On a corner of Machane Yehuda, the old Sephardi house of worship beckoned like a lighthouse shining its light upon stormy seas, its weather-beaten exterior protecting the sanctity within. We stood outside waiting for the gabbai to open the wooden door. On this blustery day, when clusters of gray clouds threatened to pour down their blessings on Yerushalayim, we huddled together, waiting expectantly for the respite of the indoors.
Finally, a man in a black jacket and cap ran up from the street below, waving the keys to the Beit Knesset, the tinkling of metal drowned out by the wind. He climbed the steps and made his way to the door, allowing us to enter into a world not visited by any member of our family for at least sixty years. The men donned the ubiquitous white kippot which they kept for religious occasions, as we stepped through the threshold.
We shuffled reverently into the shul where our great-great-grandfather used to serve as gabbai during the British Mandate. The gabbai recalled where my great-great-grandfather used to sit, his towering frame defying the British curfew as he opened the door for worshipers at four in the morning. Day after day, no matter the weather, he ignored the law of the British occupiers, only paying heed to the law of Hashem. And now we stood here, a motley crew of his progeny, coming to correct a wrong in our family’s history – to celebrate the bar mitzvah of my great-uncle on his 83rd birthday.
Benny, my grandmother’s brother, never had a bar mitzvah. He came of age as Israel was born; his 13th birthday was spent in the miklat as the fledgling state was being shelled by its enemies. As they sought refuge under the stairs that his father told him it was his bar mitzvah day. He then presented my uncle with a pair of tefillin. His only gift on this momentous day was a dictionary, presented to him by a family member. No drasha, no being pelted by candy thrown by ululating women in the Ezrat Nashim. His special day was lost in a war that marked the beginning of a country and the end of his childhood.
My uncle is one of eight children, four girls and four boys, raised in the bustling streets of Machane Yehuda. His older brother, Shalom, had a bar mitzvah; he even received a fancy bicycle, an unheard of luxury in those days. There are multiple pictures of Tio Shalom posing with his prized set of wheels, his entrance to adulthood marked by relative peace compared to that of his brother Benny. None of the brothers ever let Tio Shalom forget that bicycle; I once asked him if he still had it. He laughed and waved away the silly notion, but it was hard to dismiss the undercurrent of brotherly jealousy that lay dormant even after all these years.
As Tio Benny’s 83rd birthday approached, my mother thought of correcting the injustice and making him a bar mitzvah. Despite our aunts and uncles being raised in a religious Sephardi family, the only observant descendants out of the hundreds of family members are my mother along with her children and grandchildren. Trying to coordinate a bar mitzvah, involving our unaffiliated family, was nothing short of miraculous. Only my mother, with a hefty dose of her inherited Israeli chutzpah, could pull it off. She roped in her cousin, Tio Benny’s oldest daughter, and together they tried to make the impossible possible. As the big day drew close, the opposition only grew stronger. However, as my mother sensed the deep longing that had lain dormant in my uncle’s memory for so many years, she pushed forward despite the naysayers.
That is how we found ourselves, a small and intimate group, gathered in the Beit Knesset of our great-great-grandfather, his prayers hanging from the rafters, echoing from the corners. My parents and I marveled at the miracle of seeing my uncle, surrounded by his own children and grandchildren, in this holy place he used to frequent as a small boy, a Tallit draped over his shoulders. Flanked by two of his brothers, he began to lay tefillin for the first time in years.
As my other uncle began to daven Shacharit, I looked around the room to gauge the reactions of those present. Some were texting on their phones, most looking lost, unfamiliar with the prayers and the order of the tefillah. My father became the unofficial choreographer as everyone sat or stood according to his actions. As the prayers continued, my uncles’ voices blended together, chanting words once so familiar.
Soon it was time for my uncle to remove the beautifully-engraved Sephardi Sefer Torah. Draped in his Tallit, and crowned by his tefillin, my uncle held onto the Torah with such love and reverence, impacting all those around him like by an electric current. I was a spectator, watching as his teenage granddaughter’s face took on a look of wonder, not comprehending the beautiful silver object she was seeing. All the things I took for granted as a frum Jew were new and foreign to them. It was like being part of an archaeological excavation, witnessing as artifacts were unearthed, producing feelings of fascination and awe. I looked from one to another, as eyes all around shone with unspilled tears, phones and texting long forgotten as my uncle began to layn.
My uncle’s voice gained momentum as he read his parsha. The family gathered around, fists full of candy at the ready, waiting to pelt the bar mitzvah “boy.” As he neared the reading’s end, we gave the signal and the candies flew through the air. My uncles took cover on the bimah, and cries of “Mazel tov” pierced the air. My cousins joined their father, belting out a traditional tune as everyone stood happily chewing on taffies. It was not the most traditional bar mitzvah I have ever attended, but it definitely is one of the most memorable ones.
I turned to my mother, and I know she felt it too: all the souls of those no longer with us were rejoicing at this sight. I felt keenly the presence of my great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather, my grandmother and my aunt recently departed. Our great-great-grandmothers were throwing spiritual candy from the women’s section above, the tears collected from previous generations falling like the rain that showers us momentarily with its blessings.
As the festivities drew to a close, my uncle’s children presented him with a gift: a large, hard covered dictionary.
Here we were, family despite the differences, righting a wrong perpetrated by the events of history. In this Beit Knesset that was witness to our grandfather’s sacrifice and devotion, we gathered to celebrate the sparks that lay dormant in every Jew. As we began to take leave of this holy place, on a corner of Machane Yehuda, we stepped back as if through a portal of time, to the reality of a cloudy Thursday. My Uncle Benny walked down the steps, his grandfather’s love nestled in the folds of his Tallit, the remnants of yesterday clinging to him still.