The laying of tefillin is one of the most important Mitzvot (precepts) of the Torah: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they should be for a reminder between your eyes.” — Deut. 6:8
October 10, 1901
Dorothy Goldman, great grandmother of Ethan Zucker, was the second child born to her parents, Joseph and Rachel Goldman at a hospital in New York, New York.
October 10, 1902
Samuel Jay Zucker, great grandfather of Ethan Zucker, was the first born to his parents, Sarah and Morris at a hospital in “deepest” Newark, New Jersey. It was the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei – the evening before Yom Kippur.
1st week of October 1982
“My Torah portion talks about creation and how G_d created the world, Parsha Bereshit……” Looking out at the crowd all gazing at me, I hesitated, and quickly looked down at my long white sleeves that were (thankfully) covering my shortened forearms and small hands. However, I gained courage when I caught the eye of my paternal grandmother, Dorothy, who had flown in from Manhattan, beaming at me from the seats of the congregation. The day of my bat mitzvah had finally came and there I was, standing on the bimah, facing a friendly and supportive audience of family, a few friends and the Champaign-Urbana Jewish community. Back then (at least in Central Illinois) bar/bat mitzvah celebrations were quite low-key. The most exciting part of the celebration was the Kiddush luncheon where Paula Deckard, a talented Sinai Temple member, presented an ornate cake of her own design in honor of the occasion. Aside from some Klezmer music and ginger ale punch spiked with rainbow sherbet, the planned activities were not exactly over-the-top.
My family and I had just moved back from Cairo, Egypt where there weren’t exactly a lot of Hebrew tutors around to help me. And so instead, my parents had hired a tutor the month before my special Jewish day in the sun to prepare. For me, given my strong aptitude for music, learning the chanting, even in Hebrew, was the easy part. And to my delight, my parents had hired an incredibly talented singer named Susan Dunn to perform with the choir. Susan would later grace the stage in the world’s finest opera houses and even earn a Grammy.
Actually, the hardest part of preparing for my bat mitzvah, with so little time, was figuring out what to write in my speech to the congregation. Although, with guidance from the Rabbi, I could readily describe the meaning of the portion, the task of applying its lessons to my own life was not easy for me. As a result, the speech I delivered was flat and generic.
October 10, 1997
“Meg, this is John. John, this is Meg.” Standing in synagogue on the evening before Yom Kippur, my friends Jason and Beth (who had orchestrated the set-up) introduced me to the man who would become my husband and father of my children.
This past week I had to spend four days in Toronto, Canada on business. When I returned late on the night of October 7th, I learned from our rabbi that in anticipation of his coming bar mitzvah ceremony, Ethan had to attend an early morning minyan service and that he was supposed to bring not only his prayer book and tallis (prayer shawl), but also tefillin for the weekday prayer service. This would be the first time that Ethan, as a “new” adult, would put the ceremonial objects on his arm and head, a common practice among adult Jewish males who observe these commandments strictly. When I looked up at John wondering where we could find tefillin before the morning, he put me at ease. “No worries, I have Papa Sam’s upstairs. He can wear them.” John reported that the rabbi taught Ethan how to wear them and Ethan did a terrific job leading.
Later that night, it occurred to me that I had yet to read Ethan’s completed speech for the upcoming ceremony. I had already seen his introduction, sharing his and my common Torah portion about the story of Creation. Reflecting on my own struggle from my own bat mitzvah so many years before, I wondered how he might apply it to his own life.
In honor of his becoming a bar mitzvah ton October 10, 2015, I’ve decided to publish the speech that Ethan ultimately delivered. Although his physical difference is a reflection of my own, there is no question our approach to the meaning of the same Torah portion looked nothing alike:
My Torah portion talks about creation and how G_d created the world, Parsha Bereshit. The portion reviews each stage in creation, including the creation of light, celestial bodies, Earth, sky, plants, animals and human beings. Then as you may know, Adam and Eve were created, Eve got tempted by evil to take the apple of knowledge against G_d’s wishes, and he banished them from the Garden of Eden. This was the first time G_d grew angry and impatient with humanity. Humanity would later be made to regret its wickedness.
I have been thinking about the meaning of this portion and how it still applies to our world today. From the start, G_d saw that his creation was good, in general, but the human part of creation had trouble resisting bad urges and deeds. G_d grew so disappointed that G_d decided to just start over with the flood. Thankfully, G_d promised never to do THAT again. But that still leaves us with the problem of our human tendency to do negative things and keep disappointing G_d.
Today, we as Jews accept our duty and responsibility to do the best we can to solve those problems. One of the worst behaviors of humanity is our tendency to judge and harm other people based on our differences. It is ironic, because one thing G_d was truly proud about was our diversity and uniqueness. It’s a shame that we, G_d’s creations, so often lack that same sense of pride in our own uniqueness.
In fact, one thing I’ve observed is how hard people, especially kids, try to appear the same and avoid showing their differences. It’s like they are afraid to shine, stand out or just be themselves. They see differences as negatives – something to be avoided.
It’s probably too much to expect that we can get 7 billion people to change their ways and accept each other. In fact, from my own personal experiences I have seen that people have a challenging time seeing their peers as G_d’s creations just like them. From even a small age, I have been judged because of my own differences. But through many encounters, I learned to unconditionally embrace myself, therefore seeing the good in others as well. It is my goal to help others celebrate their own differences, to change attitudes and make my own contribution to the task of Tikkun Olam, or fixing the world.
This Torah portion shows that that G_d created everyone special and unique on purpose, and G_d grew frustrated when people in the biblical world did not see that. It is therefore our duty to embrace our differences, and make this world a better place.
Six years ago my Mom founded “Don’t Hide It Flaunt It,” an organization that just this summer became a charity. The mission of DHIFI is to encourage people who possess any type of difference, whether blatant or invisible, to flaunt and ultimately celebrate what makes them unique.
One thing that interested me from my Mom’s work was when she first piloted a “Kid Flaunt” essay program in several area schools. I joined her speaking in front of many elementary students about the importance of self-acceptance. But afterwards, we learned that when teachers asked the students to write an essay according to the theme: “The things that make me different make, me, me,”–a number of kids declared, “But I’m NOT different!” We learned that we can’t hope for students to empathize with other kids if they don’t even recognize difference in themselves. Starting this fall, Don’t Hide it, Flaunt It is partnering with Scholastic, to put the Kid Flaunt essay contest in schools in California and New York. We are also kicking off a Scholastic Art & Writing Flaunt It award for older students, and even working with teachers in Israel to expand the Kid Flaunt program there.
For my mitzvah project, I will be working with the Don’t Hide It, Flaunt It Teen Board to help judge these contests. I will be devoting many hours this year to judging (in a good way) and helping the process go through. My hope is that this essay experience will help more kids feel comfortable with who they are and pass those lessons along.
Apropos, Ethan Daniel Zucker was named after his Papa Sam’s wife Evelyn and his grandmother Dorothy. Although the actual October birth date of both Sam and Dorothy was not documented, coincidentally both parents selected the 10th of October, determining that if it was connected to the Jewish High Holy Days, it would be a sign of good things to come for their child.