This was my first Shabbat in Israel. It was an important one as well. As someone who observes Shabbat, I was grateful that the day was not full of rigorous events or much of anything; I was able to relax and have my day of rest.
I had two distinct goals in mind when I decided to go on Birthright. The first goal was something Nathan told me I could do: have my Bar Mitzvah. The second goal was something that I had wanted to do for a while at this point: meet a Sepharadi who could speak Ladino and converse with them. I later came up with two more goals while on the trip.
When I was on the plane to Israel, the man sitting next to me wrapped his tefillin and said his prayers. I had never used tefillin before, so I was watching and observing how it was done. He offered to let me use his tefillin, to which I said I didn’t know how to use it. He graciously offered to teach me, and so we went through how to put on the tefillin, the names of each part, and the prayers. I then decided to, during this trip, buy a set for myself. This was the first goal I came up with during this trip.
The second goal I came up with during this trip was to buy a specific style of kippah. The Sepharadim sometimes wear a specific kind of kippah called the Bukhari kippah. It is a kippah with a band and a flat top; imagine flipping a cat food bowl upside down and you’ll have a good idea of how this kippah looks. My family makes these styles of kippot and I had wanted one for a while. I came to the conclusion that I should get one on this trip because there is no better place to get authentic Jewish wear than Israel.
The Friday before this Shabbat, we had the pleasure of visiting Old Jerusalem. One of the things we got to do was go to a market. Our guide, Lilach, said that there was a store that sold mezuzot and that some of the mezuzot cases were made out of Jerusalem stone. Jerusalem stone is the specific type of limestone that all buildings have to be made of in Old Jerusalem. At the mention of a religious shop, I asked Lilach if there was a shop that sold tefillin. It was, after all, my goal to buy a set. Lilach said ‘yes’ and showed us all the store with our desired objects.
The store sold amazingly beautiful objects. In the jewelry section, there were gorgeous Hanukkiot and mezuzot. In the fabrics section, I was in awe at the quality of the talitot. I asked the woman who was walking around helping us if she had any tefillin. She showed me the tefillin. It was great to see it, but that was all I got to do. The cheapest set she had, she said, was 500 NIS. The other set was 900 NIS, which was the same kind as the one man who sat next to me on the plane had. I only had 470 NIS. I told this to her, and she said that she could lower the price a bit of me, but I made it clear that I couldn’t because I still needed money to pay for food later. And so, I couldn’t buy tefillin.
In the same store there were kippot. At this point, I was really trying to find the kind of kippot I wanted. The store sold kippot, but none of them were in the style I wanted. I was debating whether or not I wanted to spend money of a kippah that I didn’t want or whether or not I should keep trying to find the style I wanted. I ended up not buying any of the kippot and was pretty bummed. I remember leaving the store sullen and voicing my frustration for my lack of funds to my friend, Benjamin. He said that it was lame, and I continued being a bit downcast.
We left the market to get some lunch for which we had to use our own money, hence the dilemma for the tefillin. I needed to use the bathroom, so I went searching for the nearest one. I found a group member, Sachel, and we went searching together. We ended up going the wrong way, turning around, and then finding the bathroom. On this erroneous path, however, I saw a store that sold Bukhari kippot. I immediately told Sachel that I was going to go buy one, went to the bathroom, and then went to the store. The man working there helped me pick out a kippah that fit me and looked good. It was expensive, being 150 NIS. This was the price for a hand made kippah in a unique style, though. I asked the miller why others didn’t sell this kind often and he told me that it was because most people really don’t want them. They are niche and are really only sold by tailors or millers.
I bought the kippah and was delighted. I had told many in my group about my goals and so I shared with them my success. It looked good, in my opinion. Several group members were happy for me. Some had complimented me. In a way, I feel as though it was good that I didn’t buy the tefillin and had waited. I am religious and I do believe that everything happens for a reason. And so, I am grateful to Hashem.
The next day, this Shabbat, I had my Bar Mitzvah.
We started with the B’nei Mitzvah prep for all the others who wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah. One person in our group hadn’t ever heard the Aliyah prayers before. I knew the prayers and so helped her practice the words and the tune. Later during the Bar Mitzvah, she did very well for someone who had just heard these prayers that very day. She did very well in general, actually. But that’s jumping ahead. During the prep workshop, the woman leading the prep said that we needed to prepare a speech for our B’nei Mitzvah and that we needed to find someone to read our Torah portion. I wanted to read my own, but they didn’t tell us what portion we would have been reading. I didn’t have enough time to practice when I did find out, so I just asked for an Israeli to read it for me. I then sat down and wrote my speech in my journal. I wanted to write it in Ladino, and so I did.
I put on my kippah that I bought the day before, got dressed, and went to the ceremony. When it came time for me to go up, the woman who led the prep called my name: “Ya’amor, ya’amor, ya’amor, please rise, please rise, please rise Abahu ben Yana.” Since my father is not Jewish, I decided to not use his name in my Hebrew name. It had nothing to do with not respecting him or loving him – I love my father very much – instead I just used my Jewish mother’s name, Jana (pronounced Yana). I went up to the Torah scroll and sang the prayers, following the customs I knew. One of the Israelis read the Torah, and then I said the closing prayer. I was the second to last person to do my B’nei Mitzvah, the last person being one of my friends. She went up next, and we all went to the front to say our speeches.
