Spiritual journey|Vicksburg woman becomes bat mitzvah at age 70

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 9, 2009

Nicole Grossu is a woman who has traveled a long distance.

At the age of 70, Grossu, a native of Roman-ia, became a bat mitzvah at Vicksburg’s Anshe Chesed synagogue.

“I’ve come a very long way, not only geographically but also spiritually,” Grossu said Tuesday at the temple on the shady east end of Grove Street. “If I had known this, I would have had it for a long time. I regret not having had a close life to a synagogue.”

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Bat mitzvah, the term used for girls and women, corresponds to “bar mitzvah,” the coming-of-age ceremony in the Jewish tradition. The terms also refer to the individual, meaning literally, son or daughter of the commandment.

“It means you accept the responsibility to fulfill God’s commandments,” said Grossu. In Reformed Jewish congregations, such as Anshe Chesed, it also makes one acceptable to read from the Torah during services.

One becomes a bar or bat mitzvah with or without a ceremony, said Rabbi Batsheva Appel, director of rabbinic services at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, who led Grossu in her studies and officiated at the May 1 service.

“Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is what any Jew does simply by reaching the age of 12 or 13,” Appel said, “but she wanted to do more.”

Grossu, who splits her time between Vicksburg and a New York hamlet she declines to name, treasures her privacy and speaks guardedly about her personal life. The Anshe Chesed congregation wanted to help with her bat mitzvah services in any way they could, and it is largely to honor them that she is willing to speak publicly about the experience, she said.

“I have so much respect for the people here,” Grossu said. “They make a big sacrifice to keep this temple alive.”

Close friend Julius Herscovici had a “big part” in what Grossu called her transformation and brought her closer to God’s teachings.

“She missed some of the traditions of Judaism when she was younger,” Herscovici said. “She wanted to make this tradition part of her life, and she began to study and learn. She found her way back.”

At the service, Grossu read from one of Anshe Chesed’s four Torahs. The passage, corresponding to the first part of Leviticus Chapter 19, began, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.’”

Both Grossu and Appel wore prayer shawls and skullcaps for the ceremony, which lasted about an hour and a half.

The reading was very moving and emotional, Grossu said.

“It’s special with any of my students, and it was special because she is special,” Appel said of the ceremony. “It was such a magnificent night.”

Grossu, who spent the last 15 years moving toward that night, studied intensely for two years with Appel. “This was something that she came to me with,” Appel said. “I was delighted to help her.”

The two decided that Grossu’s studies should be in the area of theology, and she read a number of contemporary authors reflecting on Jewish philosophy and ideas about God, Appel said. “She was the kind of student who always asks what the next book is.”

Grossu was born in Romania to parents who were not particularly religious or spiritually seeking. “I knew I was Jewish,” she said, “but we did not keep the Jewish holy days in our home.”

Still, she was curious, asking her father to take her to a synagogue when she was 10. The congregation was Orthodox, with women separated from men. Grossu was sent to a crowded balcony where she could not see or understand anything. “It took a very long time until I returned to a synagogue,” she said.

Her father, an atheist, was nonetheless a Zionist who supported the establishment of Israel and wanted to go there. He was not allowed to take his family out of communist-controlled Romania. “My mother emigrated to Romania from Siberia, through Japan during the Bolshevik revolution and did believe in the goodness of a great God, but did not embrace any organized religion,” she said.

In 1963, when she was 25, married and working as a civil engineer, Grossu’s maternal grandparents were able to purchase, through a connection in England, the family’s freedom to leave Romania. Grossu, her husband and parents were able to emigrate to Israel. There, Grossu had two children, both daughters. Her husband fought in the Six-Day War in 1967. “It was beautiful there,” she said.

In 1971, Grossu, her husband and daughters moved to the United States. She is guarded when speaking of the crisis that prompted her to seek religion, but first got her husband to attend services and, about a year later, began to accompany him. “I started to go to the synagogue, and I started to learn,” Grossu said.

Eventually, she reached the decision to prepare for the bat mitzvah. “This is when I arrived at the need to have it done,” she said simply. “You have to feel you need it and regret not having it.”

“For everybody, regardless of their religion, it’s better for them to go and find out about it,” Herscovici said.

In addition to studies, Grossu had to perform “good deeds,” which for her included visiting nursing homes and talking to residents there.

“The goal of any Jew is not only to study the Torah, but to become a ‘living Torah,’ who embodies the lofty ideals of ‘love your neighbor,’ ‘peace on earth,’ ‘justice for all,’ ‘universal education,’ ‘all men are created equal,’ ‘dignity of the individual,’ and ‘the preciousness of life,’” writes Rabbi Shraga Simmons on Aish.com. “These concepts all originate from the Torah, and these have defined the moral makeup of humanity.”

Grossu is not alone in having missed the observance in her youth and sought it later. In March, a group of women in their 90s in Beachwood, Ohio, became bat mitzvahs. In Middletown, Conn., Esther Eisner celebrated her 100th birthday in 2005 by becoming a bat mitzvah, perhaps the oldest in history, reported The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper.

For Grossu, the studies will continue.

“She’s already asked me for her next book,” Appel said.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com