Friday, September 30th 2022   |

B’nai Mitzvah event has New Orleans Mardi Gras theme


I attended quite a unique family gathering in Sarasota, Florida this past weekend. My cousins were hosting a New Orleans-themed B’nai Mitzvah event. What made this celebration so distinctive was the two teens who were sharing the bimah weren’t siblings, as one might suspect, but first cousins. And they were also bound by another connection.  Both of the two celebrants’ Hebrew names were given in honor of their paternal grandmother, Leah Ball Smith. Smith, a New Orleans native, had unexpectedly passed away about 15 years ago in Florida.

The Krewe of Smiths with B'nai Mitzvah celebrants, parents and siblings. (©Photo by Charles Shockley)

Through the years, the two first cousins, Marielle and Jacob Smith, had felt a special attachment. They had talked for many years about the possibility of sharing the pulpit for their milestone event, but there were some logistical considerations. Most important was that they did not live in the same location.

To accomplish the task at hand involved creativity and commitment by both sets of parents, Dina and Hal Smith of Sarasota and Dr. Amanda and Sam Smith of Tampa, located an hour’s drive away.

Both cousins attend Jewish day schools. Jacob is a student at the Goldie Feldman Academy, while Marielle attends Hillel Academy. The cousins handled their additional B’nai Mitzvah studies for more than a year together via Skype with their instructors. They prepared to be able to lead and participate in a traditional Shabbat weekend which included Friday evening and Saturday morning services at Conservative congregation Temple Beth Sholom in Sarasota.

Marielle enthusiastically interjected during her D’vor Torah (Torah commentary) that when the weekend was chosen no one selected the date based on the length of the week’s parasha (portion), Terumah. It turns out it was probably one of the shortest to learn, detailing the instructions by G-d to Moses as to the exact construction of the Tabernacle.

Both cousins gave their interpretations on the Torah portion and creatively expanded on its relevance in today’s world. Their precise and enthusiastic execution of the prayers during the service showed a deep love of their heritage and religion.  The shared services and the commonality of their Hebrew names made their connection to their paternal grandmother even more special. Probably the most proud was Leah’s widower, Marvin Smith, also a transplanted New Orleanian, who justifiably kvelled all weekend long.

The dessert table with the colorful Carnival colors (Photo by Dr. Amanda Smith)

So what made this a relevant New Orleans event? No, it wasn’t the fleur-de-lis kippas (skullcaps), nor the purple, green and gold color scheme throughout the shul’s social hall.  No, it wasn’t because the B’nai Mitzvah cousins are avid Saints fans. (They are, by the way.)  And, no, it wasn’t because the evening party carried over the New Orleans theme, serving New Orleans selections like red beans and rice, along with king cake for desserts, beads everywhere, second lines and the hora.

The relevance was all about the importance of family, our community and centuries of Jewish traditions being continued to the next generation. Judaism stresses the importance of  L’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation.” Despite our busy lives, the traditions passed down from our elders still have important meaning for us.  Both the Ball and Smith families had a long connection to New Orleans for many generations before the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren left for other opportunities and other communities. This was what made this weekend in Florida so special for the many cousins who are now living in far-flung communities in California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The opportunity to connect to family while paying homage to New Orleans, from which our family sprang, made this a wonderful simcha.

(Editor’s note: Arlene S. Wieder is the advertising and marketing director of the CCJN and is the sibling of CCJN editor Alan Smason.)

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