The hall looked wonderful! The caterers had truly done a great job despite the limited budget. Nothing was lavish, it couldn’t be. Yet everything looked its best. Pristine white tablecloths, fresh flowers, and gleaming silverware… every detail gave testimony to the fact that there was an important Bar Mitzvah celebration in progress.
David looked around, overwhelmed that all this was done just for him, to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. His immediate family, friends and community had been invited. David had been a little disappointed that none of his aunts and uncles from Israel had been able to attend but it had been impossible, especially as it was two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and the beginning of a new school year for his cousins.
In his modesty, he felt as if he were just a part of the scene, hesitant to claim his place as guest of honor. His father walked over to him and patted his arm, “Come, David, come with me to the front of the hall. We have to shake hands with all the guests.” David began to suggest that maybe his father should join his mother there without him, but with a sigh he realized that there was no way out of this one.
But it was not uncomfortable standing at the hall door welcoming people who turned to him with bright smiles and wishes of Mazal-tov. Most pressed gifts or envelopes, some bulging with money, into his hands. He immediately passed everything on to his father looking slightly abashed.
He was glad that the Torah reading part of his Bar Mitzvah was over. Shabbat morning had been slightly terrifying as he waited to be called up to the Torah to read his portion and make the blessings. He had been practicing for nearly eight months, but that did not seem to matter in the shul, full of congregants and friends. His voice had seemed to echo as he took upon himself to do all the Mitzvoth that a man must do.
His mind went back to his first lesson with the Rabbi’s son. At that time he had not even dreamed that he would begin to change his life and his lifestyle. He had never dreamed that his Bar Mitzvah would come to mean what it was supposed to mean, that he would accept upon himself all of Torah and Mitzvoth. He had been enthralled by his lessons with Yanky, and soon he had realized that he was not only learning his Torah portion, he was learning to be an observant Jew. The fact that Yanky was only three years older than himself and someone who lived according to all he was teaching made David’s lessons more meaningful.
Most of the guests were in the hall. There was now only a trickle and even that was stopping. He frowned. Benny, the new boy in his class had not arrived, and yet he had been so excited that he had been invited. They had hit it off right away and Benny had promised he would be here. As his parents turned to go back into the hall, David walked outside and stood looking right and left at the many cars parked in the parking lot.
A car was turning into the parking lot and stopped right in front of the shul entrance. Benny got out and David beamed, walking quickly to meet him. “Benny, I am so glad you have come. I was looking for you.”
Benny looked embarrassed. Though dressed for the Bar Mitzvah in a similar blue suit, he hung back not wanting to come in. “David,” he said. “I don’t know if I will be welcome here, not by your father anyway.” David looked at him, obviously shocked. “My father?” he exclaimed in surprise. “Why on earth would my father not want you here… I mean…” his voice trailed off, full of questions.
“I will explain. David, your last name is Raben and my last name is Rabinowitz.”
“Well I suppose it sounds similar, but…”
“Yours was changed, Americanized.”
“What do you mean ours was Americanized?”
“My father only asked me who’s Bar Mitzvah this was when he dropped me here. I showed him your invitation and when he saw your father’s name on it, he got really upset. He wanted to turn the car around but I begged him not to. He told me that many years ago there were two brothers, Benny and David Rabinowitz. They had some kind of misunderstanding about money. I don’t know the details at all. All I know is that the two brothers never spoke to one another or had contact with one another ever again.”
“You mean…”
“Raben is the shortened name of Rabinowitz, these were our grandfathers. Our fathers are cousins. We are also kind of cousins.”
David blushed with excitement. “That is fantastic. I don’t have many cousins my own age. Please come inside.”
“But I can’t,” said Benny. “There is family faribels. Your father won’t want to see us.”
“I don’t believe that at all,” said David. “He will be delighted, so will Mom. We were just saying how we missed having any relatives at my Bar Mitzvah. I will go and fetch him.”
Before Benny could protest, he went quickly back into the hall to find his father. Within minutes a somewhat confused Mr. Raben was following his son towards the car outside. Benny was standing next to it, his hands in his pockets looking frightened. On seeing him, Benny came over to David. They watched David’s father talking to Benny’s father through the window. He then got into the car and the boys, mostly silent waited for their fathers to talk.
