduct a Bar Mitzvah at the top of Pepperdine University, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Among the many distinguished guests and prominent community leaders was Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee

Consider this precedent-shattering event.  It was a Purim Bar Mitzvah, where we confronted an ancient time in which a prime minister wanted a Jew to bow down to government.

The Bar Mitzvah service of Aaron Steinberg was outdoors on a high bluff.   We brought an ark and a Torah to Pepperdine, which is a Christian university.   Hundreds of people watched and participated.   Then, we entered the adjacent Wilburn auditorium for the Bar Mitzvah boy to give a speech and then a spirited reading of the Megillah.   What a mitzvah to make the reading of the Megillah available to so many.

I later learned that a Pepperdine dean said our service made that venue on the Pepperdine bluffs a “holy place.”  What a wonderful thing to say.

{טו: הֵסִ֤יר יְ'ה'וָ'ה֙' מִשְׁפָּטַ֔יִךְ פִּנָּ֖ה אֹֽיְבֵ֑ךְ מֶ֣לֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל ׀ יְ'ה'וָ'ה֙' בְּקִרְבֵּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִֽירְאִ֥י רָ֖ע עֽוֹד׃

“Hashem has removed your afflictions; He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, Hashem, is in your midst-you shall no longer fear evil.” ~ Zephaniah 3:15

Indeed, hearing the words of the Torah being read on the very top of Pepperdine, made me realize that the time of the big light we are all waiting for is already here!

And as a Chabadnik, it gave new meaning to the words I heard the Rebbe say “Moshiach is already here, all we have to do is open up our eyes”

The easy way to write your speech for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah


Most people are happier being reaudited by a fiber-deficient IRS agent than speaking in public. They’re even more fartutst about writing their own speeches. 

Sometimes, we have to do both. 

It’s easy for me. I’ve been a speechwriter all my life. But you can do it, too, anxiety-free, as long as you follow a few rules. In fact, if you’ve been asked to speak at someone’s bar or bat mitzvah, you may even find the process of writing a speech quite simple and fun. (Notice I said process.)

Where do you start? 

1. Prepare early. The minute the date is set and you know you’ll have a speaking part in the celebration, start thinking about what you might say. That gives you a year. Don’t wait until it’s 8:52 on Saturday morning, and the bar mitzvah begins in eight minutes. At that point, it’s almost too late for even a professional to help you.

2. Find a theme for your speech. There is a portion of the Torah read at every bar or bat mitzvah. It corresponds to that particular week and is called a parasha. It’s easy to look it up, along with its modern meaning. Maybe the theme is trust. Maybe bravery. Overcoming hardship. Tie that in with your special feelings for the child being celebrated. Add to it by sharing some of the best memories of that young person. “I remember the scooter when …” 

You could also refer to the honoree’s Hebrew name, connecting it to the biblical character with the same moniker, if there is one. However, if the child who is coming of age is named Boo Boo or Bugsy, you might have to be a little creative.

Your speech might also discuss the Jewish values and traditions you observe together. Lighting the Shabbat candles is one. Saying Kiddush. Celebrating Chanukah. That’s a classic approach. To be more contemporary, you could talk about how you and the bat mitzvah girl go rippin’ along the Pacific Coast Highway on your Harley every Sunday, or how you and the bar mitzvah boy have watched every episode of “Breaking Bad” over and over together, and are in the same 12-step program to stop. 

3. Don’t be intimidated. You’re not addressing Congress or the Supreme Court. This isn’t your Harvard entrance essay. It’s a private, family gathering. You’re not Jimmy Fallon and you won’t be appearing on national TV. You probably won’t even be on YouTube, unless the challah somehow starts dancing the lambada. It’s just you, your extended family and your friends. Everybody will be cheering for you. 

4. Make lists. Before trying to write sentences for my speeches, I make lists. Then my lists make lists. I move ideas around and add new ones. As a writer, I know better than to sit down at my desk, thinking I’ll nail something perfectly in the first draft. In reality, as ideas pop into my head, I scribble them on anything I can find, including the upholstery in my car. 

And rather than feel the panic of having to sit there and finish this speech tonight tonight tonight, I make an appointment with myself to write for five minutes a day on weekdays. Not everybody has a couple of hours each morning, but we all have five minutes — no skipping. I mark the appointment with me in my day planner. And even if the page is blank when my five minutes are up, I check off that time anyway. I’ve kept my commitment. Maybe tomorrow something good will appear during my warm-up session. Eventually, it always does. 

