Arctic Circle Bar Mitzvah Celebrants Shovel Their Way into Synagogue

— by Joshua Berkman

With help from The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, seven young Jewish adults in Murmansk, Russia celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs in late January.

Murmansk, the largest city inside the Arctic Circle, is one of the global Jewish family’s northernmost communities. So harsh are the winters there that the bar and bat mitzvah celebrants had to shovel through several feet of snow to access the building.

More after the jump.
The small Jewish community of Murmansk numbers only a few hundreds and does not even have a synagogue. Jewish teenagers in the city were unsure whether it was an accepted practice to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, since they had already passed the ages of 12 or 13. However, once they learned that the Chairperson of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, was celebrating his bar mitzvah at the ripe old age of 65, Murmansk community leaders reached out to The Jewish Agency to organize a bar mitzvah ceremony for their youngsters.

Jewish Agency Youth Shaliach (emissary) Sagi Rabovski traveled 870 miles from his home in St. Petersburg to run the group bar and bat mitzvah ceremony. The participants each recited a passage from the weekly Torah section of Bo in the book of Exodus and received a gift of the Chumash (Five books of Moses) for their bar or bat mitzvah.

“I feel that it is my mission to help even the smallest Jewish communities,” Rabovski said. “By connecting Jews to Israel and the Jewish tradition, we can strengthen their Jewish identities.”

The Jewish Agency runs Hebrew and Jewish history classes for the small Jewish population of the city. Cleveland’s Beth Israel-The West Temple is twinned with the Jewish community of Murmansk. Members of the two communities regularly exchange personal updates and messages via email.

My Home Cooked Bat Mitzvah

Warm memories of community collaboration.

Keeping up with the Steins (or the Hassons, or the Bar-Els for that matter) was not the issue when I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah; collaborating with them was! In 1980, in Caracas, Venezuela, no one in our circle of friends catered. People from the community got together and cooked! With the current downturn of the economy, families in the United States are looking for alternatives to the expensive parties they may have had in mind. Coming together as a community to prepare for a simcha is a very old tradition in many Jewish communities around the world. Not only are the resulting menus more interesting, but the bonds formed between people, and the sweet memories, remain strong for many years after the festivities.

When we celebrated my Bat Mitzvah we were living in Venezuela, fifteen hours away by air from all of our relatives in Israel. In 1980, the Jewish community of Caracas was evenly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. My parents befriended people in the community from many different backgrounds. For my Bat Mitzvah, my mother, her friends, their daughters, and I all got together and cooked. As a result, the menu for my Bat Mitzvah was much more diverse than it would have been had my relatives in Israel been the ones doing the cooking.

More after the jump.

For me, the rejoicing began weeks before the big day, when everyone joined us around the dining room table to assemble the appetizers. We were making Moroccan Cigars (for eating, not for smoking!). As we sat together carefully spooning the meat filling onto the dough, we told jokes and talked about the upcoming party. The house was redolent with the smells of garlic, cilantro, and cinnamon. My mother fried up a batch of these crisp appetizers for us to taste. We could all hear them sizzling in the hot olive oil. So impatient were we to try them that we burned our fingers, lips, and tongues as we bit into the spicy delicacies. We played simcha music to enhance the excitement and anticipation in the air. The time our friends spent with us helping with the preparations was the best gift that I received for my Bat Mitzvah. To this day I carry the feeling of warmth and gratitude toward them for devoting their time and attention to me. My Bat Mitzvah celebration would not have been possible without them.

I would love the opportunity to give today’s B’nai Mitzvah what was given to me. There are many ways to achieve this. It can be a potluck, where people are assigned dishes. Friends (including men and boys!) can congregate in one home and work together. When a bigger kitchen is needed, there are some synagogues that will accommodate members who would like to cook their own food for a simcha. At my synagogue, Germantown Jewish Centre, we have two kitchens. One is small, and is only for dairy and pareve dishes. If the party is held on that side of the building, then celebrants are allowed to bring pareve or dairy dishes from home. On the other side of the building is a much bigger, professional kitchen. Dairy or meat meals may be prepared in it. A mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, is required, and is contracted from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Now that my own children are going through the B’nei Mitzvah phase, it is my privilege to be asked to bring something to their friends’ celebrations. I try to make the most memorable dish that I can. Most people in the States feel awkward about imposing on their friends and acquaintances, and yet I sense a yearning in many of the people that I know to give of themselves. My gratitude has not abated over the years. Our family friends’ example has stayed with me. I feel that by celebrating as I did in Venezuela, we can recapture the warmth of being part of a community. Family recipes are shared, and traditions mingled. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration should be a time of pride and joy, not stress and pressure over money. I believe that I remember my home cooked Bat Mitzvah with more love and warmth than I would have any catered affair.