When David’s father emerged after about fifteen minutes, the boys could see he had tears in his eyes. “Come into the hall, boys,” he said. “Your Mother is probably wondering where we all are.” “Chaim has gone to fetch the rest of the family, our family,” he added. “We called them and told them to get dressed, so they won’t be long.”
Mrs. Raben was waiting for them. He said a few quiet words to her, and then continued to play the perfect host to all their guests.
Half an hour later, the Rabinowitz family arrived, and they were greeted with hugs from the Rabens and escorted to places which had been created for them at the main table.
It became time for Mr. Raben to make a speech:
“Ladies and Gentlemen… or should I say, friends, because you are all our friends, our really treasured friends.” He went on, a natural speaker, catching the attention of his guests.
“We Jews have often found ourselves separated from our relatives, our family, by cruel circumstances, perhaps the latest one being the Jews of Russia behind the Iron Curtain, separated from loved ones for decades; other families were separated and lost in the concentration camps. My father was lonely. I had always thought he was an only child, but almost 20 years ago, when he was dying, he kept calling out to someone called Benny who I realized must have been his brother. He would cry and beg him to come to him. We all assumed that he had been somehow killed or lost during the war.
“We were lonely as a family in that we had no relatives living here, friends, yes, wonderful friends, but no relatives. The few we have live in Israel and could not come tonight.” He looked at his cousin, “But we do have family here tonight, my cousin Chaim is here with his wife, Judy and their children Benny, Baruch and Leah. I want to tell you all that I met them for the first time tonight.”
The crowd began to clap and he waited for silence. “But it was not circumstances that divided us, that held us apart. 40 years ago, two brothers, neither of whom is alive today, had a quarrel.” He broke down, weeping, totally overcome, signaling David to continue.
David picked up his well-rehearsed Bar Mitzvah speech and then turned it face downwards on the table.
“Mom, Dad,” he began, “my Uncle Chaim and family.”
Again everyone clapped.
After a pause he picked up his Bar Mitzvah speech and began to read.
“Becoming Bar Mitzvah means I have become answerable for all the Mitzvoth. I have taken Torah observance on and will continue to do so. For centuries, Jews, faced a death full of meaning rather than give up their adherence to Mitzvoth. Here in America where I have freedom, I will be more prepared for a life full of meaning, as I too will be adhering to the Mitzvoth.
“On Shabbat, I became Bar Mitzvah and was called up to the Torah. Today I put on Tefillin, tomorrow I am going to put on Tefillin, and please G-d all my life I will continue to put on Tefillin. I am also working on steadily becoming more Torah observant as well.
“Mom has even turned our home kosher in the last month for me,” he added.
He put his speech down with a sigh of relief and said, “I want to thank you all for the many generous gifts and we will have a great time opening them.” He paused and took a deep breath.
“I would like to ask you all just to give me one more gift, a Rosh Hashanah gift as it is only two weeks till Rosh Hashanah. My father was saying that throughout the centuries Jews have been separated from one another, from their families, by cruel circumstances and governments. But all these years, unfortunately, my family has been separated by unnecessary anger. Please, just try to think if you have cut anyone off, or distanced yourself from anyone who should really be close to you. Please invite them for Rosh Hashanah.”
It was in shul on Rosh Hashanah that David realized that his words had impacted people at their shul. It was first Mr. Greenberg who came up to him, thanking him for giving him the insight and the courage to phone his distanced brother and invite the family for the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Mrs. Weinstein told him shyly that her husband had had a quarrel with her parents three years ago but now invited them for Rosh Hashanah, (he said he would manage somehow to get along with them). Several more people came to him with similar stories.
And then Richard, a man in his forties, came to shake David’s hand.
“I have made a resolution, because of you,” he announced.
Waiting for a similar story to those he had been hearing, he was surprised.
“When I was Bar Mitzvah, many years ago, I decided that I would continue putting on my Tefillin, but never did. People told me that I was really expected to wear them only once, on my Bar Mitzvah, so I didn’t bother. When you said in your Bar Mitzvah speech that you were going to put on Tefillin forever I felt a pang of sadness because I knew, or thought I knew, that such a decision would not be acted on. However I have been speaking to my friend Bill Cohen, and he tells me he has seen you put on Tefillin every morning before school. Well it looks like times have changed. I am going to get myself a pair of Tefillin and this time I am going to put them on every day.”
David smiled, “Times have indeed changed… for the better.”