When I get a draft — no matter how scattered it is, I congratulate myself and haul out the candy corn. Rewards for good work go a long way. 

5. Hook ’em with a great opening. You have a captive audience. Don’t lose them by starting with recycled language. You’re not a cliché. Your speech at a bar or bat mitzvah shouldn’t be one, either.

In your opening sentence, be clever. Maybe a little funny, too. If you’re speaking at a reception, instead of simply thanking the chefs who brought hors d’oeuvres, how about, “The CIA confirms that Aunt Puddy, Auntie Lacy and Great Aunt Yakabovsky caught the carp, the whitefish and the pike themselves. Now that’s gefilte fish. And nobody named Manischewitz was involved.”

6. How long should I speak? Less is more. Keep it short. If you’re the only speaker, five minutes. If you’re sharing the time-slot, three. You want to say what’s in your heart, leave your fingerprint in the room, congratulate the honoree and his or her family, then sit down.

7. How do I end my speech? Mazel tov!” and “L’chaim!” get ’em every time.


Molly-Ann Leikin is an executive speechwriter and Emmy nominee living in Santa Monica. Her Web site is anythingwithwords.com.

Jewish ignorance is a disease, you are the cure


“Whoever does not visit the sick is as if he spilled blood.” — Rabbi Akiva (Nedarim 40a, B. Talmud)

Our fellow Jews are sick. They don’t admit it. They don’t even know it. Yet the malady is grave. “The most destructive, painful, most contagious disease of all,” Rabbi Noah Weinberg said, “is ignorance. Ignorance perverts people and leads to wasted, counterproductive lives. Ignorance causes untold suffering — mistreatment of children, marital strife and suffering in a dead-end job.”

Who are these ignorant Jews? The highly educated, socially conscious, comedy-loving, Holocaust-honoring 1.2 million American Jews who identify themselves as Jews of no religion, according to the Pew survey. This group has been steadily growing for four decades and now includes one-third of all adult Jews born after 1980. Four-fifths of this group marry non-Jews. Only 8 percent raise their kids to be Jewish. The majority of them feel little or no attachment to Israel.

I call them ignorant because they’ve turned their back on something they don’t even know. Many have never been exposed to Judaism at all; others have experienced a diluted, dumbed-down version, and understandably found it uninspiring. I don’t blame them for consequently writing off the whole religion, but it’s like writing off sushi after trying a rubbery tuna roll from 7-Eleven.

I know about this because I was one of them. For years, I was proud to be Jewish, but I thought Judaism had nothing to offer me. I had received two messages from my parents:

1) Be Jewish to preserve the Jewish people.

2) Be Jewish because your grandfather died in the Holocaust. My mother is a child survivor of Theresienstadt, with lifelong health problems occasioned by her treatment there. Her father was murdered at Dachau, and most of her extended family were killed at Auschwitz. My father is a Chilean Jew who had to fight his way out of several scrapes with anti-Semites. We never owned a German car. We rejoiced when Israeli commandos rescued the hostages at Entebbe on July 4, 1976.

And yet, Judaism was understood to be a chore. Temple was boring but obligatory a few times a year. My bar mitzvah was more of a performance than a meaningful experience. As I grew older, I sought spirituality in Eastern philosophy, meditation, endurance sports, jam bands, transcendental poetry and science fiction — everywhere but my own backyard.

Eventually I found my way back, thanks to a confluence of events. My grandmother died. I stumbled into the right shul. I got a taste of deep Judaism, and a constellation of secular myths exploded around me. I found that our ancient tradition spoke to me in innumerable ways, even while I remained scientifically oriented and modern. More to the point, I became a better husband, father, son, brother, friend and citizen when I became a practicing Jew.

As I learned from Arthur Kurzweil, there is a rope that connects every Jew to God. Sometimes these ropes break. When a broken rope gets retied, however, the distance between the Jew and God becomes shorter. Interestingly, I often feel I have more in common with practitioners of other faiths than I do with devoutly secular Jews who cringe at “God talk.” Among the former, there exist an amazing 1.2 million American non-Jews who identify themselves as people with Jewish affinity. They do so mostly because they share religious values with us, and because Jesus was Jewish. I find this support comforting — evidence of the great freedom we enjoy in America to practice our own religion. Ironically, it may be this very lack of persecution that leads so many of our brothers and sisters to devalue their own religious heritage, and eventually to abandon it altogether.

