A Bar Mitzvah, Tradition and Jewish Identity
By Justin Amler
Just a week after the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue in America where 11 Jews were brutally murdered during an ancient Jewish ceremony, I was in a synagogue in faraway Melbourne, also engaged in ancient Jewish ceremonies - celebrating my first-born son becoming a Bar Mitzvah.
And not too far away from me, in a small non-descript box, lay a tallit, tefillin, kippah and siddurs. They once belonged to my wife’s late grand-father David, a man who survived the Holocaust, a man who survived hell itself in Nazi concentration camps. He had been forced to physically fight other helpless souls for the entertainment of his tormentors so that he may survive another day. And he did survive, and among his most valued earthly possessions he held onto when he made his way to Israel, was this little box. When he died a few years ago, that box was passed onto my mother-in-law, and this weekend it has now been passed onto us, so that his memory continues to live on.
Looking at my son with pride emanating from my soul, I watched him recite ancient words from the Torah, holy words older than almost any others on earth. Words created in a time before time. Words that I once read when I was his age with my father standing beside me. Words that my father once read with his father standing beside him. Words that King David once read. Words that Joshua once read. Words that my ancestors throughout time in Israel and in Europe and in every other place on earth once read. Words that have not changed with time or politics or social movements. Words that started thousands of years ago in the desert, inspired by God and written by Moses, the greatest of all prophets, who we still sing about today.
Words that people died for, but more importantly words that our People have lived for.
The same words in the same language, right from the very beginning.
How lucky I was to be able to celebrate this day, when throughout history, so many other Jews could not. The Soviets did the best to blot out Jewish traditions and ceremonies, making studying our ancient texts a crime. The Nazis took Torah scrolls and burnt them, a prelude to the genocide they would later unleash. Their allies and those who hated Jews joined in the mass orgy of violence against us. The Arabs destroyed ancient synagogues in our Jerusalem when they illegally occupied our land.
Throughout all of history itself, countries and societies and religious institutions have risen to try and crush the Jews again and again. Yet here I was doing what so many could not do before me. So many who dreamed and prayed, hoped, begged and pleaded for and yet were denied the opportunity.
How lucky I was indeed, to be surrounded by the love and the memories of all those who have passed, as if they were standing right beside me and beside my family and beside my community.
There was magic and meaning in everything that day. My son’s bar mitzvah Torah portion was “Chayei Sarah” – the Life of Sarah. David, my wife’s grandfather whose tallit, tefillin, kippah and siddurs had survived the Holocaust with him and now were part of our lives, was married to Sarah. She was named after Sarah, matriarch of Israel whose life we were reading about that Shabbat.
In the portion of Chayei Sarah, we learned about how Sarah made each day count. We also learned about the first recorded land purchase in history, the Cave of Machpela in Hebron. Not stolen, borrowed or conquered, it was purchased by Abraham from Ephron for 400 shekels of silver. Hebron – that part of Israel that we are told by international organisations does not belong to the Jews.
Looking at my son, I realised that day was not only about him for it’s never only about one person. It’s about what we all represent. It’s about all of us. His bar mitzvah was a special service – not beamed live to a worldwide audience, yet beamed live through the Jewish soul network into the hearts of Jews all around the world.
His bar mitzvah was about fulfilling centuries of tradition that has kept Jewish identity alive in the world. It’s about being proud of your heritage. It’s about loving the land of Israel. It’s about loving the gift we have been given. It’s about honouring our Torah. It’s about continuing the Jewish legacy. It’s about Jewish continuity into the future.
It’s about keeping an almost 4000 year old mission alive.
All of that and more were on display this day.
There are too many Jews today who want to give up many of these traditions in an attempt to fit into a world they think will accept them. They look at much of these customs and see it as old and outdated, not part of the modern world we live in. Many dismiss these ancient relics, eventually assimilating out of the Jewish people, never to be heard of again.
But the past is not an anchor that weights you down. Rather it’s an anchor that keeps you grounded while the winds of chaos threaten to rip you away. And the more you give away of your past, the less secure your future will be.
We don’t all follow each law and custom. We don’t have to agree with all of them either. But just knowing there are laws and traditions and customs is an important part in the foundation of our people.
It teaches us about ourselves, because in a world where too many people have lost their identity, that anchor to our past helps us to remember who we are and where we come from.
Our Jewish identity is a precious gift that we cannot forsake for the fate of the Jewish people rests in each of us.
As the Shabbat service drew to an end and my son joined the ranks of Jewish manhood, I appreciated even more what that meant for him and what it meant for the entire Jewish nation.
Looking around at the joy in the community for my son on that special day, on that special Shabbat, as we celebrated our customs and our traditions and our laws, I knew, as I’ve always known, that no matter what adversity or hardships we will face in the future, the Nation of Israel will live on. We will make sure that happens.