My daughter Hannah had her bat mitzvah this Sunday (see below). It was one of the most important days of her life. For a Jewish girl it ranks somewhere close to getting married or having a firstborn.
You really don’t know what true emotions are until you become a parent. As I am writing this at 5 am, I have headphones on and I’m listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It’s dark outside, and my wife and three kids are safely asleep.
This is what happiness feels like.
I know that in two hours they’ll wake up. We’ll have breakfast and I’ll drive them to school. Jonah (my sixteen-year-old) will be bargaining with me about what music we’ll listen to – classical will not be his first choice. Hannah will be on Jonah’s side. Mia Sarah (my almost-4-year-old) will offer her preference, which is always the same: “Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” We’ll compromise. Jonah has a learner’s permit, and he’ll be driving us through a beautiful park. I’ll hug and kiss them, drop Jonah off at high school, Hannah at middle school, and Mia Sarah at preschool.
I am overwhelmed with emotions just writing this. This is all finite. One day they’ll all be grown up. The house will be empty and days like today will be distant happy memories. I never want days like this to end. I really don’t want my kids to grow up, and bat mitzvah is another reminder that they are! Someday I will no longer be hugging and kissing them in the morning and driving them to school.
Yes, and as you can imagine, the stock market, QE, Bitcoin, and whatever else I usually write about somehow seem so trivial and unimportant right now.
In my speech at Hannah’s bat mitzvah I wanted to express my love for her and tell her something meaningful about becoming bat mitzvah. Expressing my love for her was easy; the latter part was difficult, as you’ll see.
I am the Spielberg wannabe in my family. I am the one making family movies for big occasions (birthdays and anniversaries, etc.). A dozen years ago I somehow stumbled into this role, probably because no one else wanted it. Mr. Spielberg should not be worried about being dethroned by me anytime soon, but I really enjoy putting these fancy slideshows together – they send me down memory lane as I pick photos and videos – and I get to pick music!
Making a movie for Hannah’s bat mitzvah was a highly emotional experience as well, as I got to relive her first twelve years through pictures and home movies.
Here is Hannah’s bat mitzvah video:
When I think of you, the word that instantly comes to mind is sunshine.
Since you were very little, you always smiled. I’d wake you up in the morning, and no matter how early it was, you’d open your eyes and smile at me. Always.
You started skiing when you had barely turned four. You had no fear. No hesitation. You only had one speed – forward.
Of course skiing came with its own sets of challenges for me. I kept losing you at Keystone or Vail.
If your Mom knew how many times I lost you, she’d have learned to ski and started skiing with us.
I just choose to look not at how many times I lost you but at how many times I found you.
When I lost you the first five times, I panicked. You were so little and these ski resorts are so large. I had a full head of hair when we started skiing, but after the first season, not so much.
When you went missing you wouldn’t panic or cry. You’d ask someone for a phone and call me. Laughing, without a worry in the world, you’d say, “Dad, I am here.”
You have always been happy within yourself. Wherever you go you bring sunshine with your smile.
This internal happiness is very rare.
Stay this way.
I was thinking what Jewish advice to give you today. I was a bit conflicted. I grew up in Soviet Russia, where there was no religion. I am not just talking about Judaism. From the time I was seven years old I was taught in school that “religion is the opioid of the masses.”
Until I was eighteen I thought that being Jewish was a nationality. And in Russia it was not a good one.
My parents and grandparents were not religious – both my grandfathers were scientists. My father is a scientist.
I realized that I have a unique perspective on religion. I’ve been looking at the Jewish religion as an outsider looking in. So here it comes.
What does it mean when a child, a girl, becomes Bat Mitzvah?
Since I grew in a very Jewish but also a very not religious family, I had to look the subject up. I went straight to the source of all modern wisdom: Wikipedia.
“Bat Mitzvah according to Jewish law is when the girl becomes responsible for her own actions… bears her own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition and ethics.”
Let me tell you what this means to you in theory. I want to stress the word theory.
1) Now you are eligible to be called to the Torah. Since Mom takes you only to orthodox synagogues where only men are called to the Torah, this is unlikely to happen.
Of course, if you really want to be called to the Torah, just say a word and I’ll drive you a reform synagogue. Even if it is on shabbos.
2) You have a right to be legally married, at least according to Jewish law.
I think what the sages really meant is that you now have the right to be married to books and to learning.
Also, knowing your Mom, for whom PG-13 really means PG-21, you’ll make one Jewish boy really, really happy after he finishes dental school; and you’ll become anyone your gentle heart desires to become, as long as people call you Hannah Katsenelson, MD or Hannah Katsenelson, CFA.
As a Katsenelson you carry the torch of your ancestors. They all had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and learning that doesn’t stop with college graduation.
My father, your Granpa Naum, already a PhD, went to university to study English when he was 76 years old. His mother (my grandmother) Emily (we gave you your middle name after her) studied English and took singing lessons well into her 70s. My father’s father, my grandfather Volodya, translated scientific papers from other languages well into his 80s. And this is just my father’s side of the family…
You learn for as long as your heart beats.
3) Until today, according to Jewish law, Mom and I were responsible for your actions.
Again, according to almighty Wikipedia, “Traditionally, the father of the bat mitzvah gives thanks to God that he is no longer punished for the child’s sins.”
Maybe other fathers have to do that; I don’t.
The only sin I can think of that you committed is being a better skier than your father. A 12-year-girl old being a better skier than 44-year-old man in his prime. This is just wrong.
4) Now you have a duty to follow the 613 laws of Torah. This is really the topic I want you to think about.
I want you to think of being Jewish as three things: tradition, religion, and philosophy. Where one starts and another begins is often hard to tell.
Here is what I suggest you do. Take religion like Americans have learned to take our current president –seriously but not literally. There is an incredible amount of wisdom in the Jewish philosophy.
However, when you have 613 rules (mitzvahs), it is very easy to get lost in the trees and not see the forest. The rest of the world is struggling to keep 10 commandments; Jews have got 603 more to follow.
As an outsider looking in, I can see how following all these rules can be overwhelming and can often turn into a meaningless journey driven by fear.
Just as you skied without fear, don’t do anything in life out of fear.
I love that Jewish religion and philosophy encourage you to question everything.
That is why there are three synagogues for every two Jews. We all need a synagogue we don’t go to.
Question everything. Look for meaning. If you accept all 613 commandments, do it by choice, not because you feel you have to.
Finally, in your life you’re responsible not just for yourself and your future family but for your brother and sister. And since Jonah and Mia Sarah are in the audience, this message is to you as well. Your siblings should always be the most important people in your life. Always.
Hannah, my sunshine, I know that when you grow up (which according to Jewish law starts today) you are going to become what you already are – an incredible, kind, thoughtful, human being who is going to keep lighting up everything around you with your presence.
Mom and I very proud of you.