“Whoever does not visit the sick is as if he spilled blood,” said Rabbi Akiva. He spoke these words after visiting a sick man whom no other Sage would visit. He saw that the man lacked basic necessities, attended to him personally and saved his life. We bear the same obligation toward those who are spiritually sick today.

We who are connected to God through the rope of Judaism have a sacred duty to help the unconnected retie the knot. If they get a taste of quality Judaism, and still leave it behind, OK, they’ve made an informed choice. The vast majority of these folks, however, have no idea what they’re missing.

Our fellow Jews suffer from tragic levels of ignorance. They’ve never experienced a Carlebach service, they’ve never excavated layers of text with a great teacher, and they’ve never seen a relationship improve through mussar work. They simply don’t know that inspiring Judaism exists.

I think it’s fantastic that Jewish institutions are creating fun, welcoming, inspiring events to greet the curious when they show up. The group I’m talking about, however, will not show up. Chocolate fountain Shabbats, comedy club Yom Kippurs, and even halachah-bending compromises will not get them through the door.

So we need to knock on their doors. Call it crowd-sourced outreach. The connected have to do the connecting, starting with our closest friends. We have to invite our secular pals to our Shabbat dinners. When they come, we have to make it warm and festive, modeling the benefits we’ve gained from Torah Judaism. I’d like to give special props to my dear friends Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz and his wife, Olivia, who have hosted such Shabbats for 60 people at a time for 30 years.

If you’ve got a special ability to connect the unconnected, please use it. My own plan is ambitious, but God blessed me with a little miracle in 2005 when I became the Accidental Talmudist. As a result of that miracle, I have a huge opportunity to visit the sick, and I am seizing it. I post morsels of Jewish wisdom on ” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com

Keeping the Los Angeles coast clear


When it came time to choose a charity project for his September 2014 bar mitzvah, Ben Moody knew he wanted to support a cause close to his heart. “We’re always on our boat and at the beach, and we love the water,” Moody, 12, said of his Westlake Village family. He counts surfing and bodyboarding as some of his favorite activities. “I love the beach and everything about it,” he said.

Moody had taken part in Coastal Cleanup Day in 2009, an international volunteer event organized annually in Los Angeles County by the nonprofit Heal the Bay, and remembered how much fun it was to comb the sand and sea for trash and return his cherished environs to a more pristine state. So he decided to take part in this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day on Sept. 21 and raise funds to aid Heal the Bay’s work. 

“Everyone has been really supportive,” said Moody, who has raised more than $600 so far. “They all said it’s a really good project for me.”

Moody could be one of a record-breaking number of volunteers who will converge on polluted waterways around the world for Coastal Cleanup Day this Saturday, which organizers bill as the largest single-day volunteer event on the planet. In L.A. County alone, Heal the Bay will run more than 50 coastal and inland cleanup sites, which could draw up to 10,000 local volunteers for a morning of environmental teshuvah.

Founded in 1985 by the California Coastal Commission, Coastal Cleanup Day is managed in California by the Ocean Conservancy. This year marks Heal the Bay’s 24th year coordinating the effort in L.A. County, and organizers are now pushing a “zero-waste” approach to cleanup, said Alix Hobbs, Heal the Bay’s acting executive director. Volunteers are encouraged to bring their own protective gloves, reusable bags and buckets to collect trash, and should leave plastic water bottles at home. “This way, we’ll completely reduce the amount of trash that we produce for the event,” Hobbs said. In honor of Los Angeles’ recent ban on plastic bags, the first 100 volunteers to arrive at city cleanup sites will receive a free reusable bag.

Cleanup sites will span Malibu to Long Beach, but the central hub of activity will be the Santa Monica Pier. The day will kick off with a free “Peace on the Beach” peace circle hosted by Naam Yoga, and volunteers can later watch a dory race or take part in a stand-up paddleboard clinic taught by professional trainers. In the afternoon, all volunteers will be granted free admission to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. 

Volunteers can collect trash in a variety of ways: on foot, by kayak at some sites, or by paddleboard. At the Santa Monica Pier, along with a select few other coastal sites, scuba-certified divers will also have the chance to scour for underwater debris. 

“It’s a fun experience,” Hobbs said. “We start the day with yoga — cleanse your body, cleanse your mind, and then go ahead and clean the beach as well. We want to make the overall event fun for families. But underlying the day is the message that every day should be Coastal Cleanup Day. We need to think about, what can we do every day to make sure our trash doesn’t end up in our storm drains, in our oceans?”

