In a large marquee at a private home in the heart of London’s haredi Golders Green, the youngest of nine children is preening himself and surveying the sushi bar and desert tables being set up. It’s Thursday evening and the extended family and hundreds of friends are dropping by to wish mazaltov – the barmitzvah boy delivers a learned discourse on the laws of tefillin and he will be leyning on Shabbat morning at a formal Orthodox service. Haute couture rules and while the women are uniformly slim, many men have a cholent belly. Another woman whispers into my ear, “See that girl over there? 24 already, too picky, too clever,” and in those few words, the so-called shidduch crisis enveloping the Orthodox world is laid bare. I’m very fond of my neighbours and admire their discipline, reverence and kind hospitality. The sons are studying in yeshiva and the young daughters are married with children; there is no disjuncture from the lives of their parents or grandparents. Any explanations at this barmitzvah would be superfluous as there is a fundamental alignment of values, beliefs and ritual between the barmitzvah boy, his family and his community.
At one of the largest UK Reform synagogues, friends from London who have lived in America for many years return to the mothership for their son’s barmitzvah to enable his frail grandparents to participate. It’s a Shabbat afternoon service, dress is relatively casual and a dynamic rabbi and her accompanying cantor command the room. The atmosphere is welcoming and joyful, with much singing. Sensitive to the diverse audience, many of whom rarely attend any sort of synagogue, there are a lot of explanations and instructions. The barmitzvah boy reads his Torah portion accurately with a nervous quiver in his voice, and shortly after, just before the Torah is placed back in the Ark, it is physically passed down through three generations – from grandparents to parents to children – concretizing the responsibility of the older generation to the younger . An Orthodox friend whispers in my ear ‘I’ve already davened mincha at shul,’ and as I deconstruct that sentence, it seems he is telling me ‘this barmitzvah is a piece of performance art, lacking authenticity in a place devoid of any holiness.’
In a purpose-built Masorti synagogue multiplex, this barmitzvah takes place under the watchful eye of the boy’s parents. The simcha is upstairs in the melodic egalitarian service with mixed seating (downstairs is a more traditional service with separate seating but no mechitza). The modest and cheery room has paintings along the back wall and there is an usher to welcome the guests. I sit at the back so that I can get a better view of everything going on. The barmitzvah boy has overcome shyness to shine, and the relatively intimate crowd who know him so well are kvelling with pride. The rabbi speaks to the boy’s heart. A friend whispers into my ear ‘Is there any community who loves their rabbi more than this one?’ A Kiddush is held after the service and with a collective purpose, everyone helps to move tables, stack chairs and bring platters of biscuits, fruit and dips into the room. Later that afternoon, in the same building, adults and lots of pre-teens are invited to afternoon tea-cum-seudat shlishit where board games, table tennis and food are provided. As Shabbat ends, a tuneful Havdalah brings the formal proceedings to an end.
In a rather drab and cold school hall, a makeshift minyan has been assembled – there are plastic boxes filled with prayer books, a portable Aron, a Sefer Torah on loan, and a mechitzah made from cloth hanging between free-standing poles. At this Orthodox partnership minyan men and women sit separately, however, women can lead certain parts of the prayer service and are able to leyn from the Torah scroll. A core group of dedicated members meet monthly to create the service, and the barmitzvah boy’s family are involved. He skilfully reads the majority of the portion, and his mother and grandmother are ‘called up’ to the Torah and stand next to him as he reads. Women say kaddish loudly and young girls lead the concluding hymn of the service. In a poignant speech, he recalls that both his grandfathers were denied a barmitzvah during the Holocaust, and he stands as their proxy. An acquaintance whispers into my ear ‘Is this really an Orthodox service? I wish my daughter could see this – she gave up on shul years ago.’
These four barmitzvahs were book-ended by the funeral and the shloshim last night (Sunday evening) of Maureen Kendler, a beloved educator in the UK Jewish community and a dear friend to many. Maureen was not present at any of these barmitzvahs, but, emblematically they were all at her funeral for it drew hundreds of people, if not a 1,000 from across the community – rabbis from every denomination, students and peers from schools and communal organisations where she taught and eclectic friends from all stages of her too-short life.
I would have told Maureen about each of these barmitzvahs on our weekly Friday phone call. I would have asked her ‘Is this what Judaism is meant to look like? What will the future of Jewish life look like in this community? What’s sustainable and what’s authentic?’
We would have pondered the questions together, and it’s likely Maureen would have drawn on a Biblical character or literary figure to help fashion an answer. Her favourite was Job, and at the shloshim, a selection of verses from Job, together with Maureen’s reflections on the text was discussed by a large crowd gathered at London’s JW3 community centre. We wondered what drew Maureen to Job – one person suggested that she ‘embraced the ambivalence and ambiguity of life that’s in the book,’ another said Maureen was inspired by the text to show that the ‘validation of questions can be more powerful than the answers.’
These four barmitzvahs show the promise of answers to questions that will enable their Jewish lives to unfold. However, at a funeral or shloshim, the loss can be so great that we do not even know the questions to ask.