Ronit’s Bat Mitzvah Menu

Moroccan cigars are appetizers served only on special occasions. Our friend Mercedes, who came to Caracas from Morocco, taught us how to prepare them.

Moroccan Cigars

  • 1 pound phyllo dough
  • 1 onion
  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Salt to taste
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • 5 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Chop the onion, and sauté in one tablespoon of olive oil. When the onion is soft and translucent, add the lamb and stir. Add the salt, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Fry everything until the meat is cooked through. Add the cilantro.
  3. Whisk the eggs and then add them to the meat mixture. Cook for about two minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
  4. When the meat mixture has cooled down, cut the phyllo dough into rectangles. Brush with olive oil, and then arrange some of the meat filling along one of the edges. Roll into a cigar shape and pinch shut. The cigars may be frozen until ready to cook.
  5. Fry the cigars in hot olive oil, then keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Moroccan cigars are typically served with a Hummus dip.

Hummus Dip

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Lemon to taste
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt
  • Ground cumin
  • Ground paprika

Put all the ingredients except the paprika in a food processor. Blend everything together until very smooth. Scoop into a bowl, and sprinkle with paprika.

A very fun dish to prepare with a group of friends and family is Israeli Salad. Each participant will need his or her own cutting board and sharp knife.

Israeli salad.

Israeli Salad

  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 pepper
  • 4 green onions
  • 5 radishes
  • 1 bunch Cilantro
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Juice of 2 Limes
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  1. The cucumber needs to be peeled, and the peppers cleaned. The tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, green onions, and radishes need to be washed and diced. The cilantro should be very finely chopped.
  2. After all the vegetables have been chopped, add the lemon and lime juice and olive oil. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. This quantity of vegetables serves 6. If you have helpers, have each veggie prepared by one individual. All the salads can be joined in one big serving bowl at the end.

One of the main courses served was my mother’s festive beef dish. It is an Israeli recipe that we would usually enjoy for Passover.

Mediterranean Braised Beef with Artichokes

  • 2 onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 5 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Olive oil
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • Artichokes in brine
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Chop the onions, garlic, celery, and carrots.
  2. In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the vegetables until the onion is translucent.
  3. Add the meat, salt, and pepper while stirring. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Seal the pot with aluminum foil, and place in the oven for four hours.
  4. Take out the pot and allow to cool enough to handle. Place the meat in a separate baking dish.
  5. Arrange the artichokes over the meat. Pour the sauce and vegetables into a food processor, and puree. Taste the sauce and check the seasonings. Pour the pureed sauce over the meat and artichokes. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and return to the oven. Serve when hot.

Esther, a family friend and neighbor, prepared her special Shabbat dish. This chicken recipe came to Caracas from Tunisia:

Tunisian chicken with lemon and olives.

Tunisian Chicken with Lemon and Olives

I found a great version of Esther’s recipe on the Palm Beach, Florida, website

pbpulse.

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon dry red pepper flakes
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 carrots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup cracked green olives in brine
  • Fresh cilantro
  1. Heat the olive oil in a wide pot. Thinly slice the onions, lemon, and carrots, and chop the garlic. Add to the pot and stir for a couple of minutes.
  2. Add the chicken and sprinkle the red pepper flakes, turmeric, coriander, saffron, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and paprika over it. Add the olives and two cups of water, and bring to a boil.
  3. Cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Finely mince some cilantro, and sprinkle over the chicken. This dish may be refrigerated and reheated when ready to serve.

The beef and chicken entrees are so flavorful that all they need is a simple rice accompaniment:

Basmati Rice

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt
  • 4 cups water
  1. Heat the olive oil in a pot. Add the rice and salt and until hot.
  2. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook on low heat for about 45 minutes, until the water has been absorbed. Fluff and serve.