About 6.4 million tons of litter enter the oceans each year, advocacy groups estimate. Eighty percent of that litter comes from waste on land — cigarette butts, bottle caps, fast-food wrappers and other items that often end up in street sewers eventually make their way into rivers and streams, and from there into the ocean. 

Since California began participating in Coastal Cleanup Day in 1985, more than 800,000 volunteers have removed more than 14 million pounds of trash from along the coast. Last year, statewide, 62,668 volunteers gathered 728,289 pounds of trash and 143,291 pounds of recyclables from cleanup sites spanning 1,500 miles. About 9,000 L.A. County volunteers cleared away some 40,000 pounds of debris — about 20 tons — before it reached the ocean.

“We eliminate an enormous amount of trash before the October rains, when it all gets flushed to the ocean,” Hobbs said. “We want to get the trash out before that happens — out of our alleyways, out of storm drains, off of beach sites.”

Coastal Cleanup Day often draws Jewish community and synagogue volunteer groups as well as b’nai mitzvah students raising funds for charity projects. Volunteers range in age from toddlers to seniors and include youth groups, school clubs, sororities and fraternities, Boy Scouts and religious institutions. 

This year’s Coastal Cleanup Day falls during a time of transition for Heal the Bay. On Sept. 16, Ruskin Hartley, former executive director of the Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco, took over as the Santa Monica nonprofit’s new CEO. Heal the Bay will remain close to its founding mission to protect and preserve Southern California’s coastal waters and watersheds, said Hobbs, who will stay on as associate director. Next year the organization will hold its first strategic planning meeting since 2010 to discuss new challenges, like climate change — but its work will retain a regional focus, Hobbs said. 

This Coastal Cleanup Day will be Hobbs’ 15th. “For me, seeing the volunteer numbers increase every year, over time … we’ve really made an impact,” she said. 

For more information or to register for a cleanup site, visit

Have we forgotten what Bar Mitzvahs are all about?


[UPDATE] The Bar Mitzvah, re-examined


The egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful video that is circulating ‘celebrating’ a Bar Mitzvah contains so much that is offensive that it requires restraint to hold oneself to three ways in which this display slaughters the spirit. Still, in the face of excess what could be more appropriate than abstinence? So here are only three of the worst things about this travesty:

1. To turn a ceremony of spiritual maturation into a Vegas showgirl parade teaches a child sexualization of spirit. Apparently nothing in our society militates against the narcissistic display of short skirted dancers ushering an adolescent into unearned stardom. If it is fetching, it is worthy. A beat justifies all else, and the rapt attention of an (dare I hope incredulous?) audience, is its own justification. Here is a spectacle on the order of throwing Christians to lions — that is, toss belief into the arena of appetite. Everything is fair game if the show is good enough. The usual phrase set above the ark in a synagogue is “know before whom you stand.” Perhaps it is time to change it to “Flesh Vincit Omnia.” Rockette Ruach.

2. I am leery of being too maudlin but really, our ancestors struggled and suffered and fasted and prayed so Sammy could cavort? There is an historical outrage here. The Bar Mitzvah (which is a stage a child reaches, not the name of a ceremony) is important because one becomes responsible for the mitzvot, not because one poorly approximates a pubescent Justin Timberlake. Bar Mitzvah means something and however beautiful his religious ceremony may have been, and however sincere the Judaism of his family (I don’t know and cannot judge) it is drowned out by the cymbal crash of hip grinding libertinism. I think of some of the teachers of my youth who taught that the tradition they bore was sacred and demanded reverence. When one of us did our jobs in worship the way he instructed us, Mr. Weiss would slip us a Ludens cough drop. We coveted those cough drops because they were the sign of a sacred duty done well, acknowledged by someone of genuine authority coupled with kindness. I shudder to think of what Mr. Weiss would make of Sammy, who was doubtless slipped a BMW, or perhaps (in a concession to age) a diamond studded Magen David necklace in tribute to his accomplishment.

3. Poor Sammy. I say this with no irony. What remains to him of the small triumphs of life? When he struggles with math and earns a ‘B’ when before he could never do better than a ‘C’ will they purchase an island to mark the occasion? Will he take Air Force One to his prom? This young boy been so extravagantly recompensed at 13 as to make all future victories hollow. Alexander the Great, it is said, grew depressed when he realized he had no more worlds to conquer. And since Sammy’s extravaganza would probably have been too grandiose for Alexander to entertain for the mere conquest of the Persian empire, what of Sammy’s next achievement? His marriage had best take place on Mars or it will make no impression.

