January 2008

I doubt we’ll ever post anything more about Florida unless we try not to be too organized about it.  So tonight I’ve just picked a few semi-randomly, and I’ll try to follow up with another couple of pictures every few days.

Here are three from the bat mitzvah (of course only from Saturday night, as there’s no picture-taking in the synagogue!).

This is Jillian, the reason for the season, so to speak, with honoured relatives lighting one of her 13 candles (Helen’s Dad (hidden) and Bea on the right, and Helen’s Uncle Steve and Aunt Louise on the left).

Lighting Jillian’s 13 candles

Kenan smoking (or is that chocolate?):

Kenan at the bat mitzvah

Shana blowing bubbles:

Shana at the bat mitzvah


We saw this warning sign on the freeway while approaching a bridge:

Possible Insect Swarms

Orlando has got the nicest toll collectors on the planet.  That’s got to be among the most boring and thankless jobs around, but around here every toll collector we’ve passed (several a day) is smiling and friendly and wishes us a good day.

The two services are what gave Jillian the official title of Bat Mitzvah.  Saturday night was the celebration.  And what a celebration!  This was as big a deal as any wedding.  Beginning at 6:30 with an open bar in the lobby of the soaring Crowne Plaza Hotel (not the Hyatt as I originally mis-reported), then moving to the ballroom for dining and dancing. 

The first thing to happen in the ballroom was to call in the family of honour to tumultuous applause:  parents, then siblings, then Jillian herself looking like a model on a red carpet.  Before the meal we had the havdalah, officially closing the Sabbath.  I didn’t quite follow it all, but it involved lighting a four-wicked braided candle, chanting/singing/saying various blessings, more wine and bread, and at the end putting out the flame.  I think this is the first Jewish tradition I’ve seen where you don’t let the candle burn all the way down.

Next Jillian lit thirteen candles, or rather invited up thirteen groups of people, one at a time, each group lighting a candle.  She would introduce the person or people she was inviting, tell everyone a few words about them, then they’d light the candle together and give her a hug and their personal congratulations.  Helen, Shana, Kenan and I were pleasantly surprised to be included in one of the groups, so that was another special part we got to play.

Around a hundred children at their own tables on one end of the room helped themselves to Oreos and Rice Crispy Squares and other appetizers before filing past the kids’ buffet of chicken fingers and hamburgers–if there were any vegetables on that end of the room I sure didn’t see them on the kids’ plates.  Interfering parents definitely not welcome; this was a party for the kids!  Shana was reveling in her independance.

The parents, meanwhile, enjoyed an elegant dinner of salmon, veggies, potatoes, salad, and a rice and mushroom dish that was to die for, followed by a rich chocolate cake, all in oversized portions.

A professional photographer captured everything on film silicone, and an energetic (and acrobatic) DJ entertained the kids with games while the parents ate, then opened up the dance floor.  He and the open bar did a great job of loosening everyone up, occasionally bringing out extras like bubbles, beads and balloons.  Parents and kids together danced the night away.

We dragged ourselves away around 11 pm–I think the party wrapped up around midnight for the last hardy few–and were in our hotel room in time for the kids to see the clock change from pm to am.  I think they were snoring a few minutes later.

Saturday services were similar to Friday but “more”.  More people (every seat taken and a few people standing); more ceremony, such as actually taking the Torah scrolls out of the ark and parading them around (there were four huge beautiful ornate scrolls in the ark, though only one was taken out–I’m not sure what the other three were); more reading/singing by Jillian who did wonderfully as always; more time (over two hours of services plus lunch after–I took the kids out partway through to go for a walk around the neighbourhood because they were getting restless); more food (a whole lunch of bagels and creamcheese and locks and egg salad and tuna salad and rye bread and cakes and cakes and cakes.  And a few cakes.

The “sermon” this time was very biblically based, unlike yesterday’s.  They go through a cycle of scriptures, and happened to be at the exodus this week.  (I asked Helen why don’t they line it up so the exodus story happens around Passover, and she said the exodus story is exciting enough to be told any time. 🙂

I learned a couple more things:

The “stage” at the front of the synagogue is called a “bema”.

Thanks Mom for explaining the light is called the Everlasting Light.

I thought this event was particularly big and extravagant (especially the party in the evening which I’ll describe later, and the fact of family coming from all across the country) because this was the first bat mitzvah of this generation, but I’ve been assured be several people now that this is very normal and all of this excitement will happen again for every child.  It’s every bit as important to a Jewish family as a wedding.  So we’d better start saving up now for Zach’s bar mitzvah in the summer of 2009!

The synagogue actually has a sign on the door with a “brief introduction to Sabbath”.  Among other things it asks that we refrain from taking pictures and from drawing, not so much because those are “work” but because they are “transforming the world”.  We are to transform the world six days of the week, but the day of rest is a day to leave the world alone and to “transform yourself”.  I like that description much better than a legalistic “thou shalt not work” attitude.

