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Thursday
Mar222012

MY BAR MITZVAH

Heishke celebrated his bar mitzvah in the small village of Dorokhova. This was the first and last simcha with his parents and sisters. * One can practically sense the fluttering of his heart as he says the maamer…

THE GUESTS AND THE HALL

I reached the age of bar mitzvah during the time that my family lived in a suburb of Moscow called Dorokhova. The day of my bar mitzvah was one of the coldest days of the year, in the month of Shvat, and Moscow winters are very cold. If that wasn’t enough, we suffered from cold in our apartment – if I can even call it that. The entire “apartment” for the six members of my family was one room, not a large one, which was heated by an oven in the corridor. It heated one wall of our room.

No preparations were made for my bar mitzvah, and in general there was no concept of celebrating a bar mitzvah. This was because I had never seen any bar mitzvah celebrations in my hometown. I had merely heard that amongst Chabad families in the vicinity of Moscow some Chassidic bar mitzvahs were secretly celebrated. In other words, a few Lubavitchers got together in the home of the bar mitzvah boy and after he said the maamer, they had a farbrengen.

I did not have a celebration like that. Other than our family, only two Lubavitchers lived in Dorokhova. They were the sum total of the guests at my bar mitzvah (I remember the name of one of them, Leizer Pinsker, a dear Chassid). Even together with my father and grandfather we did not have most of a minyan. Obviously, the “hall” for my bar mitzvah was none other than our little room. People sat on the few chairs and the bar mitzvah boy sat on the bed (I don’t remember whether this was meant as a seat of honor or was simply because we did not have enough chairs).

I knew nothing about halls for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Throughout my years in my hometown, I remember only one religious wedding of a niece, and that took place in her house. What I did know was that I would have to say a maamer Chassidus. My grandfather taught me the maamer and then I had to review it by heart.

SHARED T’FILLIN

Although my father knew that it was impossible to buy a new pair of t’fillin anywhere in the huge Soviet Union (even old ones weren’t readily available), he didn’t stop talking about it since a few months before the bar mitzvah. He would sigh and say, “Oy, my son won’t have t’fillin for his bar mitzvah! A bar mitzvah must start his Jewish life with a new pair of t’fillin, and my son will have to share my old t’fillin. May they all be afflicted with the plagues of Pharaoh plus more …” (Of course, he was referring to the government of Soviet Russia).

I understood why my father was so disappointed that I did not have new t’fillin. At the same time, I imagined that he was annoyed that I would have to use his t’fillin, and this was because a golem (dunce) like me would spoil the holiness of his t’fillin with which he was so careful.

I did not dare to ask him about this. Instead, I asked my mother. A few days later, my mother said to me: “You foolish boy. It’s the opposite of what you think. Your father has not given a thought to the possibility of your ruining his t’fillin. He would like you to begin davening with t’fillin that no one used before, which are clean of improper thoughts. If he had more nerve, he would ask Zeide (his father) to let you put on his ‘Zhuravitzer’ t’fillin.”

SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL PREPARATIONS

As I said, Zeide taught me the maamer. I remember how the bichel (old hand-written booklet) looked. It had an old, handmade binding with old Chassidic script in long, semi-circular lines. I think it was a maamer of the Rebbe Rashab. All I remember is the beginning, the pasuk “V’Shinantom L’Vonecha etc.” That’s the maamer he chose.

My mother prepared the bar mitzvah meal, but it was neither too much bother nor too little bother since fish and meat were non-existent at that time and place. As for other cooked dishes, they were lacking for two reasons: there was nothing with which to make the purchase and there was no one to serve. However, there were cookies that my mother had made out of dark flour (since white flour was unobtainable). On the table, as you could probably figure out on your own, there was a bottle of vodka. As large or small as the Chassidishe gathering would be, you could not picture it without a l’chaim on a glass of vodka, especially in Russia.

When the oilam (crowd) was seated, Zeide said the first l’chaim, then my father. The few guests also said l’chaim and offered me a generous slug, and I fell into a proper coughing fit (thanks to which it was easier for me when I trembled afterward while saying the maamer). I don’t remember the wishes expressed when l’chaim was said, but I remember what my father told me to wish: “On the first day that you become a bar mitzvah, you hear? Say that Hashem should give the Rebbe good health and we should meet together with the Rebbe soon.”

WHAT THE HEART PROPHESIED

So that I would tremble less, I began saying the maamer with my eyes closed. Despite that, I shook plenty as I said it, but I did not get stuck in the middle; it’s just that at first, my voice cracked a bit. When I finished saying the maamer and opened my eyes, I saw the smiling faces of the few guests, the nachas on my grandfather’s face, and the sparkle in the wise and moist eyes of my father.

When I looked at my mother who was sitting with my sisters on a corner of the bed, I had mixed feelings. She held a white handkerchief close to her eyes. Were they tears of joy or of sadness and disappointment? Was it for me or because of me?

I thought and thought about this. A year or two later, I came up with answers. Maybe, it’s possible, that my parents’ tears were because of a gut feeling that they had. Barely a year after my bar mitzvah, my father no longer shared the t’fillin that I put on. My mother brought back from the hospital the t’fillin which he had put on for the last time, and with a heartrending sob she gave them to me.

Who knows? Maybe, at my bar mitzvah, my mother cried into her white handkerchief, with her two daughters on either side of her, as she felt, with a mother’s heart, that in less than two years hence she would lose her two precious, beloved, sweet daughters and the white handkerchief would never be dry again.

It was my grandfather who certainly remembered how bar mitzvahs were celebrated in better times, who was in an uplifted mood. He farbrenged warmly and with great flavor, although I do not remember what he said.

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