The Old World and the New Meet in a Controversial Celebration at Eric Strom's Cracow Bar Mitzvah
No one was more excited about the Bar Mitzvah of Eric Strom of Stamford, Conn. than Maria Jakubowicz. When she learned that an American boy would celebrate his coming-of-age in her community, she virtually moved into the kitchen. From the minute Eric and his family arrived on Sept. 5, Mrs. Jakubowicz plied them with vegetable soup, sweet carp, challa and strudel, and serenaded them with Yiddish and Hebrew songs. "Mother is happy," said her son Tadeusz, 48. "She is in her element, like a fish in water. She doesn't care that she's tired. She just loves to receive guests and show her knowledge of tradition."
It had been a long time since Maria Jakubowicz had had an opportunity to do that. In her city of Cracow, Poland, the infamous Nazi Holocaust savagely cut down a thriving prewar community of 60,000 Jews to about 200 today. Maria Jakubowicz was one of the survivors, and one of the few of those who kept their faith. Many of the younger Jews left after the war, and many of those who remained gave up their religion. And so it was that Eric Strom from America came to be the first boy Bar Mitzvahed in the ancient city in more than 20 years.
The idea of finding a Bar Mitzvah boy to cheer the Jews of Cracow began with a group organized by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. They turned to Rabbi Emily Korzenik of Scarsdale, N.Y. for help. One of the 100 or so female rabbis in the U.S., she immediately thought of Eric. A wiry, likable eighth grader at Greenwich Country Day School, his tastes are mainstream: He likes Bruce Springsteen and the Cars, chews lots of gum and plays on the baseball team. Eric comes from a religious home; his great-great-grandparents were killed in Poland by anti-Jewish Cossacks. Two days before flying to Poland, Korzenik celebrated a Bar Mitzvah for Eric in Connecticut, American-style—complete with quotations from Emily Dickinson and Einstein and a reception at which Eric, dressed in a black tux, danced to a five-piece rhythm-and-blues band. The plan called for the Cracow ceremony to be far more traditional, though the idea, says Korzenik, was "to bring a little of the new winds of the world to them." In that endeavor, Eric's Bar Mitzvah more than succeeded.
Accepting the Orthodox rule that a woman could not read from the Torah, Korzenik and the Stroms asked Edward Blonder, a Holocaust survivor, to lead the Cracow service. But when Orthodox American Jews heard that a female rabbi planned to say a prayer from the pulpit, they rebelled. "We sent cables to the Polish community asking them please—for the sake of tradition—not to desecrate the Orthodox synagogue by having a woman rabbi officiate," says Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. "We felt it was a betrayal of Jewish history." Even when the ceremony was switched from the Orthodox 15th-century Remu Synagogue to the newer, more progressive Templum Synagogue, the controversy continued. Na-chum Elbaum, an Orthodox Jew and New York travel agent who had visited the Cracow Jews before, arrived suddenly to lead the ceremony himself.
On the Saturday morning of the Bar Mitzvah, both Elbaum and Blonder conducted parts of the service, without conflict, and Eric yawned only a few times during the 2½ hours of Hebrew chanting in the synagogue. The trouble started when, after the Torah reading, Emily Korzenik came to the pulpit to be with Eric while he read a portion from the Prophets. As Korzenik reached for a prayer shawl, Elbaum grabbed it. Eric's grandfather handed her another. Elbaum grabbed that, too. "If you stand there, I will not allow him to chant," Elbaum told Korzenik. "If she doesn't stand there, I won't do it," Eric replied quietly. Elbaum stayed silent until Eric finished reciting. But when Rabbi Korzenik began to read in English from Isaiah ("Violence shall no more be heard in thy land," she began), Elbaum tried to shout her down. "But the ladies cannot speak in synagogue! he said loudly several times, then fell silent and the service was finished. "I did what I intended to do with only Elbaum objecting," Korzenik said later. "Nobody else even murmured support for him so I felt really good about it. It was a triumphant moment."
The Polish Jews supported Korzenik's participation. "A woman rabbi is a novelty for us, not a problem. But if we had more such bearded ones," said a congregant, nodding toward Elbaum, "they would certainly stop it."
In the end, the service expressed its purpose eloquently: With his quiet dignity, and in standing up for his rabbi, the Bar Mitzvah boy proved himself a man. "He was able to allow others to enjoy him," Rabbi Korzenik said proudly. "He was gracious, warm, friendly and not overwhelmed or self-important about it."
At the end of his long ritual, Eric told the 150 people in the congregation, "I want to thank all the Jews of Cracow and of Poland for letting me and my family have this Bar Mitzvah and share the joy with you." And when the first Bar Mitzvah in Cracow in more than 20 years was over, Mrs. Maria Jakubowicz pinched the cheek of the boy who had become a man and begged him to come back to Cracow for his wedding. "I'll make even a better dinner," she promised, and her eyes were shining.
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