A Reconstructionist rabbi recounts the special bond she formed while helping her mother-in-law prepare to become a Bat Mitzvah at the age of 92.
“You did it!” I whispered as the congregation erupted in shouts of “Mazel tov!”
My heart was full: At the age of 92, Celia Abrahamson Diamond had just become a Bat Mitzvah. And I, standing beside her, happened to be both her rabbi and her daughter-in-law.
When Celia and I first met, more than 36 years ago, I was so happy to find someone who was a true “balabusta.” Celia was born in Glasgow, Scotland, where Jewish lassies were taught the traditional values of being a good wife and mother, but they were not permitted to attend cheder with their male siblings. And at that time, it was never expected that girls would receive an aliyah. A Bat Mitzvah was unheard of back then.
In 1968, Celia, 47, and her two children made aliyah, living in Israel for eight years before moving to America. Wherever her journeys led her, Celia carried her love of Judaism and Israel, keeping family traditions alive and transmitting them to her children, grandchildren and great-grandson.
I can’t remember when we first started to talk about her becoming a Bat Mitzvah. But after a trip back to Israel when she was 90, her interest increased. And so, this past June, when I asked her if she wanted to be called up to the Torah, she said yes, it was time.
We spent this past summer studying together. Trips to her New Jersey apartment gave my husband, Martin, and me new and important ways of understanding Celia as she was aging.
As I worked with her, I found that my expectations were far too low and that my assumptions needed to be challenged. Before our first session, I prepared to teach only a short blessing, and I assumed that, because she hadn’t read Hebrew for many years, she would have difficulty with the language. Was I wrong! Within 15 minutes, she had learned the first blessing and was ready to move on.
We completed all the Torah and Haftorah blessings within one month. And although initially she was nervous and lacked confidence in her ability, she blossomed more and more with every session.On the day of her Bat Mitzvah, she sang her blessings flawlessly and with heartfelt fervor.
When I chose to prepare a personalized siddur and lead her Bat Mitzvah service at the Bristol Jewish Center, I saw this occasion not only as a celebration of Celia, but as a way of linking generations, of joining in community, of embracing our Jewish heritage.
Usually, when I officiate at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we celebrate the beginning of a young person’s entrance into adult Jewish life, and we look forward to the future with hope and anticipation. Celia’s Bat Mitzvah provided us with the opportunity to do exactly the opposite.
After years of an extraordinary life filled with adventure and courage and moments of light as well as the inevitable temporary darkness, we were able to look back and celebrate the essence of a woman, still young in spirit, and honor her
as she took her place with all other Jewish women everywhere who have been called for an aliyah.
Like other Bat Mitzvahs, Celia held my hand tightly and said how nervous she was. Then, at the end of the service, she turned to me and said how happy she felt. A week later, she was still glowing with a great sense of accomplishment. She told me that she still couldn’t believe that a woman her age was able to learn the prayers and stand up in front of everyone and recite them without any mistakes.
For me, this experience has been life-affirming and holy. As a daughter-in-law, my relationship with Celia has deepened, and I better understand who she is as well as who she was. I hope that she has learned more about me in turn. As a rabbi, hearing the voices of family and friends, ages 1 to 92, all joining together in prayer, made my spirits soar. And singing the “Shehechiyanu” together brought me to tears.
Mazel tov, Celia, on officially reaching Jewish adulthood.
Rabbi Judith Targan Abrahamson serves as the Educational Resource Specialist at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.