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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

AN ACCIDENTAL BARMITZVAH

 
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AN ACCIDENTAL BARMITZVAH

Moorings


Early in 2002, our daughter, who was then almost seven years old, was highly impressed by a photograph of somewhere in Venice. Her instant reaction was to ask us to take her there. As she was taking swimming lessons at that time we said that we would take her when she had learnt how to swim (in case she fell into a canal). Within a couple of months, she had become a competent little swimmer. She learnt much faster than I did. At her age I would have been reluctant to even consider entering a swimming pool.

When I was a child, my parents took us, my sister and me, to Venice every year until I reached my late teens, which is when I began travelling without the rest of my family. Many years later, in 1982, my friend - and many years later she became my wife - and I spent a few days in Venice. It was during the Falkland’s Crisis, and I remember standing near the Accademia Bridge having an argument with my future wife about the rights and wrongs of the war being waged by the British and the Argentineans. Luckily, we eventually became reconciled to our opposing points of view, and agreed to differ.

Twenty years later, we flew into Treviso Airport, near Venice, along with our seven year old daughter.

We had rented an apartment near to the Cannareggio sestiere (Venice like some other Italian towns is divided into six districts or boroughs known as ‘sestiere’). It was within walking distance of the railway station and also close to the Ghetto, which was once the quarter of the city in which there were iron foundries and also where Jews were permitted to live. The word ‘ghetto’ is most likely derived from a Venetian word meaning the waste slag produced by iron foundries. The Ghetto Vecchio (old ghetto) is actually newer than the Ghetto Nuovo (new ghetto), which it borders.  The Jews of Venice were required to live in these districts of Venice, and nowhere else. The modern word ‘ghetto’ is derived from the Venetian term. 

When I used to visit Venice with my parents, we occasionally visited the Ghetto district. This was not because of any sense religious attachment. It was for art historical reasons. At least one of the synagogues, as far as I can remember, contained some decoration from the Baroque era, and that is what interested my father, one of whose hobbies is art history.

My father was brought up in a religious family. His was one of the seven Lithuanian Jewish families, who lived in the small village of Tulbagh high in the mountains of the Western Cape of South Africa. He was one of three brothers. Once a week a schochet (a Jewish ritual slaughterer), recently arrived from Lithuania, used to come to Tulbagh to teach the Yamey boys Hebrew in order that they would be ready to become Bar-Mitzvah when they reached the age of thirteen. They did not learn much Hebrew as their teacher was keener to learn English. My father told me that he could read Hebrew writing, but had no idea what the words, which he was pronouncing, meant. My father’s two elder brothers had their Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies, and were often required to make up the minyan (the quorum of ten adult males required before a service could be performed) in Tulbagh’s makeshift synagogue in the billiard room of Tulbagh’s hotel, which was run by the Scher family.  In 1931, when my father was twelve, disaster struck. His father became ill, and died. His widowed mother was left with a general store to run and four children to look after. Religion assumed a lesser importance than survival. As a result, my father never had a Bar-Mitzvah ceremony.  

My father married seventeen years after his father died. He was relieved to have been able to inform his religious stepfather that his bride was Jewish. One of his stepbrothers had married a gentile, and his father, my father’s stepfather, immediately sat shiva (went into mourning) for him. It was as if his son had died by ‘marrying out’. Although my mother was Jewish by birth, neither she nor her parents were in the slightest bit ‘observant’ in Jewish matters. Jokingly, I sometimes say that my late mother was so unobservant a Jewess that she was almost unaware that it was against the rules for Jews to eat pork.

As a young child, my eating was unadventurous; I was reluctant to try anything new. All over Italy and France, whilst my parents were eating delicacies that I now enjoy, all that I used to eat was ham (or steak) and chips. We never went to any synagogue apart from the one in Venice, and then only as tourists At school, I used to wonder why on certain days, some of my fellow pupils were absent: I had no idea about Jewish High Days and Holidays.  And also I had no Bar-Mitzvah ceremony. Indeed, had anyone asked me whether I had had one, or was going to have one, I would have responded with a blank stare of ignorance, not knowing to what they were referring. I grew up without any religious upbringing at all, Jewish or otherwise.

When my wife and I took our daughter to Venice, I had already become fascinated by the history of my family, and was spending much of my spare time a researching it. Just before we left London for Italy, I began reading a book by Howard Jacobson. It was called “Roots Schmoots”, and it described his explorations of the history of his family. Quite early in his narrative, he describes visiting some relatives in Llandudno in the north of Wales, and was surprised to discover that they were all members of an ultra-orthodox Hassidic sect, followers of the late Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Jacobson became fascinated by this sect and flew to New York, where he met the rabbi. I had read up to this point in the book when we arrived at our rented apartment close to the Venetian Ghetto district.

One morning, we left our small apartment, turned right, and crossed the main canal of the Cannaregio sestiere. A straight lane, perpendicular to this canal led through the Ghetto Vecchio to the heart of the older Ghetto Nuovo. I noticed that a trattoria located on this pedestrian thoroughfare had a sign outside it, advertising the dish of the day. It was cotoletta maiale (pork chop). I doubt that there was any malice intended by the owners who were promoting this inappropriate dish in an area that was once a Jewish community. Nowadays, the majority of the people, who now reside in the ghetto, are not Jewish, and would be happy to enjoy this dish. However, many Jewish tourists visit the area. I suspect that the majority of these don not understand much Italian, and so few people are likely to have been upset by this sign.

