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Jewish Journal

Her Side of the Mountain

A girl living in rural Washington comes to Los Angeles for herBat Mitzvah.

by Yehuda Lev

August 10, 2000 | 8:00 pm

After her Bat Mitzvah ceremony, Springsong Cooper holds up two loaves of challah in preparation for motzi.

After her Bat Mitzvah ceremony, Springsong Cooper holds up two loaves of challah in preparation for motzi.

Think Grimm. Not grim, but Grimm, as in fairy tales. You'll need a young heroine, a hero, an apparently unreachable goal, numerous obstacles and a friendly supporting cast.

Once upon a time (about a year ago), David and Ianthe Low, together with their newborn son Asher, flew from their home in Los Angeles to visit Ianthe's family on a ranch in Washington state.At a welcoming party they met a neighbor's child, Springsong Cooper, age 12. After some conversation, she confided in them that she had a goal - seemingly impossible to attain - of having a Bat Mitzvah. However, she had little hope of achieving this, because the obstacles seemed too great.

Springsong said that she is Jewish and that her mother, Carmela, speaks Hebrew, having spent her high school years in Israel. Springsong's father, Richard, is not Jewish. The family's one on-going Jewish connection has come through her grandparents in Los Angeles, Gerson and Norma Glickman. Every week the Glickmans forward their copy of The Jewish Journal to the Coopers.

Springsong lives, with her parents and three siblings, in a one-room house on a mountaintop in Washington. The house was built by her parents and lacks an indoor toilet and running water. It has no refrigeration and no computers, and it obtains electricity largely from a solar panel which is not too effective in a normal Washington winter. (The family refuses to link up with the electric grid because the power comes from a nuclear generator.) To get from Springsong's home to the nearest paved highway means walking downhill for two and a half miles on a rutted path. In winter, when the snow is thigh-high, the four children meet the school bus on two horses, which they tether until the return trip. The return hike is, of course, uphill.

The nearest Jewish community, Spokane, is a four-hour drive. There are no other Jewish students in Springsong's school, and the only social club in the school is Christian Fellowship. She occasionally attends their meetings; all of her friends are there.

The three talked for some time until both Lows were convinced that Springsong was serious about her goal. David Low recalls telling her, when they left, "We'll make it happen. "Back in Los Angeles, David met with Arthur Pinchev of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, who agreed to provide Springsong with a two-week scholarship at the institute's Camp Alonim and to hold the ceremony there.

Then David talked with Cantor Shira Adler of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, who is also an alumna of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. She took on the task of teaching Springsong her haftarah and the other readings and procedures she would have to learn. Adler also convinced her Bar/Bat Mitzvah class at the temple to "adopt " Springsong as their class project.

That still left a communications problem. The Lows sent Springsong a battery-operated tape recorder and telephone, and e-mail connections were established through her school. Adler explained the procedures, including the use of a yad with which to indicate the line of the Torah being read. Intrigued by this, Springsong made her own yad out of clay. (Her older brother, Ben Morningstar, makes paper out of nettles; the family takes to creative ways of providing for its needs.)

Over the following months, Springsong and her mother worked on her readings and Hebrew pronunciation. The Torah reading for the week of her Bat Mitzvah included the sending by Joshua of 12 men into Canaan to spy out the land. Ten of them tried to discourage the Israelites from continuing on their way; the other two, you will recall, told them to push on regardless of risk. It was to serve her well as her d'var Torah.Money was found to cover the air fares for Springsong, Carmela, Richard and the youngest Cooper, Lev. They met with the class, which had taken its responsibilities seriously and presented its honorary member with a stunning hand-woven tallit. When Springsong attended her first Bat Mitzvah a week before her own, she was amazed - her favorite word in Los Angeles - at the possessions everyone had and at the effort that girls put into making up their faces in the morning. The class did not seem as surprised by the lack of amenities in her home as by the fact that she had never visited Disneyland.

The day, June 24, finally arrived. Springsong read her haftarah perfectly before a crowded and extremely attentive audience. She concluded her explanation of the Torah portion with these words:"I was given this chance to have my Bat Mitzvah at Camp Alonim, and at first I thought, 'No, I'll only have a few months to prepare, and I don't even know how to read Hebrew.' But then I realized that ... it wasn't going to be easy and there would be obstacles to overcome, but I knew that if I trusted in myself and God, I would get here by trying my best. So here I am with God's help and guidance. I made it. I overcame my obstacles and I had a great time doing it. "

Springsong Cooper has returned to the mountaintop in Washington. But she uses a new name. With God's help, Shira Cooper will live happily ever after.

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