Miri’s Bat Mitzvah

Photographer Shana Sureck with her 'apprentice' Miri on the occasion of her brother's Bar Mitzvah

Miri’s Bat Mitzvah:

As she becomes a Daughter of the Commandments, she wants to use her art to help the homeless

Sometimes a child is so open hearted and radiant that it’s easy to adore her right off the bat. Such was the case when I first met Miriam. She was 8 and I was in her backyard to photograph her family on the occasion of her brother Shlomo’s Bar Mitzvah in 2017.

“Excuse me,” she said politely. “I notice you have two cameras. How come?”

I explained that I do that for two reasons. The first is that you always have to have a backup camera in case anything goes wrong with the first camera. Secondly, I like to keep a wide angle lens on one camera, and a telephoto lens on the other so I don’t have to keep switching lenses.

“Uh huh,” she nodded. And then she had another question. “If you’re using the one with the long lens, do you think I can use this one with the little short lens?” I lifted the camera resting on my camera bag and put the strap around her neck. “You have to promise me you’ll keep this around your neck so it doesn’t fall and break.”

She promised. I proceeded to show her where to look and what button to push to take the picture. I showed her how to hold the shutter down partway until it auto focused. It was an overcast day so I set an exposure for her that would work anywhere she wandered. She began photographing her little brothers, her older brothers and her parents. Their smiles for her were completely comfortable. I’d have to work a little harder to get them to relax with me.

Miriam and her siblings live in a Hasidic home in the very progressive town of Northampton. They’ve been exposed to Jews and non-Jews of all stripes at the Northampton Chabad House that their parents Tuvia and Tamar run. Tamar and Tuvia were born and raised in more secular homes, but have chosen a more Orthodox path, and thus they’ve instilled a lot of creativity into traditions. One of the great things that Chabad Houses offer the communities they serve, especially for unaffiliated and searching Jews, is that they will meet you where you are on your journey, helping you explore the tradition, the rituals and the deep meaning behind them without judgment.

Miriam watched me work. She helped me pose her parents and think about different backdrops in the yard that would look nice. Her eye was incredible and later in the day when I would ingest the cards from my camera into my photo editing software, I was stunned by her images – sharp, well composed, and full of spirit. Over the next few years, she would often come with her mom and siblings to the big indoor park next to my photo studio and she’d come visit. If she was with a friend, I’d plug in my studio lights and take a few pictures. It was a sweet ritual.

Fast forward to Sunday, October 10th, when at 12 years old, Miri became a Bas Mitzvah.

Miri on the day of her Bat Mitzvah.

She was allowed to put on some sparkly makeup and wear white boots with a heel.

Her mom and sister dressed to match her, as did her brothers, including two who made the trek from Brooklyn where they work and study.

The whole room kept up the color scheme Miri had wished for, and when I asked her where she wanted to be photographed, it was by the glittery mint green tablecloth she’d chosen.

And Tamar and Miri had a little fun together as they often do!

In Chabad communities, Bas/Bat Mitzvahs mark the moment a girl of 12 steps into responsibility within the Jewish community and develops her own relationship with G-d. New mitzvahs can be performed, and a higher level of accountability in terms of values and actions are expected. Women and girls don’t read directly from the Torah in Hasidic communities, but rather mark the ritual with a d’var, a prepared speech on the Torah portion. She is surrounded by a sacred gathering of women, with the only exceptions being her father, grandfathers and brothers. When I was younger, coming of age in the early 70s in an Orthodox synagogue, there was little attention paid to Bat Mitzvahs for girls relative to Bar Mitzvahs for boys, but thankfully that has changed. Increasingly, within Orthodox and Hasidic communities, families are finding ways of honoring the young women their daughters are becoming with meaningful, sacred gatherings. Tamar and Tuvia did that in a beautiful way. The social hall at Rodphey Shalom in Holyoke was decorated in shades of mint green to match Miri’s beautiful dress and so much thought was given to her wishes. Two sets of grandparents and all six of her siblings came to town.

There was sushi, kosher from the Crown Supermarket, Asian salad, soup and ice cream. Every table had a tray of cookies and cupcakes homemade by Miri and her Savta (grandmother).

There were two large tables to the side of the hall, one with artwork made by Miri and her siblings, including an array of sunset paintings and on the other table was artwork by women artists Miri has met and befriended in the Northampton community. In addition, she created incredibly beautiful cards and made them into packets of 10 cards you can order, with all of the money she makes going to benefit the homeless. As a younger child, she was always struck by the homeless people who stood at the end of the highway exit in Northampton and would make her mom search the car for change, dollars, snacks, drinks. One day, at the light on the exit ramp, she spotted nine tents and asked her mom about who would camp by the highway. Her mother explained it was a homeless encampment. It was a powerful vision for a young child and Miri’s search for ways to help was born. If you want to help her effort you can order the cards (see two pictures down) by emailing her mother Tamar Helfen: tamarhelfen@gmail.com.

Her teachers and mother spoke about her artistic eye and creative spirit. They are helping to cultivate and celebrate it. Miri gave a speech on the Torah portion. Grandmothers gave blessings.

After lunch, everybody worked on a ‘mitzvah’ project – they filled backpacks for the homeless with warm wool socks, snacks, toiletries, chapstick, mini expandable washcloths. Miri wanted everyone to keep the bags in their cars to hand out to homeless people they saw. “I always felt bad if we saw someone with a sign that said they were homeless and we didnt have stuff to give them. I thought that maybe I could make these bags with socks to keep their feet warm, food, combs, chapstick, emergency blankets, and that maybe they’d feel happy and amazed and grateful.”

Her classmates also went to a table with an art project to do.

I am always in awe of this family – there is ease and laughter and love, tenderness between siblings, and joy between the parents. From the outside it’s not always easy to see the warmth and fun. There’s a somberness, especially in the attire of men, and a sense of an ancient world, set apart. Many look at the Hasidic community as out of step with the times, steeped in tradition that isolates them, but I have felt something very different. Whenever I am in the presence of a gathering like Miri’s Bas Mitzvah, I am envious of the love and community, the sweetness of the girls, the helping nature of all the kids (even the youngest of the boys offered to carry my light stands). There’s no ‘attitude,’ no escape into iPhones, no ingratitude.

Although there was no hora at the luncheon, Miri’s classmates from the Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow, lifted her up on a chair in the street outside of Congregation Rodphey Sholom.

Miri has a ‘neshama’ (soul, spirit) that is radiant and open to people, beauty, family, art and cooking. As a Bas Mitzvah she steps into more adult responsibilities in the Jewish community and I look forward to watching her grow more fully into her awesomeness!

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