By Gloria Hochman
My cousins, Ken and Tracy Spivack, live a lifestyle-on-the-fly. My type-A daughter, Anndee, and her partner, Elissa, are disciplined and intentional. Together, those cousins blended their talents to create a celebration that will be carved forever into our family lore.
Late on a chilly night last October, Ken tiptoed into the bedroom of his 12-year-old daughter, Scout, and asked if she could be ready for her bat mitzvah a little early.
“How early?” she asked.
“Sunday,” he responded.
“You mean four days from now?’
“Yes. You have a bubbe who is very ill, and I want her to see all of her five grandchildren become a bar or bat mitzvah. You are the fifth one. I want her to hear you read from the Torah. So how about Sunday?”
Scout turned the scenario over in her mind. She knew that Sunday was Rosh Chodesh. As a student at Perelman Jewish Day School, she had learned the aliyas for that date when she was in fourth grade. “I knew it would be a lot of work,” Scout said. “But I looked into my dad’s moist eyes. I told him I could do it.”
The following Sunday, deep into the pandemic, 11 relatives including Scout’s parents, brother Jacob, sister Dylan, grandparents Joan and Gerald Spivack, Uncle Milt and cousins Erika and Ashlee from Tucson who were in Philadelphia for a visit, gathered in the Plymouth Meeting apartment of Scout’s grandparents. Her bubbe Joni left her bed to join those in the living room. Others — grandparents from New Jersey and Florida, aunts, uncles and cousins from Arizona — joined via Zoom.
There was no lavish buffet, no bouquets of flowers on fine linen tablecloths, no gowns for which we had overpaid. There was not even an ordained rabbi.
Scout had rejected the two rabbis her father had suggested — one Conservative, one Orthodox. Instead, she chose her cousin Anndee, a journalist and teacher of creative writing who is a literate Hebrew reader. Anndee has led our family seders and Rosh Hashanah rituals since her grandfather passed away 24 years ago. “I knew Anndee would do it the way I wanted it, and it would all be just our family who made it happen,” Scout said.
When Anndee heard Ken’s proposal — “I want to pick your brain about something … ” — her initial reaction was the same as that of her younger cousin. “That’s only four days from now. Impossible!” The next morning, after a sleepless night during which she juggled the logistics — working with Scout on her Torah portion, preparing a bat mitzvah booklet, deciding what she wanted to say in her blessing to Scout — she called Ken. “I’ll do it,” she told him.
“I couldn’t help thinking about the history of the Jews celebrating bar mitzvahs in times of great duress — in the Warsaw ghetto, during wars, exiles and displacements,” Anndee said. “So, in some ways, we were joining — and validating — this tradition of defiantly making it happen under any circumstances.”
The bat mitzvah began. Anndee distributed the booklet she had prepared to those present. The rest of us accessed it through screen-sharing.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” Anndee asked, borrowing words from the traditional Passover Haggadah.
“I chose to open that way,” Anndee said, “because I had come to think of this home-based ritual with all of us wearing masks as differences that enlivened and enriched the experience. It felt resonant and immediate because we had cobbled it together so quickly for a reason that made it memorable.”
All eyes kept moving from Scout’s face to her bubbe’s. Scout could see her leaning forward in her wheelchair, humming the prayers and mouthing the words.
“It was clear that she knew exactly what was happening,” Anndee said. “I watched her lips move as she said the Sh’ma. She was as present, alert and checked in as I had seen her in months.”
Scout’s Torah portion was about celebrating the Sabbath and the gifts that each person in the community brings to the occasion. Anndee wanted this community of bat mitzvah guests to mark the moments when Scout would move from learner to teacher and to shepherd her in her journey toward adulthood.
Scout fingered the yad that would help her keep her place as she chanted 15 verses from the Book of Numbers in the Torah that her father had imported, FedEx, from an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn. It had arrived before sundown Friday and would be returned on Monday. Scout’s voice was clear and resonant, and she spoke directly to her bubbe, whose eyes were riveted on her youngest grandchild.
She read flawlessly, then confided, “I was very nervous about today because I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like. But anyone who knows me knows that for me family always comes first. And I wanted my bubbe and all of my other grandparents to be alive and observe my bat mitzvah.”
In a room so hushed you could hear a tissue fold, those who attended knew they were part of a singular ceremony they would always remember.
Anndee conferred her priestly blessing on Scout.
May your life be rich with laughter and may you always sleep peacefully at night.
May the sun shine its warmth upon you so that you can walk confidently knowing that you are perfect, just exactly as you are.
May you always feel the love that surrounds you at this moment and may you grow to return that love back into our world.
“This couldn’t have been any more beautiful if you and Scout were on the bimah,” Scout’s bubbe whispered in Anndee’s ear.
“My only wish,” said Anndee, “is that there had been enough physical space to do the hora, to join hands and do one circle around the room.”
Eleven days later, Joni Spivack, Scout’s beloved bubbe, passed away.