The way this worked is that we split up the B’nei Mitzvah into groups of three. Since we had seven, though, it was one group of three and one group of four. I was in the last one. Everyone was saying their speeches, and then I said mine. In Ladino first, and then I translated it on the spot so that everyone could understand.
“La famiya mia no fue aparte de un temple por unos sinko jenerasiones. Ansi, no tuvimos la habilidad d’tener los kostumbres ortodoshikos. Ma de ser djidio nunka fue problema; la identidad s’faradi mia siempre mi fuerza.
Ashta sinko anyos antes, no me preocupo nada. Ashta keria ir a una sinagoga konserbativa. No pude prover ke era djidio porke no tuvimos las kredensiales: la famiya mia no las nesesitava. Siempre oravamos topi mosotros.
No fuimos djidios en los ojos d’los otros.
Ansi este bar mitzva m’importa. Troka komo vean el mundo a mosotros. Marka ke si, seamos djidios – ke somos djidios. Ke so djidio.”
“My family hasn’t been a part of a temple or synagogue for some five generations. So, we didn’t have the ability to have the traditional orthodox customs. But being Jewish never was a problem; my Sephardic identity my strength.
Until five years ago, nothing worried me. Until I wanted to go to a Conservative synagogue. I couldn’t prove that I was Jewish because we didn’t have the credentials. We never needed them. We always prayed amongst ourselves. (Clarification: because we couldn’t prove that one of our mothers in our matrilineage was Jewish by going to a synagogue, there was no proof that we were indeed Jewish.)
We weren’t Jews in the eyes of the others.
So this Bar Mitzvah is important to me. It changes how the world sees us…”
At this point, I started crying. I had kept this hidden for the most part. I didn’t like sharing this information because I didn’t like being rejected as a Jew. But now I was sharing this and I was happy. I was happy because this Bar Mitzvah changed things. I was crying, almost at the end of my speech, with my friend hugging me. She was also crying. I finally finished, saying:
“It marks that we are Jewish. That I am Jewish.”
I started crying again. Being able to finally declare that I am Jewish and being recognized by my fellows was too much for me. It was something that I had wanted for such a long time, and now I had it. I looked around and realized that many of the other people in our bus group were tearing up or somehow emotionally affected. My friend said her speech, which was also very good, and then everyone celebrated. Many people congratulated us, gave us hugs, and said very kind words. I was jubilant.
The day continued. We went to a lecture later about the Jewish identity. The speaker, Avraham, talked about Judaism being a culture rather than a religion. This was an interesting concept, but one that he had evidence for. He was comedic many times, which only made the lecture more enjoyable. We all had different feelings about the lecture. I liked it, along with some of the others. Some people fell asleep because it was so long. Others didn’t pay attention because it was so long. Still others thought that the lecture was boring. We didn’t speak for too long about the lecture since we then went to celebrate New Years.
This part of the story is important because it is a story about one of my goals. We all went in different groups in different directions within the boundaries detailed by Lilach. We had three hours to celebrate in whichever responsible way we wanted. After walking around for awhile, my friend Xander came up to me and excitedly told me some great news: he found a Ladino speaker!
Now this doesn’t sound like amazing news, does it? To understand why we were both excited, to have to understand that we’re both Jews who love languages. He is Ashkenazi and I am Sephardi. He learned Yiddish, which has a good amount of speakers in the hundred thousands, while I am learning Ladino, which has about fifty to eighty thousand speakers in Israel. That number was collected in the year 2000. Many Ladino speakers didn’t teach their children and were thus very old. I can only imagine that the number of speakers is drastically less now.
Xander took me to where he had heard some Ladino speakers and I talked to one. He responded to my Ladino with Ladino at first, but then started speaking English. I found this very strange: why wouldn’t a native speaker of a moribund language be delighted to find another person with whom he can speak? I asked him about whether his kids spoke el espanyol muestro, and he said ‘no’. I asked him why, and he said ‘because they didn’t want to’. As the generations went on, the people spoke less and less Ladino. I asked him if this worried him. He said this: “No, life goes on.” This hurt me. He knew that the language would die off. He knew that this language was important to him; he said “si, es muy importante” when I asked him if it was important to him. Yet he accepted this fate. I asked him about other questions, such as Sephardic jewelry and customs. He didn’t have any answers. He claimed that Sepharadim are Jews. They pray like others. The jewelry question just confused him. The dearth of cultural knowledge made me sad. The imminent death of the language of the Sepharadim, a treasure among many, made me even sadder. I thought of the ending of one Ladino poem I read: “Mi spanyol kerido”. This relationship between a people and their language is a strong one, many times. Within this language exists the culture and history of a people. This link was dying off. With it, the history and treasure of many of our forefathers and foremothers. I ended the conversation with “Munchas gracias, ma te pido a ti: ensenya a tus ijos el espanyol muestro. Kero ke tenia la oportunidad de aprenderlo kuando era joven.” With that, I left and continued my night.
This Shabbat was beautiful and amazing. It was sad and emotional. Above all, I was grateful for the opportunities given to me by Birthright and Hillel. Andrew Dalcher
University of Oregon Class of 2019