In the Jewish tradition, the bar or bat mitzvah, also known as the b’not or b’nai mitzvah for twins or triplets, is the culmination of the five years spent studying the Torah. It celebrates the passage of a Jewish teenager, often between the ages of 12 to 14, into religious adulthood. Because of its cultural significance and almost-unanimous practice by Jews across the religious spectrum, a parallel does not exist in any other religion.
Many of us at CCA attended at least one bar/bat mitzvah sometime in middle school. Usually among Western Jews, the long and oft-forgotten temple service in which the bar/bat mitzvah reads from the Torah is overshadowed by a huge party at a country club or some other venue. Wealthier families go out of their way to secure headliners who are booked to the tune of six figures or more. All in all, the celebration could be priced at a modest amount, or not at all with celebrities and the metropolitan elite shelling out a lot for just one night of festivities.
To some, the modern Western bar/bat mitzvah has become so far divorced from its original meaning that all it represents is an over-the-top display of wealth or a ploy to generate some sense of exclusivity. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Jews of the diaspora were forced to take this ceremony underground. What comes to mind are those who lived in the tenements of New York City and Chicago, as second-class citizens in the Arab and Persian kingdoms, and of course, in Nazi-controlled Europe and North Africa. Unquestionably, our ancestors would be completely foreign to the state of bar/bat mitzvahs today.
During the bar or bat mitzvah party, there is a candle lighting ceremony, one part in which the bar/bat mitzvah’s grandparents would come up to the stage and say a prayer in Hebrew. I remember that as a seventh-grader, my friends and I would admittedly be entertained by the grandparents’ strange pronunciation of Hebrew. They’d stress their vowels, trill their Rs, and voice their consonants in a way that my generation was never taught in Hebrew school. My mom and grandfather, both born and raised in America, would do the same.
It took me until I was old enough to grasp the Israeli-Arab conflict to find out why this phenomenon occurred: why the pronunciations of Hebrew liturgy varied among the older generation; why the grandparents of my Russian Jewish friends would cook a certain way, while those of my Persian Jewish friends and Moroccan Jewish friends would do so another; why much of my European Jewish family was not afforded the opportunity to become bar mitzvahs as kids; ultimately, the reason as to why subethnic divisions even exist within Judaism. It all goes back to the exile from Israel.
When onlookers see our extravagant bar and bat mitzvahs and the privileged lifestyles of most Western Jews today, they might see us in a negative light. The Holocaust, to the majority of individuals in the 21st century, is an event that is just another distant part of history. And the question of Israel is another can of worms in and of itself.
Unfortunately, Jewish history is the sum of centuries’ worth of misunderstanding, persecution, and conflict. The fact that Jews are a part of the upper echelon of society today and that half of us have returned to our ancestral homeland that is Israel is a remarkable feat. It’s even more impressive to see young Jews like myself learn the same dialect of Hebrew and partake in a unified culture that had been scattered and isolated for longer than any of us can even remember. We have the honor of celebrating Jewish tradition and, arguably, one of the most important ceremonies in a Jew’s life, which is the bar/bat mitzvah.
To fully understand the Israeli-Arab conflict, the world must look at it from a Jewish perspective, too. As an Ashkenazi Jew that many self-proclaimed social activists would dismiss as a white privileged American, let’s not forget that only a few decades ago, my ancestors were being massacred for their Middle Eastern features and alien culture. Those same ancestors were never white, they were always Hebrews — Israelites, even after being enslaved by the Roman and Babylonian Empires and forcibly brought to Europe. This same Jewish “otherness” prevails today, wherein Yemenite Jews are actively being exterminated in the 21st century. At our doorstep in Los Angeles and New York, hate crimes against Jews have skyrocketed. My cousins in London can’t even publicly wear yarmulkes or other visibly Jewish symbols anymore due to the threat of mugging, assault, or worse.
That is why three summers ago, instead of having a party for my bar mitzvah, I decided to personally make aliyah to the Holy Land and read from the Torah upon the remains of an ancient synagogue in Katzrin, Israel. This was where my ancestors came from and lived. It’s the only place in the world where I can celebrate my Jewish otherness, and it’s also the place where the descendants of the nearly 1 million Jews unscrupulously expelled from the Middle East and North Africa can do the same.
The Jewish values of education and hard work that led to our standing in society today, along with the relegation of Jews to the unholiest of work as deemed by our Christian and Islamic overlords, were always meant to bring us back home. As the Jewish went for millennia, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Now, we can say “today in Jerusalem,” as undeniable proof that our home, through expulsion, through pogrom, through genocide, has remained Eretz Yisrael.