For the grand finale, we prepared a dessert that uses some of the best products of Venezuela, chocolate and rum:

Pareve Chocolate Mousse with Venezuelan Rum.

Pareve Chocolate Mousse with Venezuelan Rum

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 1 pound bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) margarine
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee blended with 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons Venezuelan rum, such as Ron Anejo Pampero
  1. Boil water in a small pot, and place a bowl over it to be warmed by the steam. Mix the chocolate and margarine in this bowl until they melt. Add the coffee mixture and blend well.
  2. In a mixer, whip the egg whites with 1/2 cup sugar until very stiff.
  3. Add the yolks to the chocolate mixture.
  4. Add the rum to the chocolate mixture while stirring.
  5. Slowly fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites.
  6. Pour the mousse into a glass container and refrigerate overnight

We live in a very fluid society, where families may live far away from their other family members. By cooking together as a community, we all become a little bit like each other’s family. A joyful, delicious celebration becomes possible for every teenager in the community. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrant experiences the ancient Jewish tradition of “kol Israel arevim ze laze,” or “all of Israel are responsible for each other,” as part of their welcome into the community as adults. These memories last a lifetime, and the example is set of how to be a mensch. When someone becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah it is not just their simcha, it is everyone’s simcha. So let the cooking and kvelling begin!

Ronit Treatman was born in Israel and grew up in Ethiopia and Venezuela. She is fluent in five languages, and volunteered for the IDF where she served in the Liaison Unit to Foreign Forces. She currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Searching for Lior at the Special Olympics

I was to say the least, concerned. Among the two thousand Pennsylvania Special Olympics athletes, plus coaches, parents and volunteers streaming by, so far nary a Jewish star or kippah to easily indicate someone to interview for this paper.  Wait, wait, Lior Liebling’s name is on the participant list. I know him; he’s Jewish. We’re in the same congregations and he was the star in  Praying with Lior, a film that documented his bar mitzvah as a person with Down Syndrome.

photo by Barry Bub, MD

Best to seek out the Philadelphia County banner within the one-mile-long opening parade. Hmm, Lior isn’t marching with them, but another handsome teen begins dancing about me with an American flag, saluting me repeatedly. I pause my search to make his acquaintance but he continues his dance without responding. “I’m his mom, he’ll need me to speak for him.” This woman, marching draped affectionately over the shoulders by two youthful participants, explains the doctors had told her to institutionalize her son for life within twenty four hours of his birth. “The doctor said
he would never walk, communicate or be able to function in society.” Special Olympics programs are sport and health educational programs for those from age 8-80 living with intellectual impairment caused by inherited conditions, various diseases, malnutrition, accidents, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Now look at him!’ The flag-twirling lad’s mom gestures with visible love and pride. “My son goes regularly for practice with our neighborhood Special Olympics team. You must have faith the Lord won’t give you more than you can handle,” she explains and continues: “Seek out all possible resources, be persistent, don’t listen to the nay-sayers, never give up. He is constantly growing and changing.”

So where is Lior? Could he be marching under another county? Yes! The Philly coach says to look for him with the Montgomery County contingent. Better hustle up to their spot in the parade.

“Say coach, I’m looking for Lior Liebling or do you know if you have anyone Jewish in your delegation?” This woman, a twenty-something coach self-identifies as half-Jewish but non-practicing, and indicates Lior hasn’t joined the parade yet. She introduces me to a Jewish Special Olympics basketball player. He’s a member of Beth Shalom, tells me he had great bar mitzvah and loves music. When he’s called away by his coach to join a team cheer, I bow in appreciation for his time and the parade moves on.

It’s getting toward evening, might as well look for Lior at the opening ceremony. The Penn State Marching Band and cheerleaders at the main gate herald the inpouring of 2000 participants plus surely well over a 1000 volunteers, coaches and family members into the football stadium. Amy, a radiant young athlete is carried onto the field by a Penn State football player who towers over me by at least two feet, his biceps the width of trees. The big screen on the scoreboard displays Amy’s symbolic joy as the crowd roars. Soon county delegations rise, cheer and sit in waves, as the Special Olympics roll of counties is called. Up and down the bleechers I roam seeking Lior, all-the-while taking in the sight of excited youth and adult participants from intellectual disabilities overtly apparent and not, as well as every race, religion and culture within Pennsylvania. Hmm…maybe Lior didn’t make it, even though he’s on the list? Better e-mail his family to check; I’ll ask if they want to we meet up for Shabbat dinner, that would be special.

