It isn’t often that a bar mitzva ceremony becomes a surprise party. But that is exactly what happened when Roland Muller, 41, stepped up to the bima at Congregation Adath Shalom in Morris Plains on Jan. 9.
The congregants had come to celebrate his 13-year-old son Jeremy’s becoming a bar mitzva. Most of them — including Roland’s mother, Agi — had not expected that her own son would become bar mitzva, too.
“I was not surprised — I was shocked,” she told NJ Jewish News from her home in Stamford, Conn. “I was in such a daze. It was a twilight zone.”
Roland’s decision to become a bar mitzva as an adult helped heal an emotional wound his mother carried for years.
Her late husband, Thomas, was so traumatized by his experiences in Holocaust-era Europe and by the anti-Semitism he encountered when he arrived in America that he had not wanted his family to be openly Jewish. It was an attitude that troubled his wife throughout the years.
Both she and her husband were born in Budapest in 1935, and both managed to hide from the Nazis during World War II.
They met in New York after leaving Europe in the mid-1950s, and moved to New Jersey when Thomas found work at a corporation in Whippany.
After his father’s experiences in surviving the Nazi era, said Roland, his father “really felt the whole persecution thing. On his employment application he wrote ‘Catholic.’ He knew a person in an equal position who put down ‘Jewish,’ and they demoted him.”
The pretense of being a Christian extended beyond the workplace to the family home in Springfield.
“We had celebrated Christmas with a tree and the whole nine yards,” Roland told NJJN two weeks after the bar mitzva ceremony.
After the Mullers moved to Stamford, they acknowledged their Judaism, “but we never went to a synagogue,” he said. “My mother never spoke up and demanded that the children go to Hebrew school or be brought up Jewish because my father would say, ‘Do you want me to get demoted like this other person I worked with?’ My mother never forced the issue.”
“I never put my foot down,” she agreed.
But she continued to suffer over the absence of Jewish ritual in her family, especially when she attended other youngsters’ bar and bat mitzva ceremonies.
“My mother would cry her eyes out,” said Roland, who lives in Denville. “She would say, ‘because it was a happy occasion.’ But they were tears of sadness. She felt I should have been bar mitzva’d, too.”
To Agi Muller, watching her son and grandson become bar mitzva together “was a dream come true — a double dream.”
When Jeremy addressed the congregation, he alluded to his grandparents’ survival after reading that Shabbat’s Torah portion, passages from Exodus that tell the story of Moses.
His grandparents, said Jeremy, “showed tremendous bravery during World War II. When my grandfather saw a threat and knew his family would be in danger, he acted quickly, got out of there, and managed to stay alive. Without his act of bravery, neither my father nor I would be standing here in front of you today.”
When he presided over the double celebration, Rabbi Mark Biller reminded his congregation that “we all take a lot of things for granted. We take our Jewish education for granted. But there were people who lived through times when you could not take it for granted.”
Biller told NJJN the occasion exemplified “the miracle of return. Because of the Holocaust, Roland didn’t have the opportunity to learn when he was growing up. After one generation in hiding, what an amazing opportunity this was for a grandmother to see her son and grandson come up and have an aliya.”
Despite her joy, Agi Muller had one small complaint about the double celebration. “Jeremy told me I can’t kiss and hug him anymore because he’s a man now,” she said.
“I’m 41 years old, and I guess I’m a man now, too,” said her son. “It feels good.”