On Memorial Day, my twelve-year-old sister became a woman, which is more than I can officially say for my uninitiated self. Hopping around the highly-varied terrain of the Northwest Chicago burbs growing up, I witnessed the habits of a few breeds of Jew: from the Holocaust-centric, minority-minded of Skokie; to the lavishly boob-jobbed yentas of Highland Park. I attributed it to new-kid-syndrome that I never really gelled with any of it, hitting up trillion-dollar bar mitzvahs that I treated more like outsider field work than a connection to any heritage resembling my own, which was pretty much non-existent because of, you know, Stalin. But the coming of age group Bar/Bat Mitzvah held by the Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation in Northbrook took a different approach for the given crowd, delivering an accessible experience that acknowledged roots in Soviet sacrifice. Ten families whispered in Russian, respectfully watching this next generation initiated into a club to which they were denied access.
Rabbi Eliezer Dimarsky took time during the English-language ceremony to introduce the congregation to the rituals, blessing mitzvahs, and tefillin “to show the fathers how it is done,” with an understanding of their defaulted outsider status (because if your Sovjew tribe has to hide their M.O. religion for so long during the real red scare back there, it’s unlikely your spirituality is coming from a tradition of ritual). He related, “Even though all of our kids come from non-observant families, my goal is to expose them to authentic Judaism. That’s why the ceremony is conducted in such a way.” The focus on individual responsibility and the theme that study leads to action communicated an overall enterprise of pumping out some grade-A mensches above all, that very well could result in a rise in participation in the Jew York of Chicago, the Northwest Burbs.
Although the rabbi is Orthodox, his membership in the Russian Jewish community seems to have given him enough rich perspective to have molded a program that speaks the language of its young members’ personal experiences at home. He started running a class for children of Russian Jewish immigrants in 1998 and eventually opened with his wife the Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation of Chicago. Serious business, for a place where unless your parents sent you to JCC and Solomon Schecter and god forbid Ida Crown, you are not sporting knowledge of Friday night lights.
The pinnacle was definitely when grandparents were invited to join this latest generation on stage. Unlike the tabula rasa approach that this generation largely took in keeping the ugly past from their born again Jewish babes, the rabbi pointed at old roots now so obvious, and at new opportunities that have been unavailable to the families since 1917, until now.
While I can’t promise the good book wasn’t consulted once at the fam’s post-Bat Mitzvah BBQ, something seemed to have shifted in dynamics. I had a Q&A with Michaella about the experience:
Was it what you expected?
It was not what I expected it to be, but it was really cool. I kind of expected it to be just us and only the kids would be saying the prayers, but the families were involved. It was cool how the grandparents and parents would have to learn the Hebrew prayers as well, and mom and I would have to practice. It’s about me, but it’s not just about me. Also, I have a lot of Jewish friends who said that girls read out of the torah in the ones they went to.
Tell me about the speech you gave instead of reading out of the torah like the boys? Was it different from reading an essay in class?
I felt good about my speech on Rachel and Yaakov. I wouldn’t have known about any of it if I hadn’t gone to Hebrew school. I really liked the kind of woman Rachel was.
I kind of treated it differently because it was in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know, so I didn’t want them to think I was an idiot who didn’t take this seriously.
Why do you care what they think?
I guess because I’m still connected to them. Two girls gave me their numbers so maybe I’ll see them and their families again. Also, I’m friends with some of the teachers on Facebook.
Do you feel different?
Mom’s going harder on me since the bat mitzvah—well not that much harder on me, she just expects more from me. I don’t act that differently, maybe more mature. I feel like I’m taken more seriously now.