“God Has Many Messengers”

A wise-for-her-years thirteen-year-old looks back on life

Many BAT MITZVAHS have “themes,” some painfully at odds with the formal values of Jewish culture. We at LILITH actually know of one bat mitzvah in Maryland that had a “mall” theme, and of another (in L.A.) that hosted a stripper! Other bat mitzvahs—though not morally clueless—can be strikingly out of touch with the authentic struggles and pressing questions of a teenage girl herself.
          On the following pages, we present, by way of contrast, a 13-year-old who finds a “theme” that truly speaks to the current journey of her open and roiling life, and that earns her, in the end, deserved entry into the ranks of Jewish womanhood. Barnstorming adulthood in a meaningful way is, after all, the whole point of adolescent initiations.
         What follows is Anna Schnur-Fishman‘s bat mitzvah speech, describing her “theme” in all its unfolding parts. Her service—and party—took place at Greenwood House, a Jewish nursing home in Trenton, New Jersey.

As a second-born child, I have always believed that 95% of the world consists of Lincoln, my older brother, and the other 5% gets shared by me and the other 4 billion people on this planet. So when it came time to plan my bat mitzvah I could only think in terms of what Lincoln had done at his bar mitzvah. And what I kept choking on—over and over—was that he had had four grandparents a this bar mitzvah, whereas I would only have one. Last spring, we lost three grandparents within five weeks. I wanted so much to have Bubbie and PopPop and Saba at my bat mitzvah in the same way that my brother had, but there was nothing I could do about it.

At the same time, I was also looking for a theme for my bat mitzvah—something that hinted at the young woman I was becoming, and that helped me see who I was. Lincoln loves Yiddishkeit and jazz, so his bar mitzvah was at a klezmer camp. But my theme just wasn’t coming into focus. Finally my mother helped me out.

“I hate to say this, Annie” she said, “But I think you’ve been handed a theme. It’s called loss. It’s not what you’ve chosen; it’s what’s chosen you, which in itself is a pretty grownup thing to get your mind around.” Mom said that in the face of difficult things in life, God sends us many messengers (“Harbay sheeluchin yesh la-Makom”), and that it is our task to find these messengers; they don’t just come knocking on your door. And that these messengers make sense out of painful things. All of a sudden, in a flash, I realized I wanted to have my bat mitzvah at Greenwood House. In this way, in some fashion, I thought my grandparents could come to my bat mitzvah.

And so this past year I committed myself to coming to Greenwood House every Shabbos, and although I love my school, my friends and my family—and more recently I also love clothes and makeup and manicures—somehow spending time here with Dora, Tilly, Estelle and others became the core of my week, the emotional center, the part of Shabbos that always felt like Shabbos. When I leave Greenwood House each week after davvening, I always feel happy. I also thought that committing to coming here weekly for a year, rain or shine, would be a grown-up thing to do (sometimes I had to make a half dozen calls to get a ride!). And I also wanted to see if I could actually feel myself growing up and becoming a bat mitzvah, if I could actually feel change. I think I did see myself grow in some ways, and that that experience in itself makes you a bat mitzvah.

When I went off to camp for a month this summer, the last thing I did before I left was come to Greenwood House to say goodbye to my friends. And when I returned from camp, the first thing I did was stop by to say hello and see if everybody was still okay. Honey Frank was still here, but after her sister and then her roommate Josephine died, she somehow didn’t recognize me anymore. The resident who would cry out unless I held her hand had died; Mrs. Spiegel—you’re still your peppery self; Archie—you had taken to wearing crazy sunglasses that made you look fabulous; Norman—you had lost sight in one eye but you were still, as always, amiable. And the woman who sits like a sentry in the hallway crocheting granny squares that her daughter-in-law then sews into afghans was still sitting there crocheting. More or less, I divined, after my summer camp absence, everything was still all right in the world.

The first thing I learned at Greenwood House is how rooted I feel being with old people. There are men here whose Galitzianer accents sound exactly like my PopPop’s, and women who kvell on and on just like all the other bubbies I’ve ever met. It gives me a sense of continuity, of a community through time. I loved it when my Saba used to talk about the old Jewish shtetl in Trenton, and when Pop-Pop told stories about Korostyshev. I love asking the residents about their lives: “But when the Cossacks came, Mr. Garfing, where did you hide?” I asked Honey why she never married. And I asked Harry how he remembered lullabies from Odessa. One of the residents here always called me Sylvia, so I learned to say, “I’m Sylvia? Fill me in! My memory isn’t too good these days.” Old people give young people such a feeling of well-being. I think society should put us together a lot more.

