A Letter to My Bat Mitzvah Girl
Originally published in The Times of Israel
As I write this, I’m bursting. Bursting with emotion and with excitement.
Can there be any prouder moment for a father of young children than his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah? To see a life that your mother and I brought into the world — take a step forward as a Jewish adult?
But I’m vexed too. What words of blessing and encouragement can I give you? And what positive message can I leave you with as we look around at the imperfect world you are stepping forward into?
There’s a poem called the Ancient Mariner, in which a sailor returns from a long journey and accosts someone who is going to a wedding. The Mariner won’t let the guest go until he has said everything he wants to say. That’s kind of how I feel as you make this step in your life. As our first child, you were the one who made me an Abba and so as you become Bat Mitzvah, I feel like I want to share with you everything I have learnt and feel. I hope we will have many more conversations and that we will continue to learn and grow together. So here, then, are just some of my thoughts and — like the wedding guest in the poem — I hope you will emerge wiser once we’re done.
We cannot ignore the challenges. In my lifetime, the world has become a darker place. When I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, I fully imagined our best days were ahead us. As technology grew apace, as things got easier, faster and better, it seemed the only way was up. But as rapid change has brought people together in some ways, in others it has torn us apart. And as a people, many Jews feel more fragile, and threatened than ever. Still, my positivity about our future and our destiny remains undimmed.
I was lucky. Your grandparents raised me in the same way that your mother’s parents raised her: to be proud to be Jewish and to be proud of Israel. Growing up in the UK, we were lucky to have access to a vibrant Jewish community, to a warm Jewish life and to a proud Jewish education. Yes, we saw flashes of anti-Semitism here and there, but I was brought up to wear my kippa proudly, whether it was near the synagogue or at a football game. Israel was cherished in our lives. We celebrated when Israel succeeded and felt the pain when Israel was attacked. A Shabbat-keeping family, we left the radio on in a room upstairs on Shabbat during the Gulf War to be kept updated if, God forbid, Scud missiles from Iraq where landing on Israeli homes. We were proud to be British, but forever held dear our unbreakable link to our ancestral home.
When you were two-and-a-half, we made a choice. A choice for us, but also a choice for you. We left our happy and comfortable life in the UK and made Aliyah to Israel. An Israel that in addition to being thousands of years old, is 67 years young. An Israel built with the sweat of the pioneers and sustained and defended by brave soldiers. Soon after arriving, you celebrated your birthday at your nursery school, singing songs in Hebrew. On Independence Day, you walked proudly in the street with a Star of David crown. Your daily life is guided by the ancient Jewish calendar, the streets you walk on are named for Jewish heroes and events and the language you speak is the language of our ancient ancestors. How lucky you — and we — are.
In a decade of life in Israel, however, you have known wars, kidnappings, rocket attacks and most recently stabbings and violent acts of terror. As a parent, I wish I could shield you from all of this but it permeates our life — physically and psychologically. Before anything else, any dad just wants to protect their kids. But life is insecure. Centuries of persecution have taught us that no one will defend us but ourselves. Nothing — not even living independently — will give us complete security and history has taught us that it never will. With this said, the best response to those who would terrorize us is to live out our lives freely, because it is our freedom that our enemies most fear. I will never forgive the terrorists who made us leap from our beds and run to the bomb shelters on Shabbat morning, but I know that us keeping Shabbat the way we want to and living our life proudly in Israel is the ultimate rebuke to the terrorists.
As Chief Rabbi Sacks and others have reminded us: what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews. Israel and the Jewish people are the canary in the mineshaft. So, as we defend ourselves and urge the people of the world to stand with us, we must look to others who our enemies seek to persecute and stand with them too.
We often refer to the generation that lived through the Second World War as “the Greatest Generation”; true enough, particularly to those who fought an evil that would have readily seen our people destroyed from this earth and did so much to realize that goal. But yours could be the greatest generation too. It certainly has the greatest potential. Think of this — no generation before this one ever had so much access to information, to education. No generation was part of a world that, despite being ever bigger, feels ever smaller. And in no generation have individuals had as much personal influence at their fingertips as this one.
I mentioned that things often look bleak.
But in addition to your youthful enthusiasm and dynamic character, there is much in our story and our presence in this often challenging world that should inspire you going forward.
First of all, think how lucky you are — we are — to be born in this generation.
Has there ever been a more amazing time to be a Jew? Israel of course plays the most critical role here — it is the heartbeat of Jewish life the world over. Jews have historically lived for thousands of years denied access to their homeland but never detached themselves from it. How could they? Our liturgy, our prayer, our hopes, our rituals are infused with mentions of our land. Even when forced into exile, Jews knew that Israel was built into their DNA. But to those, like many of our family, who live outside the land, Israel is still the touchstone of Jewish existence and the very reason that Jewish life is so vibrant today around the world.