The heart of the ghetto is a pleasant square. At one side of it there is a frieze showing Jews being loaded onto cattle trucks. It is a monument to those who suffered in the Holocaust. Opposite it, there was a shop, or what looked like a shop. It had a picture of the Rabbi Schneerson on a board above the window. I realised that it was a centre set up by a Hassidic organisation. I felt that I had to enter it because of what I had just been reading about in Jacobson’s book. I had no preconceptions of what I would discover inside, but at the very least I thought that maybe I would be able to buy a recording of some traditional Jewish music, such as is played by Kletzmer ensembles and which I enjoy.

I entered the shop and our little daughter followed me. We were welcomed by a young man dressed in black. He had long curly payots (uncut sideburns) and his tzitzit (string-like tassels worn by orthodox Jews) were dangling over his trouser pockets. He greeted us in English that had more than a hint of an American accent, yet was not American. I guessed that he was probably originally from Russia, but had migrated to the USA. He took one look at our daughter, and immediately asked her if she wanted a cold drink. Our daughter accepted his offer with alacrity. He poured out some strongly coloured orange fizzy drink and placed it in front of our little one. As she stretched out to lift the glass, our host told her to wait. Before she could take a sip, she had to repeat a series of words, meaningless to her and me, in Hebrew. When she had recited this prayer or blessing, she was allowed to start enjoying her drink.

Almost as soon as our daughter had begun drinking, my wife, who is Indian, entered the shop to find out what was delaying us. Our Hassidic host took one look at her and said,
            “Ah, you must be an Indian Jew.”
On reflection, this was a ridiculous assumption. There are more than a billion Indians living in India alone, and of these no more than five thousand of these are Jewish. So the chance that my wife was an Indian Jew was less than 0.0005%. My wife assured him that she was not an Indian Jewess. On hearing this, he turned to our daughter, pointed at her, and said in a pained voice:
            “Then, she is not a Jew.”

At this point my wife pointed at me and volunteered,
            “But, he’s sort of Jewish.”
To which, the Hassidic man retorted,
            “He cannot be ‘sort of Jewish’. Either he’s Jewish, or not Jewish.”
He turned to me and asked,
            “Is your mother Jewish?”
            “Yes,” I replied.
            “And her mother?” he asked.
            “Yes,” I replied, adding: “and her mother as well.”
            “Then he is Jewish,” he informed my wife. “Not ‘sort of Jewish.”
To which my wife, who is very interested in all religions, volunteered, for reasons that continue to elude me,
            “He’s never had a Bar-mitzvah.”

In less than the time it takes to say ‘spaghetti’ or even ‘ghetto, the Hassidic man had begun wrapping the black straps of tefillin (small black boxes containing scrolls with holy Jewish scripts written on them) around one of my arms and also around my forehead. Next, he told me to repeat some Hebrew after him. For twenty minutes, I struggled to repeat his words, irritating him occasionally by saying ‘baroque’ when he said ‘baruch’. It was a hot morning, and I was perspiring more than usual as I attempted to repeat his words, which were completely incomprehensible to me. After we had reached the end of what he wished me to repeat, he unwrapped the threads attaching the tefillin to me, and announced:
            “You are now Bar-mitzvah.”
I was somewhat surprised to say the least, and maybe also a little bit pleased. I am not sure that I was just relieved that my repetition had come to an end, or whether I had just been ‘Bar-mitzvahed’.  I’d like to think that it was at least a little of the latter.

We had been in the Hassidic man’s shop for quite a while. He had been hospitable, offering our daughter a drink as well as initiating me into manhood at last, at least from the religious Jewish perspective. I felt that the least that I could do in gratitude was to make a small contribution to what appeared to be a charity collecting box, which was standing on one of the counters. I rummaged about in my pocket, and found two Euros in coins. As soon as I placed the last of the coins in the slot, our host raised his hands, and exclaimed something like:
            “Ah, such a mitzvah…
And then, he invited me to repeat some more Hebrew words, but far fewer than those that preceded my Bar-mitzvah. I imagine it was a prayer to celebrate recognition of the kindness signified by my having made a contribution.

We left the shop, and entered the sunshine. Both my wife and I were wondering whether this Bar-mitzvah ceremony, which I had just received without realising that it was happening, was Kosher. I have asked a number of people about this. One of my uncles told me that the same sort of thing happened to him in South Africa. Without realising it was happening, a rabbi performed his Bar-mitzvah. A retired rabbi in New York thought that my uninvited, unwitting Bar-mitzvah should be regarded as genuine, as did many others, who are well-versed in Jewish matters. One of the people, who listened to me relating my experience in Venice’s historic ghetto said to me,
            “Two Euros: that must surely be the cheapest Bar-mitzvah ever.”

Epilogue: Whilst researching the background to this piece, I have learnt that a Jewish boy technically becomes a Bar-mitzvah (that is: obligated to observe the Commandments, and also able to take part in leading religious services) on reaching the age of thirteen. No ceremony is required to confer these rights and obligations. So, when my wife told the Hassidic man in the shop in Venice that I was not a Bar-mitzvah, she was mistaken. However, regardless of whether or not I follow the Commandments, it would be foolhardy of me, who cannot read a word of Hebrew, to even consider attempting to take any role in conducting a service in a synagogue. 

  


 
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