Bat Mitzvah at Masada


Bat Mitzvah at Masada


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By E.J. Dickson

Today my sister will become a woman on the top of a mountain where thousands of years ago thousands of my people committed suicide to evade a torturous death at the hands of those who hated them. I do not think about this on the chairlift; I am afraid of heights and I don't have the time to look backwards as the cable reaches upwards to the peak of what I have only seen in biblical epics and Birthright travel pamphlets, to the peak of what my people call Masada but what I just call a big-ole mountain.

My sister sitting next to me asks me to remind her why she couldn't have a real bat mitzvah again, the ones with chicken fingers and VIP rooms and an annoying DJ who clings to the sound of his voice on the microphone like he's clinging to his prize possessions. I tell her it's because she's a Jew and she says, well, aren't all Jews supposed to have real bat mitzvahs? She has straightened her hair for the occasion and I don't have the heart to tell her that the humidity at the top of the mountain will probably frizz it out.

I say that my God and her God wouldn't approve of her idea of a real bat mitzvah, that our God doesn't look kindly on those kinds of parties, seventh-graders hiding in coat closets and the birthday girl's smiling face engraved in bars of white chocolate. These real bat mitzvahs, I tell her on the chair lift, violate at least five of the Ten Commandments in the span of one four-hour dance party that was organized and paid for all in the name of God himself. She asks me what the hell I'm talking about. I say that I have no idea and look back down at my feet, watching as they lift further and further off the ground. The sand below me looks like honey and the sky above me is smooth as milk and I wonder if the combination of the two is Kosher.

Later I nervously look over my shoulder and see the rabbi in the car behind me, his forehead beaded with sweat, his tallis soaked through to its threads. The rabbi has the impossible name of Etai Benshlomo, and he is the man who will be determining my sister's worth as a woman by the time we reach the mountain's peak. Although he has most likely made the journey onward and upward a thousand times before, he looks uncomfortable on the chairlift, nervous even. He could be sweating for two reasons: like me, he is scared of heights, or unlike me, he has heard the sounds of artillery fire in Haifa, Safed, Tibeirias and he has brought them on the chair lift with him, disregarding the signs warning riders in Hebrew to leave extra baggage on the ground. I give him the "OK" sign with my thumb and index finger in a circle and he stares up at me in confusion, returning the sign to me. Although he clearly has no idea what I'm doing or what it means, he knows it means something, and that is significant.

This is significant, I tell myself. No matter how nervous I am about being in this country or riding on this chairlift, my being here is significant, even if I can't figure out why or how. Of course I know the real reasons, the ones I tick off on my hands and fingers as my ears pop to let me know that I am almost where I need to be. I know why, at the end of every Passover Seder, we all clink glasses of Manischewitz and promise each other to spend next year in Jerusalem, a promise as half-hearted as our little cousins' renditions of the Four Questions, a promise as half-baked as our aunt's' kugels.

I know why we marry other Jews so our daughter's feet can remain rooted in the Holy Land and our sons' private parts can remain cleanly snipped at the ends. I know why I tell people that the two initials in my name stand for "Extremely Jewish", I know why our fathers regard Yaakov Ben-Avraham with the same reverence as Woody Allen, and I know why our ex-boyfriend's British fathers stares at us wide-eyed during dinner as we explain to him what a knish is, looking at us as if the concept of a mashed potato encased in fried dough is completely alien to him, as if our noses sing "Hatikvah" while our curly dark hair joins in on the chorus.

I know this because we are Jewish and we are different, and we are intent on proving this point by swallowing tablets of cyanide on mountain-tops, pasting our faces on bars of white chocolate, bombing our neighbors and arming our family members lihyot am chofshi be'artzenu -eretz tziyon vi'rushalayim-to be a free nation in our own homeland, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The Jews firmly subscribe to the annoying belief that a good joke never loses its humor with multiple tellings; that a good joke should be told as often and as loudly as possible, and this is the punch line to our joke: we are intent on proving this point kol 'od balevav p'nimah nefesh yehudi homiyah; as long as in the heart within, a Jewish soul still yearns.

When we finally reach the top of the mountain my sister yawns and asks me if I have any Dunkaroos left in my purse. I tell her that in a few minutes she's going to become a woman and then what use is she going to have for Dunkaroos? From behind us, Rabbi Etai Benshlomo smiles, wipes the sweat off his forehead with the ends of his tallit and asks us in heavily accented English if we are ready to rock and roll. Of course I find this hilarious, and as he sings the opening verses of something like "Avinu Malkeinu" while my mother snaps photos on a disposable camera and my father leans against a rock where a thousand years ago a six-year old boy possibly died by the hand of his own father, I know that the rabbi understood my gestures on the chairlift, that he is OK and I am OK and we will all be OK, and with his understanding comes mine: I am here because we are proud, because we are scared, because we are Jews and the only place we can go is onward and upward.


from the November 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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