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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

The Big Bar Mitzvah

Have you ever tried to do something positive for your kids, only to have it end up scarring them for life? Little League, scouts, or ballet class may fall into this category. They start out as a great idea and then rapidly hit the skids. For us, it was the boys’ bar mitzvah.

It all began about nine months ago. Petya and Pasha had not been privileged to study Hebrew from a young age. As they passed their twelfth birthdays, we swung into high gear.

Alphabet:  check.

Torah and Haftorah portions:  check.

Daily tutorials with Mama:  the check’s in the mail.

We started our first session with a taste of honey, to symbolize God’s word as being sweet. At our second session, Pasha wondered where the honeypot had gone-?

“That was our first tutorial,” I explained. “This is not “Snacks & Scripture.   We’re actually here to study.”

And so we launched into week after week of reading the Hebrew, as well as them crafting short English sermons to tell what their assigned portions meant to them. I was not sure which would be more of a challenge for the native Russian speakers–the Hebrew or the English. But each text matched their life’s story in a most remarkable way, and each boy connected the dots in his derasha (sermon).

A portion of Pasha’s message read as follows:

“My Bible reading is from Genesis and speaks of Jacob being alone. He wrestled with the circumstances of his life. I can relate to this.

“For many years I was alone. Mama and Papa fought to adopt me, even when Russia said no many times. My parents did not give up. They called those things that be not, into being. Many of you prayed for me, and here I am. The Lord answers prayer.

“I also had to fight and wrestle like Jacob. Life did not come easy. The orphanage told me I was an invalid and not able to learn or play. This was not true. God healed me from neglect, and from believing their diagnoses.

“Like Jacob, I was given a new name. My middle name means that God has healed me. I have wrestled in life and become a winner.”

Petya’s Bible reading was similarly moving, and here are a few excerpts:

“In the Bible text from Leviticus, God says that His goal is to make us holy, even as He is holy. As I enter my teen and adult years, my prayer is to be faithful to Him, as He has been to me. The Lord has brought me out of my own Egypt for His purposes.

“Why am I here, and not there? It is to show that He is all-powerful and that He cares.

“Before I ever knew Him, He loved me. God kept me alive when I was starving and had no warm clothes in Russian winter. It’s interesting that my Scripture portion includes a passage about leaving the corner of our fields for the poor. I am living proof that there is harvest and provision for all who look to Him.”

Their thoughtful and poignant messages would touch many hearts. It’s a shame I had not taken out stock options on Kleenex–our family would have been set for life. The snorting and honking would sound like many shofars being sounded from the city wall.

So, the boys prepared. Over and over they practiced their Hebrew readings and their English messages anywhere they could–often while on planes, trains, and automobiles. A diligent work ethic ran in our family. Fear of embarrassing their parents ran a close second. I heard Petya’s “Ushmartem mitzvotai v’asitem otam” enough times until I was dreaming it by night. Add to that Pasha’s “Vayivater Ya’akov levado” and I wrestled against my twisted bedsheet until the breaking of daylight.

The kids were having nightmares of their own, spawned by this impending spiritual experience. Exactly the outcome we intended: scare the pants off of them.

Pasha went brain-dead as we entered the one-week countdown, insisting that he cannot read Hebrew any longer.

“How can you not read Hebrew? We practice every day!”  I feel my blood pressure rising and my cheeks reddening as I mentally review: invitations sent, cake ordered, special music planned, which all translated into: NO BACKING OUT NOW.

“Alright, Pasha, breathe:  are you feeling nervous?” I ask, trying to comfort him.

“Vhat is nervous?” he wonders.

“You know, afraid, maybe of speaking in front of so many people?”

“Maybe, Mama….”

“You’ll do fine. It’s just like reading it at home. I want this to be a happy event for you,” and we repeat his text again, line by line.

Then Petya starts to read and stumbles over every reference to Jerusalem. He reads “Yisrael” (Israel) in place of “Yerushalayim”.

This is a problem. I see the entire future of the Jewish people hanging in the balance if he cannot get this word right. Meanwhile, I have to coordinate everything from the family’s momentous occasion outfits, to specially-catered food, to the right color cocktail napkins for an alcohol-free event. And now the boys can’t read their Hebrew-?!

‘Yeh-roo-shah-lah-yeem,’ I stress in Hebrew, already stressed-out enough myself. All of this for a low-key bar mitzvah (by today’s standards): there would be no rock stars performing, no space ships landing, no sushi bar nor disco themes. We were aiming for ‘holy’ instead of ‘Halloween’, even if it killed us in the process.

“Paftahrai,” I tell him in Russian to repeat it. “Every time you see a word beginning with the letter ‘yod’, it is Yerushalayim, not Yisrael. Pasha’s text mentions ‘Yisrael’ over and over. You are ‘Yerushalayim’ and nothing but ‘Yerushalayim’. Got it?”

“Okay, Mama, I’m just a little tired….”

“Alright,” I hug him, “that makes two of us. Let’s stop for today.”

But this sweetest of all sons takes the message to heart and emblazens forever upon his mind the word “Yerushalayim”, the place he has loved to visit year after year, the place we will not be for his bar mitzvah, but the spiritual home he will never forget.

On the big day, we are ready. The Torah scrolls rolled open before them, their prayer shawls shining under suspended lights, their faces beam like angels. Naturally, a little Cover Girl powder on the nose ensured it was not too glistening of a moment. Didn’t want to recreate Moses coming down off the mountaintop. Happily, our prayers had been answered for an acne-free affair, as well.

Pasha reads and makes his comments. All goes well. There is nary a dry eye in the congregation. Candies are thrown and cascade over the boys-turned-young men.

Next, Petya is up, making aliyah, ascending to read the Scripture publicly for the first time. His father and I look over his shoulder, following the silver pointer skimming right to left across the parchment. There it is in bold quill calligraphy looming before us: the word, “Yisrael”-! With his multiple mentions of “Yerushalayim”, how could I have overlooked that one “Yisrael” which was now staring us in the face?

Petya pauses for a nano-second that seems like a lifetime. He, no doubt, is reading “Yisrael” but the insistent voice of his mother inside his head says, “Yerushalayim. Yerushalayim. If I ever forget thee, O Jerusalem….”

With all of the poise of a polished public speaker, Petya hurriedly slips in the word “Yerushalayim”and I nearly pass out as a rain of candies descend and “Mazel Tov” is shouted.

May God bless him for being an obedient son. And may God forgive me for a being a meddling mother.


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