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Teenager's Dare Leads to Jewish Rite of Passage

Ceremony: 73-year-old woman meets her granddaughter's challenge, and the two share a bat mitzvah, delighting girl's father.

June 16, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It all started with a dare. Ever since she was 12, Chiara Greene's father had pleaded with her to have a bat mitzvah. Each year, the outspoken, spunky teenager refused.

Please, her father urged. It's an important part of our culture.

"It just wasn't something I was into," Chiara, 16, said, adding that she wasn't a "religion-oriented" type of person.

Finally, in April 2001, she threw out a dare--partly joking, but mainly to get her father off her back. "I said, 'Grandma, I'll do it if you do it,' fully expecting her to say no."

Her grandmother, 73-year-old Eileen Greene, grew up during a time when it wasn't common for girls to take part in the age-old Jewish coming-of-age rite of passage. Having such a ceremony was something she watched others take part in, always curious about having one for herself.

There have been lots of other dares in her life--including jumping off a 50-foot telephone pole and walking on hot coals. Going through a bat mitzvah was another one she couldn't refuse.

So on Saturday, Chiara and her grandmother, who share the same June 3 birthday, took the ritual step together at Temple Isaiah on the Westside, and her father breathed a sigh of relief.

"It's a fabulous Father's Day gift," said Chiara's persistent father, Richard Greene. After years of struggling with how to make his only child do something he believed was important, he watched his daughter and mother stand together and read from the Torah in Hebrew.

Cantor Monty Turner said Saturday's ceremony was unique to him.

"In my experience, I've never had a granddaughter and grandmother celebrate at the same time," Turner said. "It's quite a statement."

Greene had tried bribes, sweet talk, Jewish camp, a trip to Israel. Nothing convinced the strong-willed Chiara. Nothing until Grandma accepted the dare.

What followed was about a year of Hebrew classes and tutoring for the pair in preparation for the ceremony. But with Chiara living in New Mexico with her mother, and her grandmother living in Brentwood, the logistics were sometimes trying.

What started as a dare and ended coincidentally as a Father's Day tribute, however, became much more.

Chiara's parents divorced when she was 6, and she lived with her mother, who had converted to Judaism from her nondenominational Christian faith when she married Richard Greene, who still lives in Malibu. Their Santa Fe community wasn't a strong Jewish one, and Chiara grew up with little exposure to the religion and culture.

Her father's pleas were daunting. "I really didn't want to put in the time," she said. "It didn't mean anything to me."

Reluctantly, Chiara took the classes and found, with a bit of difficulty, a Hebrew tutor in Santa Fe.

Then one day, it clicked. Chiara remembers the day the once-strange, loopy Hebrew characters she struggled to grasp became familiar. "I thought, 'Wow, this is really cool. I can actually understand it,' " Chiara said. "It was a great feeling to know I could read another language."

That moment opened her mind. She thought of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. "I knew about her and what her story was," Chiara said.

The story became personal. Anne had died right before her 16th birthday. Chiara's grandmother is the same age Anne would have been if she were alive.

Chiara realized that the process she was participating in wasn't just a way to stop her father's nagging. It wasn't just a dare.

Meanwhile, her grandmother threw herself full force into learning the language late in life. "I thought, 'It's going to be a challenge,' but challenges are part of my life," Eileen Greene said.

She found creative ways to learn. To remember the names of the five books of the Torah, she used an acronym: "Grandma Eats Latkes Not Doughnuts," for Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

A few days before the ceremony, an excited Chiara was giggling with her friends and munching on chocolates in her grandparents' home. She blushed and hid her face when her dad asked her to sing.

When asked to read Hebrew, she fluidly rambled off a few lines from the story of Balaam, Balak and the talking donkey, while playfully doing a hip-hop move with her upper body.

Chiara doesn't regret not having had her bat mitzvah at 13, the typical age for the ceremony. "I wouldn't have thoroughly understood or enjoyed it," she said. "I would have done it just to get it over with."

And the time she has spent learning about her family's faith and culture has led her to another realization: She wants to move back to Los Angeles--not as a dare, but to be closer to her grandmother and father.

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