Bob Goldstein, a resident here who often sits outside on the bench, took my hand one day and told me his whole life story. “I had two daughters and a happy marriage,” he began, “and a business in the Bronx.” After a long meiseh, he was finished, and as he let go my hand, he said simply: “I just want you should know I was a person. I came from somewhere.” All year, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that. I love writing, and when I hear residents’ stories, they feel like books that will never be published, and as I talk to them, I can hear each chapter in the book, each page turning. Sometimes when I leave Greenwood House, I fantasize about what I would do if I were the president of a nursing home. I would definitely write biographies of each resident (with photos) and hang them in the halls, starting with Mr. Goldstein. And I would let residents bring in their own furniture and have bigger closets. And I would put a Starbucks where the atrium is, so there would be people dropping in all the time and it would be more lebedickeh—busy and lively. And I would definitely attach a school to this building.

There is a resident here who cries out a lot, but whenever I give her my hand she stops crying. And when I take it away, she starts crying again. And when I give my hand back, she stops and is comforted. It’s excruciating to walk away from her. If my school were connected to this building, kids could do their social studies homework while sitting here—writing with your right hand—and with your left hand you could be comforting somebody’s bubbieI guess the second thing I’ve learned here is that there are so many underutilized resources in the modern world. My left hand is completely underutilized. And so are old people, and so are children. I don’t think it was like this in the old shtetlach.

The third thing I realized here is how much fun it can be to visit. Not to make light of some residents’ confusion, but Harry always used to think I was his wife, which I enjoyed being very much. And Florence thought that the song, “How Much Is that Doggy in the Window?,” was a Shabbos zmira, and so I’d sing it with her on Shabbos. When I told a resident not long ago that I was having my bat mitzvah here, she got very excited. “Mazal tov!” she told me, “You’re having your blood pressure taken here? Don’t worry, darling, the doctor will take care of the whole thing!” My mother and I loved that exchange. It was so sweet of the resident to express her heartfelt concern, and so easy for us to be an appreciative audience. I find these conversations funny and comforting. There is such warmth in them—a kind of warmth that I experience only here.

I have received so much more then I gave at Greenwood House, and, ultimately, having my bat mitzvah here is a way to say thank you—which I didn’t realize it would be back when I started coming here a year ago. I will always remember this year in my life as a year apart. Not only because I became a bat mitzvah, but because my Bubble and Pop Pop and Saba died, and then my Aunt Gladys died, and my Great-Uncle Abe Lavinson, and then my young Aunt Ruth. It was a very difficult year—there is no way around that.

But God sent me so many messengers—Norman and Ida and Archie and Kate and Dr. Babad and Sally. Volunteers like Mr. Roberts and Len Epstein—they were shleechim (messengers) too. This year that I’ll be living with my grandmother at her house is a shaliach, and so was all the time I got to spend with my cousins, getting to know them better—even though it was at intensive care units and in shiva houses. I gained as much family as I lost. I learned that part of the point of sitting at shiva houses is to strengthen our connections to the living. I am thankful that my visits to Greenwood House framed my bat mitzvah year, that I learned what “Harbay sheeluchin yesh la-Makom” really means, and that it became such a bridge in my life.

When I got my new bat mitzvah dress a few weeks ago and put on my high heels, and put my hair up and my contacts in, and put on stockings and lip gloss, my mother said, “My gosh! You suddenly look like Bubbie!” She called for my father, and he told me, “Bubbie had wonderful taste. She would love you in this dress.” And when I got my first manicure on my own yesterday, I thought of my Aunt Gladys, who without question would have taken her god-daughter for a manicure on the day before she became a woman! And I’m sure my Uncle Abe is here, wondering when we get to eat already. And I’m sure my grandfathers kvelled hearing me layn Torah. And that my Aunt Ruth, a wonderful cook, is out there swapping recipes with Betty the Caterer.

At Greenwood House, I learned that even in the midst of sad things, our lives continue. That endings and beginnings, joys and sorrow, all happen at the same time, and life really does go on. Nina Frank, a wonderful resident here, an intellectual and a philosopher, who died not long ago and who I miss a lot, always would take me aside to gently teach me something important. She loved teaching children. She said to me once, “Anna, God gives us memories so that we can all smell roses in December.” And I think that’s really true. If we stop to think about roses, we really can smell them in December. And if I remember what Nina told me, then I can put her in this bat mitzvah speech, and then she’s here at my bat mitzvah.

Harbay sheeluchin yesh la-Makom. God has many messengers. God sends us huge tangles of messengers; we are each other’s messengers; and there are more messengers in this room then any of us will ever really figure out.

“The Lord is our keeper. The Lord holds all our right hands. She holds us in our sorrows and pushes us towards joys. From this day forward, and forevermore.” Amen.