Jewish Journal

Finally, A Bat Mitzvah

Three Los Angeles Women Make a Lifelong Dream Come True

by Rob Kutner

Posted on Nov. 11, 1999 at 7:00 pm

Growing up in Iran, Soraya Nazarian felt she was missing something at synagogue. "I wanted to know what we were studying, what we were reading, what the rabbi was teaching... but it was so crowded back in the women's section, all I could hear was 'Shh, shh.'"

But this full-time volunteer for Hadassah and mother of three college-age children is not easily shushed. Moving to Los Angeles before the 1979 revolution, Nazarian and her family joined Sinai Temple. She soon became the first Persian on the executive board. There her childhood dream was rekindled.

"As a board member... they gave me an aliyah, and after I said the blessing, one of the gabbais, [Sid Burke] said, as a joke, 'Soraya, have you ever been bat mitzvahed?' I said, 'No,' and he said, 'Now you have.'"

The punchline, however, was Nazarian's. In 1998, when her Hadassah education committee was brainstorming for programs to unite its scattered Southern California women, Nazarian proposed an adult bat mitzvah class. The others were skeptical. She recalls them saying, "'Leave it alone.'"

But Nazarian would not be silenced. She flew to Miami to observe a bat mitzvah performed by National Hadassah. Inspired by a sermon, she proposed a new spin: a bat mitzvah centered on the emerging women's holiday of Rosh Chodesh. "They loved it," recounts Nazarian.

Within months, 28 women --Persian, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Israeli, ages 30-75, from as far away as Long Beach and Palm Springs -- were practicing their first-ever Torah portions. Each would also learn a portion of the service, write a drash for a class book, and design a fabric square for a communal huppah that all would enter under on the day of their bat mitzvah.

By year's end, all 28 had passed under the huppah, before a standing-room only crowd at Sinai Temple.

Nazarian had come a long way. "As a Persian Jew, I was always eliminated. I could never be the one who received the Torah, because we were always separated. Here I got the feeling that yes, I am a Jew, I am a human being. I can read the Torah."

And on making her dream a reality for the other 27, she adds, "'God, thank you for letting me share this feeling with others.'"

Finally in Hebrew

Debby Wasserman was excited. She was taking her grown daughter Vicki Feldman to Israel, where most of her family still lived, for the first time. Wasserman was born there when it was Palestine.

But Feldman was distressed -- by her lack of Hebrew. "What if my Mom wasn't here anymore? I'd have to go back to Israel and wouldn't be able to talk to anyone."

Wasserman grew up speaking Hebrew, but her daughter only had a brief flirtation with Hebrew school. After Feldman had kids, she set out to find her own Jewish experience. She joined synagogue after synagogue, but always felt there was something lacking.

So when Wasserman invited her daughter to become bat mitzvah with her, Feldman was enthusiastic.

"I really didn't have time in my life to make that commitment," says Feldman, director of the child care center at Warner Elementary. "I said yes... just because my mom asked me to do it."

Wasserman wanted to take the class because, "There's a lot more to becoming a bat mitzvah besides Hebrew. There's history, culture, everything." Plus, her classmates were "wonderful people."

The book that we used is fabulous," says Feldman. "Even if you don't know every letter, you're able to read soon." Although Feldman couldn't attend the daytime class, her mother kept her on track by telephone."

And at the actual ceremony, both women communed about one shared trait. "Neither of us sing... at all," laughs Feldman. "We had some women in our group with really beautiful voices, and we'd kind of sing along." Wasserman agrees: "We'd try to stay in the background."

Another thing they agree on is their desire to continue learning.

"[The bat mitzvah] has importance, but it's not the end," Wasserman says. Her daughter nods: "It should be the beginning."

A Mind-Boggling Accomplishment

Nicole Flier calls herself many things. USC graduate. Vice-president at a major industrial contractor. Multi-sport athlete. But until last year, there was one thing she couldn't call herself: a bat mitzvah.

Flier, 27, is the only alumna of Hadassah's program who could have been bat mitzvahed sooner. But, as she recalls, "My head was more into sports than going to Hebrew school three times a week... And, unfortunately, I prevailed."

Her father has been active in UJF, and her mother, a regular volunteer at a Jewish retirement home for over 20 years. "I grew up knowing about my people and knowing it was important to give," she says.

It was at that home that Flier's maternal grandfather became more religious. "My Mom and I joked and called him 'Super Jew.'"

But Flier was moved by her grandfather's transformation. When she saw an ad for the bat mitzvah class, she wondered, "Why didn't I do this when I was 13? I felt like I was missing something, like I didn't feel complete."

Although Flier and her mother signed up together, her mother had to drop out when her father was diagnosed with leukemia. "That was my first turning point when I thought I wasn't going to make it," says Flier." Furthermore, with no background in Hebrew, Flier struggled mightily to keep up. "It was like looking at hieroglyphics... it was horrible."

Flier had to cope with her grandfather's passing a few months later. But it also fuelled her determination. "It was really hard, but I couldn't drop out, because I knew he was up there saying, 'You gotta finish. You gotta do it.'"

Having finished, Flier urges other women to follow her path. "If it's important to you, just like anything in life, do it. It doesn't matter how hard it is or how challenging, but when you're all done, it's mind-boggling what you've accomplished."

For more information about classes for the 2000 Adult Bat Mitzvah program, contact Bobby Klubeck or Linda Stillson at Hadassah Southern California by calling (310) 479-3200.

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