Achh. I know I sound like an old curmudgeon. Watching this I thought the adjective ‘godless’ has rarely been more apt. I cannot help recalling the wise words of AJ Heschel — self-respect grows each time we are able to say ‘no’ to ourselves. This video is a “YES” to a child from all the people in his life who should be teaching him “no.” And that kind of education has consequences far beyond Sam Horowitz and his dancing Bar Mitzvah girls.

This piece originally appeared on washingtonpost.com.

Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author, most recently, of “Why Faith Matters.”

Invites: Snail or E-mail?


My bat mitzvah invitation had bright purple embossed text on a hot- pink card with my name enlarged in decorative script at the top and daisies adorning the bottom.

Twenty-plus years later, I remember eagerly waiting for my friends to receive the invitations and running home weeks later to check the mailbox for the return of the RSVP envelopes. Secured in a scrapbook, the invitation is a treasured memento.

Today, a rising trend in simcha invites is changing — for some — the run to the mailbox has become a dash for the e-mail inbox and the card stock mementos are now computer printouts. No longer for holiday parties and happy hours only, electronic invitations are becoming an acceptable way to announce major lifecycle events, including b’nai mitzvah celebrations and weddings.

When Jason Horowitz, a marketing executive in New York, and his partner, Carl, were planning their wedding, electronic invitations became the solution for one major concern: They were short on time.

With more than 200 invitations to send, the couple didn’t want to sacrifice style for haste. Paperless Post, a Web site launched by a 20-something brother-and-sister team in 2008, was the perfect answer.

Paperless Post invitations are sent by e-mail (or through a social networking site, such as Facebook or Twitter) with an image of an envelope appearing on screen. The invitation itself can be designed with the assistance of graphic designers or selected from existing templates. 

Premium invitations are paid for by purchasing “coins” — the smallest package of 25 costs $5. A premium invite costs one to five coins, with additional charges for an envelope, logo and more.

Margery Klausner, an attorney in Southfield, Mich., used an electronic invitation as a follow-up to the paper invitation for her son Nathan’s bar mitzvah. Klausner used the image of the paper invitation for the electronic version.

While all local guests and family members received both the paper and electronic invitations, she exclusively sent electronic invitations to guests whom she “wanted to include but wasn’t 100 percent sure that they could come, like those [living] in Israel.”

One of the main advantages to using the electronic invitations was the quick arrival of the responses, Klausner said. Two hours after hitting the send button on her computer, “I received 57 RSVPs,” she said. Additionally, Klausner was able to track the guests who didn’t open the e-mail and contact them directly to find out if there was a problem.

Since Paperless Post launched, co-founder James Hirschfeld said, more than 10,000 b’nai mitzvah and 40,000 wedding invitations have been sent over the site.

Calligraphers and engravers shouldn’t worry too much, however. Traditional paper invitations are still very much in vogue, according to Wendy Katzen, a Washington-area event planner. 

For Melissa Kanter, the paper invitations for the upcoming b’not mitzvah of her twin daughters, Emily and Rachel, will “set the tone for the affair.”

“It’s an accessory, like the bracelet to the outfit. It pulls the whole thing together,” said Kanter, an occupational therapist in Short Hills, N.J.

The invitation will reflect the personalities of her daughters, said Kanter, who worked with a graphic designer. The RSVPs will be with a response card — not directed to an e-mail address — and she’ll create a special postage stamp for the invitations and cards. After the affair, the invitation will be framed in a shadow box and used to make gifts for the girls: jewelry boxes and pillows.

“I’d rather have the tradition” of a paper invitation, Kanter said. “It will be a keepsake that I’ll put in their baby book.”

Katzen says that in planning a lifecycle event, it’s important to keep in mind that guest lists are often multigenerational and you want to take care not to insult anyone.

“There are still [people] who think a BlackBerry is a fruit,” she said. “You want to keep those guests in the loop, too.”

That wasn’t an issue for Horowitz — even his guests in their 80s had e-mail addresses.

Days before the wedding, he sent a message through the site clarifying the start time of the ceremony. The flexibility of an electronic invitation made it much easier, he said, “Otherwise I would have had to make a hundred phone calls.”

With a guest list of more than 1,500, Rabbi Batya Steinlauf — whose husband, Gil, is the rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington — also went the electronic route for her son Noah’s bar mitzvah. The entire congregation was invited to the bar mitzvah and subsequent Kiddush lunch. 

“Can you imagine sending out 1,500 paper invitations?” Steinlauf asked. “It saved a fortune and saved many trees. There’s no question — I can’t imagine another way to have done this.”