It’s morning and a new day. I’m at Track and Field where a coach said Lior is listed in the program. While scanning for Lior, I see Amy in a cabana tent chatting, it would be nice to find out more about her. Her mom is with her and upon seeing my press pass and being introduced to my husband Barry Bub, a physician who teaches healing healthcare communication skills, she tells us a bit about Amy’s history. A neonatal test had revealed Down Syndrome and a heart condition; the neonatologist advised her to abort the fetus. “So I changed doctors; that doctor didn’t want to deal with this, that much was clear. I wanted this pregnancy so much. I thought, Well, I’ll deal with problems as we come to them. I really want a child so I’ll keep this fetus.” Amy’s sister Erin adds:  “Tell people she’s just my sister, like a normal sister relationship, we play, we fight, we kiss and make up. Amy teaches me to be more caring and responsible, to realize others have more problems. I wish every teen would take a turn volunteering at the Special Olympics; this sure puts my own problems into perspective.”

There aren’t many parents present. I wonder aloud to Amy’s mom as to whether it’s because with so many Special Olympics volunteers, parents of some participants might see this as the rare chance for a  weekend off themselves. Amy and Erin’s mom sighs and agrees, “I haven’t had such a weekend yet, possibly when she’s older. That would be good. I’m fortunate, my husband and parents are supportive. My sister, too, she’s a speech therapist and that is also helpful.” Still thinking about religion and spirituality I inquire, “Do you participate in a faith tradition?” The mom looks at me oddly, “We belong to a church, we go sometimes.”

While Special Olympics athletes must qualify as intellectually impaired, my husband now declares me to be “belief-challenged.” True enough. I’ve been asking individuals whether they belong to faith communities, initially almost missing that it is the Special Olympics experience itself that is a living faith community. Special Olympics is a faith community without religious auspices, a community that has faith in each life’s evolving nature within the holy context of support and affirmation within skillful boundaries.

Here at the Special Olympics each athlete strives to attain his/her personal best and reaches out to help the other athletes to attain theirs. While there are various awards, an important one is for finishing in one’s category, be that basketball, long jump, equestrian skills, swimming, tennis, bocce, and much more. Writing this, my eyes rest at the swimming area upon a perhaps thirty-something woman with evident Down Syndrome and other disabilities laboring heavily on a walker to reach her starting position. Her coach helps hoist her up and in the water she swims flat out as near perfect to a pro as I can discern.

Over at the basketball games, an apparently non-verbal near Leonard de Caprio teen look-alike with stares through me. He begins wordless repeated sighing in response to my asking if his team is up next. A coach comes over and explains when the young man, his son Evan does speak, he verbally cuts and pastes remembered lines from movies to communicate. Out on the court Evan runs, leaps, guards a lad who has the ball, who then passes it to him. Aw, he misses the rim shot. Coach Clyde, we learn, is also Evan’s father and with his mother also has an older son with Asperbergers. The referree’s whistle blows, coach/father calls out, “Evan, you can do better than that, you know you can.” He turns to us and explains: “You learn to see past the handicap; they want to be treated like everyone else. He’ll lay back and take the easy road unless he’s pushed. They’ll try to manipulate you just like any other teen.”