Has there ever been a more amazing time to be a Jewish woman? At your Bat Mitzvah, you’ll pay tribute to some of the biblical female heroes, but in this generation there are so many positive female role models for you to be inspired by. You live in a country where there is no glass ceiling. Israel has had a female Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Justice Minister, Governor of the Bank of Israel and Speaker of the Knesset. Females serve alongside their male counterparts in the Israel Defense Forces. Whatever you choose to do in life, you should feel like you can achieve your dreams with nothing to hold you back.
To be Jewish is to be criticized. To be Jewish is to be maligned. To be Jewish is to be envied. To be Jewish is to be persecuted. But know this: none of these things has anything to do with us; it has everything to do with the people doing the criticizing, maligning, envying and persecuting. And we never have allowed — and we never will allow — ourselves to be defined by our enemies. Our destiny is ours alone to shape.
The same goes with Israel. There is no shortage of criticism, much of it defamatory, about the Jewish State. There are around 196 countries in this world. Only one of them is singled out as Israel is. But just as Jews must never be defined by their enemies — neither must Israel. We are not what they say we are, and we must guide ourselves by our own laws and moral code. This is what has sustained us for thousands of years: our faith is that it will continue to sustain us for thousands more. You’ll hear demonization of our country but know also that we have friends and allies the world over and that someone is watching over us.
You are about to be the first member our family in recent generations to celebrate your coming of age in Israel.
Your Bat Mitzvah will take place in Jerusalem, King David’s capital and once again the capital of an independent Jewish country. You’ve never known anything else and neither have I. But I can only imagine what our ancestors, exiled to Eastern Europe, would have thought at this tantalizing reality. You’ll be the first in our family to come of age in our own country. Some wish to deny our history; they may be deluding themselves but they won’t fool us. In recent weeks alone, archeologists found King Hezekiah’s royal seal near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is 2,700 years old, one of many finds demonstrating the ancient and continual Jewish links to this land. How privileged you will be to say the blessing of renewal — Shechechiyanu — as you become Bat Mitzvah in our historic capital, another link in an unending chain.
That Jews are living, let alone thriving, in this region of the world is no small miracle. We only have to look a few miles around the circumference of our country to know this. Our pain and empathy for Christians currently being persecuted in the Middle East is compounded by our endless grief at the fate that ensued for most Jews who lived in countries neighboring Israel but were cruelly dispossessed of their belongings and expelled. But thankfully, crucially and finally, these Jews — at least — had a place to go: Israel.
There may be times when the odds will seem too great, but remember: through millennia, we’ve seen it all before and feel confident that when up against the toughest of adversity, this too shall pass.
My advice to you?
Be a unifier: So many in our own community focus on wedge issues, aspects of Judaism they don’t like or policies of Israel they think are misguided. That’s their right. We must always question, reflect and debate. It’s part of our Jewish DNA. It’s all the more intense when it comes to Israel, and again, that’s okay. But Alan Dershowitz has counseled us to focus on the 80% that unites us rather than the 20% that divides us and he’s right. Some people seem to be driven by dividing people and others want to define the identity of future generations by what divides us. Gravitate towards ideas and people that unite us and you’ll be making the right choice.
Be open to the world: I love that you are open to people regardless of where they come from and who they are. I love that you are learning Arabic and I believe that Israel is a model for diverse populations that can coexist while being true to their own identity and respecting the identity of their country. Quiet coexistence happens in Israel every day. It’ll never make the news, but we see it all the time. In the hospital in which your siblings were born, they slept peacefully in the Tinokiya — the baby room — Jewish and Muslim nurses cared for babies named Moshe and Mohammed, Marim and Miriam. In the Jewish State, all are born equal. We can be proud of that.
Be stubborn: No, not about everything but there is a place for being stubborn. You know that in the Torah, God calls us a “stiff necked people”. Being stubborn is not always a bad thing. Being stubborn about our maintaining our identity, our traditions and our rights is one of the reasons why we as a people are still here.
Be a teacher: The Jewish people are all about education. Our greatest leader was not given a title for his leadership abilities but is referred to as “Moses, our Teacher”. Teachers are prized above all in Judaism. Our ability to learn is infinite; so should our ability be to teach.
Always remember: We retain a collective memory of our own history, we remember the events that formed us as a people. We don’t forget those who fell so that we may live. We don’t forget those who persecuted us so that it may not happen again. You are part of the Sharsheret HaDorot — the link of generations, as from our foremothers Sarah to Rebecca and onwards — and the bond with generations past will allow you to be the bond for future ones.
Mazal tov, my daughter.
With love and pride,