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Randi Kreiss

Double mitzvahs in a one-horse mountain town

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If there is any topic guaranteed to irritate readers more than politics, it’s religion, but here goes a true story.

In the innocent days before the plague of Covid-19, my daughter and son-in-law moved to a rural mountain town in the high Sierra of the American West. Let’s call it One Horse. There they settled into a life at one with nature, hiking the high trails, kayaking the rivers and camping in the hills.

Both of them are Jewish by birth, and embrace the practices and traditions that are meaningful for them. I have been at their home during Rosh Hashana, for example, and, after hunting down a brisket and other holiday goodies, we enjoyed a meal with the couple of other Jewish people who live within 20 or 30 miles.

When the grandkids approached age 13, they said they wanted to pursue the education necessary to become bar and bat mitzvah, and officially be welcomed as adults in the Jewish community.

They did it their way, even if it wasn’t entirely kosher. A family friend, Rabbi Eddie, who went to Lawrence High School with me, suggested a b’nai mitzvah, conducting one service for both kids, even though my granddaughter would be a little younger than the traditional 13, and my grandson would be a little older. It seemed practical.

In the beginning, my daughter drove the kids to a synagogue an hour and a half away for their lessons, but that quickly became a nightmare of snowstorms and exhaustion. Rabbi Eddie suggested going virtual.

So my daughter contacted Rabbi Anna, who married her and her husband 18 years ago in another mountain town in Vermont. Honestly, it was meant to be. Rabbi Anna, a sunbeam of a woman, took on the education of the grandkids and met with them online over the past year, teaching, singing, listening and imparting to them the ethics and values associated with living an honorable life. She taught them the connection between being a good Jew and being a good human being in the world. The kids learned the Hebrew prayers, studied their Torah portions, and wrote their own speeches about what this rite of passage means to them.

My mitzvah project with my grandson was to read and discuss “All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. My granddaughter and I read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

In Plan A, the family was going to travel to One Horse in July to participate in the mitzvahs; even Rabbi Anna was ready to fly out for the celebration. The ceremony would take place down by the river, followed by a party on the banks, catered by local food trucks.

Then the pandemic upset the plans, grounded all travelers and forced us into a Zoom version of the One Horse b’nai mitzvah.

The grandkids were outstanding. They wore prayer shawls once worn by their grandfather and great-grandfather. Their accomplishment was impressive, considering just a year of study. I recited a prayer for peace. My husband said a blessing. The kids chanted in Hebrew, and for me, their young voices echoed other voices from ages ago.

My granddaughter said in her speech that she had grown in many ways over this year, including physically, one and a half inches. My grandson said he hoped the Jewish presence in his town would lead to increased diversity and the welcoming of others. He said he was happy to share the occasion with his sister, noting that it is only since 1922 that women have been welcomed to become bat mitzvah in some Jewish communities.

Sixty people Zoomed in, many curious friends who had no idea what to expect. The atmosphere was serious and respectful. The rest of us were family from around the country. Some raised their own silver prayer cups; some showed off gorgeous challahs they had baked. We watched the service, trying to read everyone’s expression, yearning for real contact, yet gratified that this technology allowed us to participate at all.

The day seemed iconic of our moment in this time. We are all stressed by distance from those we love and too much isolation. But the losses are mitigated by the willingness of people to find creative compromise.

Our grandkids were the first children to become bar and bat mitzvah in One Horse. An interesting, odd and, to us, magnificent distinction.

Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.