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First Bat Mitzvah in Crete…

  |   Events, Historical Information

Letter from London – The first Bat Mitzvah in 2,000 years
By Antony Lerman  |  12/08/2010

As the last of our family and friends leave the old Venetian port city of Hania, Crete, after witnessing and celebrating with us the Bat Mitzvah of our daughter in the island’s only synagogue, we are left with the most extraordinary and moving memories


It’s not easy for a 13-year old, even a very savvy one, to grasp that a moment in which she is participating and living through, and in which she is the centre of attention, is one of historical significance. Yet the fact that this was not only the first Bat Mitzvah on the island since the Jews of Crete were expelled by the Nazis and perished, but also the first Bat Mitzvah in over 2,000 years of Cretan Jewish history, seemed genuinely to touch our daughter as she comported herself with great dignity, composure and maturity during the ceremony.


Though uniqueness was forced upon us, we embraced it willingly. We don’t live on Crete, but the exquisite Romaniote synagogue here has become the closest we have to one of which we can describe ourselves as ‘members’. Rebuilt in the mid-1990s and rededicated and reopened in 2000, it barely has anything like a traditional congregation. There’s not many more than a handful of Jews living in Hania. But there is a wider circle of friends who visit the island regularly, transient Israelis and European Jews (and some from other continents) who have passed through and formed an attachment to the place, and people of other faiths or none who have found something very special about the peace and tranquility of the synagogue, despite the hustle and bustle of the tourist trade, which speaks to them. We count ourselves as part of this ‘community’.


There is no resident rabbi. Nikos Stavroulakis, the man who single-handedly generated the momentum and raised the money to rebuild the synagogue, and who has been the Director since it reopened, leads prayers on Erev Shabbat and prays early on many other days. But for the chagim, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a rabbi comes from England to take the services. From the outset, Nikos, whose father was from Crete and who returned after the war to reclaim his father’s house, was determined that the synagogue not become only a memorial to the Jews of Crete, and certainly not a museum, but a living entity. It wasn’t possible to bring a rabbi for the Bat Mitzvah, but my older brother, with many years of experience taking services in a small Jewish community in a town north of London, took the lead.


Not being Sephardi Jews, we were kindly given permission to craft a service which basically followed that of the Liberal Jewish movement in Britain, with some Sephardi touches, including the torah-chanting of my daughter. We shared readings between family members, men and women, two of my nieces opened the Ark and my older son and daughter were hagba and gelila, handling the rather fragile torah scroll with some care.


The Bat Mitzvah girl took the theme of ‘giving’ from the parasha (Re’eh) for her d’var torah, and Nikos Stavroulakis discussed the question of ‘what is Jewishness?’ in remarks he addressed to our daughter and the multicultural and multifaith gathering of family and friends. Inclusiveness was the watchword of the entire occasion, which involved everyone giving of themselves and being open to receive something in return.


You can’t dwell in history. We wanted to hold our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah in the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Hania for its own sake, because we thought it would have more meaning for her and for us. In a sense, it was also an act of solidarity, but we did not know it was going to be such when we conceived of the idea a year ago. In January 2010, two arson attacks, probably carried out by far-right sympathizers, badly damaged two synagogue outbuildings and part of the synagogue ceiling. It was a deeply dispiriting moment, but there was no question of being cowed by such intimidation. The destroyed structures were rebuilt and the synagogue repaired, repainted and re-polished, and it now looks better than ever. The Bat Mitzvah made a very strong statement: the work goes on.


Who can say whether our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah represents but a brief flowering, an event which will not be repeated, or something more? I have learnt not to second guess such questions. For me, European Jewish life is full of surprises and in the last 20 years has confounded the doom-mongers. This Bat Mitzvah was one more of those delightful surprises.

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The letter originally appeared in Eretz Aharet, and was reprinted with permission from the author.