What will a Bat Mitzvah of this soon to be seventy-four year old grandmother look like? I figured I’d have to study Hebrew, learn a few prayers, bless bread and wine, provide a teaching moment, serve lunch, then hugs all around. All in my living room on the coast of Maine where, finally, after all these years, I would become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments.
Lev, my teacher, my rabbi, my friend, my mentor listened. We met at Starbucks in Winchester, Massachusetts, Lev rushing in, hatless, coatless, on this the first day that winter announced itself. Outside, the wind blew strong. Inside, people sat at small tables, some with lap tops, others on cell phones. A group of men talked loudly in a corner. Soon, I would no longer hear their voices. Soon, I would hear only Lev, a man I’ve known for nearly twenty years, ever since he came to New Hampshire, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Cincinnati. He brought me back to the synagogue. I attended Torah study, began to prepare for a Bat Mitzvah. Then, Lev left. I was bereft. Gone his joy, his spontaneity, his verve, his spirit and his very unconventional approach to Jewish learning. Soon, I left that synagogue, too. But ever since, I've missed a commitment to Judaism.
Now, Lev is studying to become a nurse. Yet, he is still a rabbi and a teacher. In May, he will move to Austin, Texas, and I will no longer be able to meet him at this Starbucks. If I’m going to have a goal, commit to Jewish study, become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments, I must do this now. In my bag, I’ve carried books of beginning Hebrew. That’s where I’ve been for years, beginning Hebrew, over and over. If I study. When I study, I don’t know what the words say. This bothers me. I’m a writer; meaning is my work.
Meaning is Lev’s work. When I talked with him about learning the aliyot, blessings over the Torah, he told me I wouldn’t like the translations when I knew them. I understood, all of those masculine references to God as Lord, King, Ruler. All of that top down stuff. Hierarchy. The doctrine of the chosen. I don’t believe in a traditional doctrine of the chosen or in a traditional God. I’m about community. Lev is about community.
These last two years, my work has taken a turn backwards in time. I’ve been writing about France during the years of German occupation. I’ve visited France, interviewed number of people, one a ninety-four year old woman who was girl guide, caretaker, in a secret house that protected Jewish children. I’ve been reading and researching. Inevitably, I have found myself with the Jewish dead. My work is freighted, but what I’m looking for is light and life, a seventeen year old girl with beautiful hair, whose drawings survived in a locked suitcase, a Catholic German theologian and philosopher who brought that story to a small French village. These are the things I want to pass on, a love of life and of learning. Lev, spoke to me of an ethical will. An ethical will, Zevaoth, in Hebrew is the tradition of writing a long letter to your children in which you express your ethical values. But what are ethical values? Can I name mine? Intrigued, I wrote down the name of book Lev recommended: Ethical Wills.
“Before we leave,” Lev said, “we must set a date.”
Oh my God, this is going to happen.
He pulled out his iPhone. He will be East for a wedding in August. “The eighteenth or nineteenth in the morning?”
I draw a breath. “Either one.”
He types in both, sets his iPhone on table. "We can decide."