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A Most Important Lesson

By Tzvi Fishman
11/16/2011, 3:11 PM

Let's get back to the concluding chapters of "Heaven's Door." After that, maybe we'll serialize Part One of "Tevye in the Promised Land," or "Fallen Angel," or "The Discman and the Guru," or maybe my new novel, "Dad," or the short stories from "Days of Mashiach." I haven't yet decided. They all make great gifts for Hanukah, and you can have them shipped anywhere in the world.

Chapter Twelve - A Most Important Lesson

The bar mitzvah party of Saba Yosef’s great, great, great grandson was held in an attractive, Safed catering hall, which was divided by a decorative bamboo barrier to keep the men and women separated. Baruch explained to me that religious Jews sat separately, not only in synagogue, but also at festive occasions where there was music and dancing. Not only was actual adultery forbidden, but another one of the Ten Commandments forbid coveting another man’s wife, even in one’s thoughts. So the separation was enacted to keep the evil inclination at bay, since the sexual urge was man’s most powerful passion.

For the celebration, Saba Yosef had changed into a new, white robe that gave him a more regal appearance. He walked toward the waiting crowd, bent over, with his head lowered, gazing down at the floor, not because his age caused him to walk that way, but in order not to see the women, some of whom were dressed in showy, low-cut dresses. Apparently not everyone in the family was as religious as its patriarch. While his precaution and excessive modesty seemed over-exaggerated to me, especially considering his years, he later told me that he was able to see things which other people couldn’t see because he didn’t look at things which other people looked at.

Raising a hand, he gave the gathering of women a general blessing without glancing their way. A band played a lively welcoming song at his entrance, and the women made loud ringing sounds with their tongues, like you might expect in some Arab country. He had out-survived all but one of his fourteen children, so it were his grandsons, great grandsons, great, great grandsons, and great, great, great grandchildren who rushed over to greet him as he crossed the hall. They led him to a corner table where he sat, half facing the wall, handing out blessings, one after another, to the long line of men and children who patiently waited for the holy saint to place his hand upon their heads.

Baruch came over and sat me down at a table, saying that his great grandfather wanted me to feast like a king. In answer to my question, Baruch explained that the loud, festive music was “Mizrachi,” in the custom of Sefardi Jews who had settled in Mediterranean countries upon the expulsion of the Jews from Israel 2000 years before. His family, he said, had settled in Persia. They had returned to the Holy Land six generations ago, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

For me, the spicy Middle Eastern dishes were a novelty and quite delicious. Because it was the Passover holiday, matzah was served instead of bread. Since it was impossible to scoop up humous and techina with matzah, special leaven-free pitas had been baked for the party. Baruch kept pushing exotic dishes my way, wanting me to taste everything, and have second helpings as well. But having learned Maimonides’ rules for a proper diet, I was hesitant to eat too much.

Frankly, I was overwhelmed by demonstrative outpourings of family love that I saw all around me – all of the hugging and kissing between the men, and the lively chatter of the women. How different it was from the staid and formal, New England  parties that I was used to, that instead of centering around the people there, centered around all kinds of ridiculous themes like Hawaiian Luau Night, Michael Jordon Night, and the annual President’s Day Corn-on-the-Cob Barbeque. And because the women were by themselves, there was no need for all of the “how do I look?” poses, and Hollywood innuendos, not to mention dancing with other men’s wives, always with the thought that it might lead to something more. In short, there was a wholesome genuineness to the gathering that I had never experienced before in my life. Without his having to say a word, I understood that Saba Yosef had invited me to the bar mitzvah to teach me another important lesson – the importance and value of family.

Seeing all the beautiful, immaculately dressed, energy-packed children around me, made the lesson ever so clear to me now. Family meant happiness. Family meant belonging, meaning, continuance, and love. Perhaps it was a lesson that that had come too late in my life, but I could still try to undo the damage I had caused by always placing my needs before the needs of others. After all, besides some distant relatives that we hardly ever saw, my family consisted of only my daughter and my wife.   

After assembling for a ten-minute prayer, the men danced in circles on one side of the latticed barrier, and the women on the other. When Saba Yosef stood up to dance with the bar- mitzvah boy, everyone else stopped to gather around. Breaches appeared in the module barrier so that the women could watch as well. Remembering that my cell phone took videos, I recorded a few angles to show the folks back at home. Holding the boy’s hands, Saba Yosef walked him back and forth in a traditional Sefardic tango. There was an elegance to his movements, like that of a king dancing at a royal celebration, and I had the impression that it was an inauguration of sorts, initiating the boy into his family’s noble heritage and the age-old traditions of the Torah. Then, placing his hands on the boy’s skullcap, he blessed him with a long and heartfelt blessing, as a microphone was brought over so that all of the gathering could hear.

When the dancing continued, Baruch dragged me into the celebration. Around and around to the music we went, holding the hands of people who were strangers, but who I felt I had known for a lifetime. A young boy folded a newspaper into a cone, lit it with a match, and circled around the hall, balancing the conical torch on his nose. Then a dozen of the bar-mitzvah boy’s friends formed a human pyramid until the fat kid on the bottom collapsed. I probably looked a little strange, the clean-shaven foreigner, flailing his arms and shaking his hips with the disco moves he was more familiar with from America, but everyone had smiles on their faces, adopting me as one of the family. I can only say that the evening filled me with a far greater feeling of acceptance and warmth than I had ever experienced in my life.