The bar mitzva king

Why do unobservant Diaspora families celebrate occasion in Israel?

Bar Mitzva kotel 88 248 (photo credit: Maya Spitzer )
Bar Mitzva kotel 88 248
(photo credit: Maya Spitzer )
Just inside the Dung Gate to Jerusalem's Old City, a taxi's trunk opens and the proprietor of Rituals Unlimited starts unloading the tools of his trade: Two market baskets packed with prayer books and tallitot, a set of tefillin, several skullcaps, a small plastic folding table, a wrapped Torah scroll and two copies of his book of anecdotes, Off the Wall. The scene has repeated itself more than a thousand times during Rabbi Jay Karzen's 23-year reign as Jerusalem's bar mitzva king. Maybe 2,000 times. He doesn't keep track. "I try to make each one like it's my first; new and fresh," says Karzen, a 74-year-old former American pulpit rabbi. He believes he's the only Orthodox rabbi emceeing bar and bat mitzva ceremonies in Israel as a full-time profession. Yet the majority of his clients don't even belong to a synagogue. "People often ask if I'm Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. I'm really an Orthodox rabbi, but I always say that those words don't appear in the Torah. Look through the entire Five Books of Moses and you'll never see 'Orthodox,' 'Conservative,' 'Reform' or 'Reconstructionist.' You'll find the words 'holy' and 'joyous.' And that's what I am - a holy, joyous rabbi." Karzen's reputation spreads virally. Clients, tour guides and travel agents recommend him. The families who hire him - at $400 for the complete package, $500 with a party afterward - are mostly American, but he's had people from Germany, France, South America, Australia, England and even Mauritius. Today, he has back-to-back bar and bat mitzva ceremonies. Both will take place on a shady platform against the Southern Wall, inside the Jerusalem Archeological Park. "The Kotel is obviously the most famous site," Karzen says. "But it's very noisy and it's hard for the women to see over the mehitza. I have to get there very early to reserve a spot. So I always tell them that here at Robinson's Arch it's quiet, peaceful - and a very holy place because it's an extension of the Kotel." There is another advantage to the Southern Wall in that the attire of the guests does not matter quite as much. "Many people don't realize there is such a thing as improper dress," says Karzen. "And the women don't know to cover their heads. At the Kotel, I tell them beforehand what to wear. Here, I don't make an issue of it unless they ask me." THE MORNING'S bar mitzva, Greg Preiss of Pasadena, California, arrives bareheaded in dress slacks, button-down shirt and a navy sweater. Though Greg went to Hebrew school at the Conservative synagogue to which the family belongs, he has come with only one ritual object, the tallit belonging to his father, Steve. Sixteen-year-old Ali opens a pastel tallit bag and extracts the pink crocheted kippa she wore at her bat mitzva, ready to lend it to her brother. Karzen waves it away with a smile and plants a black satin yarmulke on Greg's head instead. "I thought if I was going to have a bar mitzva, I'd rather have it in Israel, because that's where the Jews are," explains Greg, who practiced for his big day with the cantor at his synagogue. His mother's side of the family did not make the trip. However, his paternal grandfather grew up in Israel and there are Tel Aviv-area relatives coming for the occasion. They missed Ali's party in California three years ago, and seem pleased to be among the intimate group of celebrants today. "We thought it would be special to see family we don't see very often," says Steve. "Shari's family will see the video," Karzen tells them soothingly. A photographer and videographer are among the services he provides. The bar mitzva king - so named by the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum - has learned to expect little and improvise a lot. "I have no control over [the children's] ritual abilities or talents," says Karzen. "Sometimes the travel agent tells them that when they meet with the rabbi, he'll give them everything they have to do. And they know nothing. I have to give them a transliterated Shema and Torah blessings." Why do such marginal Jewish families expend the time and money to have their child's coming of age in Israel? "They want their child to know they're Jewish," says Karzen, whose own bar mitzva was in Chicago in 1948. That doesn't mean the child is always enthusiastic. The rabbi has dealt with reluctant, even hostile, teens. He recalls one boy, brought against his will to Masada by his divorced father, who refused to participate in the service. To Karzen's relief, the day's celebrants are pleasantly cooperative. Karzen rests the Torah on the folding table and gives a brief history of the surrounding area as he shepherds Greg Preiss through the process of donning tallit and tefillin. He explains that the First and Second Temples stood just on the other side of the wall where they are now gathered. Grasping the hands of the bar mitzva and his father, Karzen encourages them to sing and clap. "Three thousand years ago, King David wrote the psalms we're singing. He is looking down on us and smiling