There’s no alcohol available and clearly none is needed here for happiness. Spirits soar as each person’s abilities have room to shine. On a tip from a coach who thought he saw Lior at the long jump awards, we head to the outdoor track to find that now wheelchair races are underway and Lior’s group is off visiting other sports. Just one man stops his wheelchair six inches short of the finish line. His coach moves to face him, just behind the line: “You can do it Daniel, I know you can. One more push and you’ll have completed the race, done your personal best. Come on, just a bit more.” Silence. “Daniel, you know you can finish this race.” There no indication that this man, whose physical appearance is tiny, contracted and frail, is even listening…the heat is extreme, who would even want to finish? The sun feels so direct I begin to wonder if my fingernails will sunburn atop the camera zoom. The crowd, at a distance, realizes he’s begun moving again before I do and I’m barely six feet away. The cheering is building in volume, feet rhythmically pound the metal bleechers: “Go, Daniel, go, Daniel…yes, YES!” They’re on their feet for him and yes, his back wheels cross the finish line! Phew…I’m exhausted. As his coach wheels him toward the reward podium, a teen first aid volunteer brings a cup of ice-water and shakes his hand, “You did it! That was great!” She turns to me with an aside, “Volunteering here is the highlight of my year; I always come out.” At the podium, a state trooper in full regalia confers Daniel’s participation medalion to Miss Pennsylvania Teen Dairy Queen. Daniel he bows his head as she places it around his neck and immediately his thin arthritis ridden arms go up in the universal symbol for a triumphal personal best. He finished the race!

Bing! An email about Lior: “He’s there on his own. Thanks for reaching out to us.” So he’s here for sure. Ok, but where?

“Why did you decide to race backwards?” my husband asks as Daniel comes towards the stands. “Because one of my feet drag and stop the chair when I try to race forwards.” Daniel points at two men leaning against the stands behind us, “Ask my coaches, they’ll tell you.” Coach Don readily explains, “Riding backwards, it’s Daniel’s innovation.” Actually, what does a Special Olympics coach do? “I help them understand the rules, practice, loosen up before the games begin, ensure they stay in their lane, administer their medications and help them remain emotionally appropriate. We go through training programs to work with these athletes. Perhaps most significantly, we help them learn how to be part of a team; that’s not always easy.” How did Don get involved? “I have a son with autism. Most coaches here have a family member involved.” Day job? “Scale inspector.”

Don adds one thing more: “I also train future coaches.” He then pins the microphone onto the man beside him, James, who proudly shows me his Assistant Coach tag. Daniel began as a Special Olympics athlete, referred by the special education class teacher in high school. He works in a factory for those with special needs and represents athletes on the Special Olympics board. When his father died he used his inheritance to buy his own home and lives alone. “I am very happy with my life,” Daniel tells us, “I have everything I need. I also hope to take courses one day to become a full coach.” I don’t ask if he practices a religion. What for? The man is the epitomy of spirit.

We head to the stands, maybe Lior’s up there. Against the railing a photo is underway, a young woman wearing a bronze medal in a hug with a probable grandmother and perhaps her mother? I call out a hearty congratulations and they turn to meet us. Turns out to be her grandmother and her aunt Alia, who is her guardian. “Her father died in a tragic accident, and my niece suffered brain damage from chemo and radiation therapy for cancer as a child. Her mom couldn’t care for her, so we took her and her mother visits every week; we’re her guardians. Pointing to the athletes she notes: “Raising these children isn’t for everyone, yet for some of us, it’s a gift to be able to do this.” Alia, along with parent after parent we encounter throughout the weekend describes the experience of community within the Special Olympics as a turning point for the child, from introversion and isolation, to friendships and belief in themselves as worthy people with unique skills and talents. “Through preparing for the games her muscle tone has improved, as have her balance and social skills. She’s now 19 and a total blessing in our lives. Community and support, that’s the critical factor, the turning point. You have to give them a chance. She’s in a job training program at local pizza and coffee shops. Give them a chance, it will bring you such joy!”

Barry looks at me, “I’m heading over to check out the equestrian part of the games. I suppose you’re going to keep looking for Lior?” A random woman with Down Syndrome watching the games beside us reaches out to hold my hand, so I answer him: “I’ll see you later, honey. Let me know what it’s like over there.” As though she’d been evesdropping on my soul, my new hand-holding Special Olympics game date kisses my hand and says: “We play for fun; that’s how you win at life.”

One of the great koans in Judaism is an injunction by Reb Nachman of Breslov, mitzvah gedolah lihiyote b’simchah tamid, “the greatest mitzvah is to live in perpetual happiness.” By God, she’s got it. I think she’s got it! Here, politics and religion are invisibly trumped by support, courage, and persistence. I hope by now, that even I’ve got it.

A favor please. Should you should happen to see Lior, please let him know Reb Goldie sends regards.