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By the time of her bat mizvah, Iana was taller than I was, but I looked up to her in more ways than one. She was an incredibly diligent student and clearly valued her exposure to Jewish tradition. She told me that before her bat mitzvah, she said she was Jewish and also Buddhist, because much of her family is Buddhist. “But now I feel that I am more Jewish, because I have a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish,” she said. Her bat mitzvah was the first time her Hebrew name, Simma, was ever read aloud in a religious setting. She has continued to participate in the community as a Torah reader and a bat mitzvah tutor to others.
Another pair of sisters whom I taught over two consecutive years is Hattie and Tillie Lighte. They are both Chinese-born, adopted by fathers Peter Lighte and Julian Grant. Peter is a Jewish graduate of Bronx Science (like my mom), who after years of studying the Chinese classics at Princeton took an unlikely turn toward banking. His work for JP Morgan Chase took his family to London and Japan in the past, but this time he got to bring them to China.
“What’s so funny for me is that I’ve devoted most of my life to studying China,” Peter said, “and now Beijing will always be associated with our daughters’ bat mitzvahs. It just makes no sense, but perfect sense to us.”
Peter’s partner, Julian, is an accomplished opera composer from England, and he’s not Jewish. He told me that in certain ways, some of the biggest challenges of throwing two bat mitzvahs in two years were evaded by being in Beijing. “I think that it was already outlandish enough to have a bat mitzvah in Beijing, so the fact that we were a two-dad family hardly mattered,” Julian said. “If we had been in one of the bat mitzvah factories in New Jersey I think it would have been a bigger deal.”
Each girl’s bat mitzvah celebration was stunning. Hattie’s featured Chinese performances, including a “Bian Lian” or “face changing” artist who, in the traditional style of Chinese Sichuan opera, cycled through infinite expressions with a seamless flip of his mask. Tillie’s was held in a derelict Ming Buddhist temple, which was undergoing renovation and was filled with mud and dirt until it was magically transformed days before the affair. “It seemed to me we minted our own Sino-Judaica,” Julian said, “which I kind of rather liked.”
Now, all this must sound quite exciting and exotic. But when I talked to all of the young women after their bat mitzvahs, they independently agreed that the most challenging thing for each of them was just what you’d expect to hear from any student around the world: learning their parts in Hebrew and performing in front of the community.
Some things transcend geographical boundaries.
Alison Klayman is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Her debut feature film, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” about the dissident Chinese artist, is shortlisted for the Academy Awards “Best Documentary” category. She was on the 2012 Forward 50 list.