now, because Greg represents the future of Am Yisrael," Karzen says as he leads the guests - including Ali and 10-year-old Maddie - in "Am Yisrael Hai" and "Adon Olam." With religiously observant families, Karzen facilitates a full morning service. With the rest, he's pared it down to the liturgical bare bones. There's also a short speech by the boy or girl (Karzen offers one they can adapt), an inspirational story from the rabbi and a blessing recited by the parents. He brings candy for the guests to lob at the celebrant, and presents a certificate at the end. "This service takes an hour and I promise it won't be boring," Karzen tells prospective clients. "We dance, we sing, I hug the child." FOR SOME Diaspora families, a small ceremony at Israel's holy places packs a greater spiritual punch than one at home. For others, it serves to avoid embarrassment in front of hundreds of guests. And for unaffiliated families, it is one of few options available since many congregations only permit bar mitzvas for children in their religious schools. "Why would I do a service like this when a congregation wouldn't? My feeling is that I can turn them on," says Karzen. "Jerusalem is a magical city and they really feel Jewish for the first time in their life. You never can tell how that will affect them." In his self-published book, Karzen shares excerpts from messages sent by clients. There are requests for "non-religious" bar mitzvas, blue tefillin, shortened Torah portions, dancing yeshiva boys and ululating women. One family insisted on a summer bar mitzva for a boy turning 13 the following winter. He's always found ways to accommodate or forge a compromise. "There are times I've even had the feeling that the kid isn't really Jewish," Karzen confides. "I don't ask. My justification is that it's not a wedding. I'm not marrying them. The worst that can happen is that a non-Jew has an aliya to the Torah. It doesn't have permanent significance." As the Preiss service finishes, four members of the Razdolsky family from Illinois approach along with a handful of Israeli cousins. Marjey Razdolsky smiles as her father snaps her photo against the backdrop of the massive stones. "I don't go to Hebrew school, but I had a Hebrew teacher coming to my house once or twice a week since I was five years old," says Marjey, the youngest of Yan and Anna Razdolsky's four children and the first to mark her religious milestone in Israel. "She will now talk to God and thank Him that she is Jewish," announces Karzen. Taking a sheaf of papers from a folder stamped with the "Forever Smiles" logo of her dad's orthodontic practice, Marjey sings the Shema and a version of the Amida in a clear, sweet voice. Karzen directs Marjey to gather and kiss the tzitzit from the corners of her pink-and-white striped tallit. "Just as these strings are strong and not easily ripped, they remind us that whatever corner of the world you're from - Russia, America, South America, New York, Paris - a Jew should never think of ripping himself away, God forbid, from the Jewish people." He places the Torah scroll in Marjey's arms as her parents look on, beaming. "You're hugging the Torah, you're embracing this gift," says Karzen. "Walk around with it so everyone can touch God's gift." ANNA RAZDOLSKY is from Ukraine, Yan from Moscow. "We grew up without religion," says Anna. "Because we were Jewish and persecuted, we were allowed to leave Russia and we chose to go to the United States because we had family there, but Israel was always part of our hearts. Our dream was to bring our children to this land to show them this is where Jews came from." She turns to Marjey and to 17-year-old Ricky. "This is your land," she tells her kids, "where you can bring your own children to continue the tradition of the Jewish people." The bar mitzva king puts the prayer books in the plastic baskets, wraps the Torah and breaks down the folding table. The guests help him carry the accoutrements up to a taxi at the Dung Gate. This was not where Karzen thought he'd end up. Although he'd planned on becoming a rabbi since boyhood, he and his wife, Ruby, served congregations in Iowa and Illinois. Aliya was not on their radar screen until 1985. "Our two children came after high school and stayed, and we didn't want to be so far away," says Karzen, a resident of Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood. Now the elder members of a growing family in the Holy Land, the Karzens threw a big party at the Western Wall in 1998 on the bar mitzva of their aliya. Aside from Rituals Unlimited for the younger set, Karzen also voluntarily runs the bereavement and cemetery program of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. He handles ritual and religious concerns including sales of burial plots and reinterments in Israel. In addition, he serves as the rabbi-on-board for AACI cruises. But he's never too busy to stay in touch with former bnei mitzva. "I always tell them that if they ever have questions about Judaism, they can e-mail me and I promise I'll reply the same day," he says. "We've had many kids who've gone on to study here, and a few even made aliya. That makes me feel good. I touched them somehow and made them feel Jewish pride."