The circumstances of my Bat Mitzvah were unique, to say the least. I’d decided I wanted to read from Torah by the time I had turned 13 so, despite having already technically graduated into Jewish womanhood, my parents planned a small ceremony where I would read in front of close family and friends a year and four months after I was already a Bat Mitzvah. I was in eighth grade and my math teacher mentioned that her birthday was April 20th, the day my Bat Mitzvah was scheduled to be, followed by an aside that she was aware that it was also Adolf Hitler’s birthday. It was like I’d swallowed a rock. I was horrified. Memorizing my Torah portion was hard enough and now I was going to have to learn an entirely different one. When my mom picked me up after school, I got into the car on the verge of tears.
“Ema, we have to reschedule my Bat Mitzvah.”
“What are you talking about?”“It’s going to be on Hitler’s birthday.”
“You aren’t rescheduling. Having your Bat Mitzvah on his birthday is like the biggest ‘F you’ to Hitler.”
The panic and dread I had felt all day melted away into intense pride.
I was like Esther, celebrating my Jewish life on a day where Haman thought he should have celebrated his.
Shortly after I transferred to UCLA, I learned that a Jewish club on campus was organizing a trip to Poland. I am a Polish Jew on my mom’s side, but I knew very little about my maternal family. We had always been much more connected to my dad’s Israeli side. I knew it was important to go, so I went, even though it meant spending my birthday on a depressing trip with people I’d never met. My birthday was the third day and the coldest day of the entire trip. December in Poland is brutal. Majdanek concentration camp was covered in a thick sheet of snow by the time we got there. The thing about being cold in a concentration camp is that you can’t be. You’re wearing boots and socks and sweaters and hats and gloves and scarves and your family somehow survived this cold in striped pajamas. You can’t feel your feet but you can’t complain.
It was fitting that Majdanek was covered in snow as it is probably the most well preserved of the camps. It’s frozen in time. It still has gas chambers.
So I spent my nineteenth birthday in a gas chamber.
I celebrated my life in a place they tried to destroy it.
After leaving Majdanek, I got to explore Lublin with the friends I’d made just two days prior. We visited the grave of a great Tzaddik and sang with Jews from all around the world, arms wrapped around each other. That night we had a huge meal and shared l’chaims. I was asked, as the birthday girl, to make a speech and I recounted the tale of my unique Bat Mitzvah.
A year later, during my last moments as a teenager, I hopped on the number 1 bus en route to the Kotel. I held the ancient stones and cried while singing Ahava Raba as the clock struck midnight and I turned twenty.
Since my birthday was on a Friday, I was able to celebrate around a Shabbat table in Nachlaot surrounded by so many friends. I was tipsy with sweet wine and the Shabbat spirit when I told everyone about my last birthday and my Bat Mitzvah. I told them that Jewish joy is the best revenge and that the best way to combat antisemitism is to be obnoxiously Jewish.
One of the great tragedies of Jewish history is that it is always told as just that… tragedy. Yes, we have been persecuted, but that is just a testament to our strength. We have such a beautiful, deep, and ancient culture. Hashem is with us always. As we enter this new month, we should remember that the name Elul is an acronym for ״אני לדודי ודודי לי״ which translates to “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” We are Hashem’s people and He loves us so much and I think that that is worth celebrating. Torah should be practiced b’simcha, with intoxicating joy.
“You prepare a table before me in view of my tormentors. You anointed my head with oil, my cup overflows.” (Tehillim 23:5)
He shows off our success to those who torment us. We are anointed as His. He will provide us with all we need and more.