The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony marks the moment in time a Jewish child leaves his youth to enter adulthood. According to Jewish tradition the tender age of 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy, is a pivotal age when we appoint our children into taking responsibility for their own actions as they become aware of the difference between right and wrong. For the first time, our children are faced with being responsible for a mixture of moral choices they will spend the rest of their existence battling over and engaging with.
Being that I am the wife of a Rabbi, I have had attended a fair share of Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. But this week I was invited to a most unlikely celebration at Universal Studios. This Bar Mitzvah was an event that stood for perseverance, survival, morality and the taking of witness to our Jewish story. This Bar Mitzvah boy was not thirteen. He was not on the verge of teenage-hood contemplating his exit of youth. He was not spending time worrying about colors, venues, or which flowers to choose from. Branko Lustig was an eighty-year-old Holocaust survivor. This past Monday, Branko’s Bar Mitzvah was spent acknowledging his thirteen-year-old inner child that was forced to disregard his original Bar Mitzvah spent in Auschwitz during World War 2. He was not afforded the opportunity to be called up to the Torah with all of his peers celebrating his brand new phase of life. Instead, his childhood left in a whisper the day the Nazis marched into his small village in Croatia. This upcoming May at the “March of the living” event that will be taking place in Auschwitz, Branko will have the opportunity to march with ten thousand students as they finally celebrate his formal Bar Mitzvah in front of the barracks where he spent his original teenage years. The launching of this event took place at the Universal back lot where Phil Blazer, the president of Blazer Communications and JLTV and publisher of The National Jewish News; along with his son, Rabbi Mark Blazer honored Branko with his very own Tallit as they kicked off this momentous ceremony.
Branko Lustig, the executive producer and Academy Award winner spent much of his life giving voice to the six million who died by retelling their story over and over in films like Schindler’s List, War and Remembrance, and The Winds of War, to name a few. Rather than waste away in despair and become a victim to his past, Branko rose above it and decided to become a leader, a beacon of hope, and a voice to those who were no more.
During his Bar Mitzvah speech, Branko recalled his days in Auschwitz filled with horror and terror. In Branko’s experience, his coming of age story was laced with barbarity as he spent his teenage years being forced to stare evil in the face daily. His awareness between good and evil became more clear and explicit than ever. Branko told of his stay in the camps and the many children, who tried to escape, yet were found only to meet their fate on the gallows where they were hung in front of Branko’s eyes. He recollected their last words, which were, “Remember me, and never forget to tell the world I existed.” Branko had kept his promise and when he wrapped himself inside his Tallis at the age of eighty, accepting a role of leadership he has proven to have already accepted with humility, there was not a dry eye in the house as we witnessed the obvious truth that he was wrapping every Bar Mitzvah boy that died years ago along with him inside his heart.
With my own daughter’s Bat Mitzvah quickly approaching in just five short months, I found this event especially poignant. What important messages should I be imparting over to her? I thought about the many choices she will eventually encounter and I wondered what words I could give her that would help guide her in the event her choices become confusing or mystifying. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is that opportunity that lets her know that her Higher Power is very much approachable and available in times of despair when choices are perplexing. It is this pivotal time I want to try and impart how important it is that she use her gift of faith to be her guide even through the most difficult times and it is a time we acknowledge her transition from childhood into adulthood as a new up and coming leader for our next generation.
This year when my daughter becomes Bat Mitzvah, I want her to remember her responsibility in taking every opportunity that is afforded to her as she becomes the beacon of light she already is to so many to tell the Jewish story by living as an example. As Branko demonstrated so valiantly, it is our responsibility to reveal the light of God and His availability by standing up to the world’s brutality and tragedy by “Choosing Life”, as Phil Blazer said. If we all choose life and choose to live with purpose, choose to live with dignity, and with a higher sense of consciousness, then we have fulfilled our obligation as Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. If we choose life, we choose to uplift the world to a higher intention and a commitment to righteousness as Branko has proven by the way he has lived his life for the past eighty years.
By standing at the very spot Branko witnessed death and destruction with ten thousand Jewish children standing by his side as he takes his ceremonial step as a Bar Mitzvah, it will be making the statement that we have taken the responsibility to continue the Jewish legacy from father to son, mother to daughter despite the heartbreak and betrayal that we have come to known. It means we have decided to live with a spirituality that promises to transform pain into purpose. It means we have chosen the path of strength and resilience.
When my daughter is graced with her own Bat Mitzvah this upcoming summer, I will impart the very message I received this past Monday, that her place amongst the Jewish people is important, meaningful and relevant. Because by acknowledging an eighty year old’s coming of age ceremony sixty-seven years later, it means something. It means he had chosen life. And to live every day with meaning and purpose should be the essence of every Bar/Bat Mitzvah boy or girl.