Three britot and a bar mitzva

Why do we Israelis have such large families? Some speculate that we want to replace those murdered in the Holocaust.

Brit mila
In one week, I’m invited to be present at three separate ceremonies for eight-day-old boys being welcomed into the Covenant of Father Abraham. Still another boy is turning 13 and taking responsibility for following Torah commandments.
On such a celebratory week, how can I not think of chilly Iceland, the country where a law is being proposed to ban circumcision? Iceland has a baby problem. According to the Iceland Review, the Icelandic rate of childbirth has never been lower in the years since record keeping began in 1853. Just 1.75 children are born in the lifetime of each woman, far short of the 2.1 needed for long-term population stability.
France is the only European country that reaches replacement numbers. All the others are losing their native-born populations, a negative momentum for a country’s future.
Israeli women, on the other hand, have 3.1 children per woman. Birthrates usually decline with higher education, but we are also among the most educated women in the world, with more women already employed in hi-tech than in most Western countries.
Icelanders beware. Global warming may be eroding the Iceland glacier at an alarming rate, but Icelanders would be wise to worry about their declining population and not about the core religious practices of Abrahamic peoples.
Which brings me to the specifics of the celebrations.
On the Fast of Esther, which precedes Purim, Alon Yehuda Ben Tzur entered the Covenant of Abraham. He’s the son of two Sabras and the quintessential Israeli blending of Yemen and Eastern European Jewish genes.
The ceremony had an extra emotional element because Shai Ben Tzur is a terrorism survivor. He was in the line for coffee at Café Hillel in Jerusalem on September 9, 2003, when a student from Bir Zeit University hit the switch of his explosive belt. Seven persons were murdered, 50 wounded. Shai was among the most seriously wounded and had a long recovery.
A property lawyer and developer, seven years ago he met and married Judith, an educator. Alon is their fifth child.
“Alon means ‘oak,’ a tree legendary to builders for its handsomeness and strength,” says Shai. The middle name, Yehuda, honors a maternal grandfather and the biblical leader from whose tribe the Messiah will come. Because it was a fast day, no food was served at the brit. A festive dinner followed in the evening.
JOCELYN AND Adam Block, two American recent immigrants who met in Jerusalem, are the parents of Netanel Akiva. Their baby was named for Adam’s paternal grandparents, Norman and Ethel, of San Antonio, Texas.
Norman was born in Indiana in 1907 to immigrant parents from Lithuania. His family moved to San Antonio in the ’20s, and he went into the women’s clothing business, writing poetry while serving customers.
Ethel’s family lived in Moisés Ville, the grasslands of Argentina, the first Jewish agricultural settlement in North and South America. The original settlers, escaping pogroms and persecution, had been swindled, and were eventually rescued by German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice Moshe Hirsch, for whom they named their town Kiryat Moshe, later Hispanicized to Moisés Ville.
After his success in Argentina, the Baron launched his 1891 plan to settle Jews in North and South America on farms. My own family got to Colchester, Connecticut, that way.
Ethel, 24, and already widowed with a child, made her way from Argentina to San Antonio, where she met and married businessman-poet Norman.
Jocelyn’s family is from Long Island, and now in Florida.
Adds Adam Block about the name: “‘Netanel’ in the Torah is the prince of the tribe of Issachar who brings an offering on the second day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. Our son was about to be born with his arm outstretched preceding his head. Thankfully, he took it in before being born, but this reminded us of the story of the birth of Ya’akov [Jacob], and Akiva is the Aramaic of Ya’akov.”
The Block banquet offers bagels and muffins and brewed coffee, in recognition of their American background.
EITAN MOSHE Liberty, son of Yohanna and Michael, entered the Covenant of Abraham 24 hours after Netanel Akiva. A different Jerusalem synagogue, but same format: morning prayers, the ceremony and breakfast. Here the tables are set with croissants, macarons, éclairs, and petits fours.
Michael’s parents are from Tunisia, a Jewish community that goes back 2,000 years, and from Paris. Yohanna’s family is from Morocco and Algeria, but she was born in Nice. She and Michael met in Israel, where they both studied optometry and fittingly named their shop “Chic.”
Eitan Moshe’s name? “He’s baby No. 6, and we’ve already named other children for our relatives,” says Yohanna. “We like ‘Eitan’ because it means strength, and he’ll need that. In the Torah portion, Moshe [Moses] prays for compassion for the people of Israel, so we added that.”
Why do we Israelis have such large families? Some speculate that we want to replace those murdered in the Holocaust. Others say it’s because we are religious; but so-called secular families have large families, too. Still others insist that even with our many national challenges, we are great optimists about the future. An enigma for demographers.
AND THE bar mitzva? Readers of these pages will remember the story of Ebenezer Horaling, 35, who was rammed by a terrorist as he got off the bus from Kiryat Arba to Gush Etzion, where he worked as a school custodian. Ebenezer and Miriam made aliya from the northeastern Indian border state of Mizoram. They consider themselves members of the Menashe tribe, lost 27 centuries ago.
As Ebenezer hovered between life and death in intensive care, the bar mitzva date kept changing. At last, Magen Israel chants from the Torah on parashat Zachor, when Jews are commanded to remember Amalek, the first to attack us after our Exodus.
The party is in Kiryat Arba/Hebron.
The bar mitzva boy, whom his friends just call Magen, is surrounded by hundreds of friends and relatives, many from among Israel’s 3,000 Bnei Menashe, who claim descent from one of the Ten Tribes deported in 722 BCE. Magen is the oldest of six siblings. What an ingathering of nations! The spirit is ebullient: Dad Ebenezer is here! He’s still in a wheelchair, still in rehab, but on the metaphorical road to recovery.
Down the real road from the bar mitzva party is the famous cave purchased by Abraham as a family burial place. It was Abraham who was first promised a land and many descendants. Could be that’s the solution to the demographers’ enigma.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.