Shira’s Bat Mitzvah

THE PORTION

By Daniel M. Jaffe

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.

How proud Fran would have been right now, watching their daughter read the haftorah for… which Torah portion? Harry looks down at the open Hertz edition on his lap, reads “Shemini.” Fran would have known today’s Torah portion, he thinks. She knew them all. How she would have kvelled watching Shira up on the bima in that bat mitzvah dress, bubble-gum pink with a modest scoop neckline giving nod to the girl’s budding maturity.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Harry shifts in his front-row seat, forces his thoughts to the celebration that will follow at the country club. The maitre d’ had better be wearing the pink cummerbund Harry ordered special. And those silver mylar balloon centerpieces better say “bat” mitzvah, not “bar.” So many details. It would’ve been cheaper to hold the party at the temple, but then Harry couldn’t have had the menu he wanted. He would spare no expense for Shira.

Months ago, Shira said she wanted to decide today’s party menu, but what does a child know about catering? Leave it to her and there’d be nothing but pizza and soda. “Don’t you worry about the party,” he said, running the back of his index finger along her cheek, “Just concentrate on your reading. Show everyone that your mom raised a good Jewish girl.”

As Shira finishes her haftorah, Harry’s hands nearly leap out to applaud, but he’s been to temple enough times to stop himself. Harry doesn’t care for Conservative temples, not for any temples actually, but this is the one Fran chose so long ago, and after she died — a year ago now, feels like last week — Shira wished to stay here with her Hebrew school friends. She’d lost enough. Whatever Shira wants.

Rabbi Levitsky begins his routine post-haftorah grilling. Shame on him for these public interrogations of children. “So, Shira,” he asks, stroking his gray goatee, “can you give examples of what Shemini says we cannot do?”

“We can’t eat anything with cloven hooves unless it chews its cud.”

Satan’s not on the party menu, thinks Harry with a forced chuckle. Any thought, no matter how ridiculous, to block today’s surging memories of Fran, her brown eyes.

“What else, Shira?” asks the rabbi.

“No rabbits,” adds Shira, her voice somewhat louder than before. “And only fish with fins and scales. No shellfish ever!” The force of Shira’s statement takes Harry by surprise. Shira has always loved shrimp and clams; that’s why Harry ordered plenty for today’s party buffet. For years the three of them would go to Cap’n Andy’s Seafood Shack every Thursday night, and Shira would order the fried fisherman’s platter. Harry’s been careful to continue taking Shira to the restaurant where, in recent months, she’s been ordering broiled halibut. Salmon sometimes, and tuna. Come to think of it, the last time Harry saw Shira eat fried shrimp and clams was before she began studying her bat mitzvah lessons… and her Torah portion about kashrut.… Ahah! So that’s it! Harry has to nip this fundamentalism in the bud; he won’t let her become a fanatic — next thing you know she’ll up and leave him for some ultra-Orthodox settlement on the West Bank.

“And no pork!” Shira says forcefully from the bima. At Harry.

Harry thinks about the platters of barbecued ribs being readied at this very moment.

“Anything else you’d like to add?” asks the rabbi.

Shira replies without hesitation, “We must not eat a kid in its mother’s milk. That would be inhumane for both mother and child.”

Harry strains to detect a waver in Shira’s voice at mention of mother and child, but hears none. Shira’s in control. That’s my girl.

Shemini says this about kids and milk?” asks the rabbi. “Shemini?”

“Well, no,” Shira asserts calmly. “It’s in Mishpatim and other Torah portions. But I think it’s the most important rule of kashrut.”

Harry fidgets in his seat, moves his blue velvet yarmulke a little forward, a little backward.

Rabbi Levitsky shakes Shira’s hand. “Sounds like you’re a Torah scholar, Shira.”

“I want to be a good Jewish woman,” she says in a clear voice. “For my mom.” Her brown eyes meet Harry’s.

Harry’s head bobs gently up and down. The tears flow.

A soft “Daddy!” escapes from Shira. She pulls her hand from the rabbi’s, rushes down the bima steps. Shira kisses Harry on his blue velvet yarmulke, wraps her arms around his head, presses his face against her chest. Holding him, she rocks and rocks.

Daniel M. Jaffe, editor of “With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction,” lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.



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