We had a few hours of the afternoon before the reception at the Hyatt.  We visited with Dad at his gorgeous hotel in gorgeous sunshine next to a gorgeous pool with our swimsuits back at our own hotel 30-minutes’ drive away.  😦  Then drove back to our place for a nap.  I’ll describe the reception later–this morning we’re on our way out to brunch at cousins Stacey and Lisa’s house, the last of the “official” celebration events.

What’s a bat mitzvah? I’m so glad you asked. I’m quickly turning into an expert on the subject. Or rather, I’m happy to find someone who knows less than I do!

A bat mitzvah is the “coming of age” ceremony for a Jewish girl, around her 13th birthday. (“bat” for “daughter”–a boy’s would be “bar mitzvah”.) This weekend Helen’s cousin’s daughter Jillian is having her bat mitzvah, and since she is the eldest of the cousins’ kids, it is a huge deal and family from around the country (make that “around the world” with us Canadians) are here to celebrate. As the resident non-Jew I want to write down my impressions of the festivities before they all blur into a big mess in my memory.

To my Jewish readers, please excuse my comparisons to Christianity and to church–it’s what I and most of my readers have as a common reference point.

The Sabbath (Shabbat) is Saturday but to Jews the day starts at sundown, so Shabbat begins Friday night. There are Shabbat services Friday evening and again Saturday morning every week, though most families would pick one or the other to attend regularly. This week’s Friday services were unusually full at Congregation Beth Am, every seat was taken, and Jillian was everywhere, welcoming her friends and family, the perfect hostess. Every guest was given a special yarmulke with Jillian’s name on the inside, and women family members received a beautiful head covering as well. When the service started promptly at eight, Jillian stood on the platform with the rabbi and the cantor, looking very poised and comfortable.

This synagogue looks very much like a small church. The “auditorium” could seat 150 or so on your typical semi-comfortable stackable seats, and looked much like a church sanctuary. At the front is a stage. Instead of a pulpit, however, there is a large sturdy and ornate “table” that the Torah is laid on when it is read (it wasn’t taken out tonight though). Jillian stood behind this most of the service when she was reading. To the side is a smaller “pulpit” of sorts the cantor used. Behind the main table is the ark of the covenant, which holds the Torah scrolls. Over the table hangs an ornate lamp. I don’t remember what that represents but I remember from highschool World Religions class that it’s a light that never goes out. The rabbi had a wireless lapel mic and walked around wherever he pleased.

I believe that the service was a pretty typical one, the only change from the ordinary being that Jillian read (sang? chanted? it sounds like singing to me but I’m not sure how it’s referred to) much of the text. The cantor leads most of the service, with the congregation joining him for some parts, and the rabbi interjecting to keep us all on the right page. I tried for a while to follow along in the text, but it took so much concentration to read the Hebrew (transliterated of course) that I was missing everything else going on so eventually I stopped reading and just enjoyed watching. The rabbi was very relaxed, waving at Kenan or other kids periodically, gesturing to some to clap louder for some songs, joking with Jillian.

After a while the cantor’s part is over and the rabbi gives what we’d call a sermon. I’m not sure what he’d call it. Today he spoke about Martin Luther King Jr since Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and tied it in loosely with a Jew’s responsibility to make the world a better place by doing good deeds, which in Hebrew is called a “mitzvah“, so it also ties in nicely with the bat mitzvah. Someone commented to me later that this was a very typical “sermon” in that it was timely and inspiring but not actually “biblical”, never mentioning the Bible at all, though Rabbi Nathan was quoted once and a quote of Martin Luther King’s mentioned another rabbi.

Throughout the Friday and Saturday services, Jillian’s extended family members are honoured by letting them take part in the service. Our part was to close the doors of the ark. That came right at the end of the service, we were called up by name and all four of us got to go up while everyone else was singing and close the doors.

After the service we all went into the multi-purpose room next door where everyone was given a small plastic glass of wine or grape juice (about 3 or 4 times the size of the typical communion cup), we all blessed it (much longer blessings than Helen and I do at home) and blessed the challah, and then had time to mingle and help ourselves to tables full of sweets.

Saturday morning at 10 am we’ll be back at the same synagogue for the Saturday services. The Saturday services are generally longer, and apparently this congregation is unusual in how late it starts. Most would start at 8 or 9 and can still go until noon. And no childcare or kids’ programme! Helen’s cousins say it’s no wonder they can’t seem to get young families to keep going, though it is considered quite appropriate to come late or to leave partway through the service and come back later. (It is NOT appropriate for the kids to be given pencils and paper to amuse themselves with, as that is “creating something”, which is “work”, and not allowed on the Sabbath. Toys are the kosher alternative.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Saturday! And since I’ve now downloaded this experience from my brain I can reboot overnight and deliver the next installment to you tomorrow afternoon.

If any of you my dear readers know more than I do on these subjects and can correct any misinformation, give me the right words to replace my Christianese descriptions, or otherwise expand on my experience, I’d love to hear your comments.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.ted.com posted with vodpod

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