Upcycling a Bat Mitzvah Dvar Torah Written by Heschel
At Abby Kelman’s bat mitzvah on October 24, 1969, philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was supposed to deliver a dvar Torah. But Heschel, a close family friend, was hospitalized and couldn’t attend, so he wrote out his comments on onionskin—translucent white paper—and another family friend, then 41-year-old Elie Wiesel, read them aloud.
The speech sat in a folder for four decades until last year, when Kelman, an attorney in St. Louis specializing in clergy employment, decided to give herself a gift for her 65th birthday. She commissioned New York artist Ellen Alt, who had designed Kelman’s ketubah, to create an artistic rendering of the speech. (The onionskin itself remains in the folder.)
Heschel’s lyrical commentary on the portion, Lech Lecha, in which God promises Abraham that his children will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand by the sea, lends itself to visual representation, said Kelman.
“Every human being is miraculously precious in the eyes of God,” Heschel wrote. “Seen from the earth he is just a twinkle, little and unexciting. But in heaven every human being is a star—of vast magnitude, of great significance.” Alt rendered the entire speech in calligraphy, framing it in watercolor. A luminous blue sky studded with stars spreads out above a green circle—the individual—anchored by the land below.
Heschel was a mentor to Kelman’s father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who served as executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly from 1951 to 1989. Heschel often visited and called the family phone, and when Abby Kelman would pick up, she remembers that he always took the time to ask about school and camp.
“All these names—Wiesel, Heschel—were a part of my world,” she said. In fact, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, whose bat mitzvah in March 1922 was the first anywhere, spoke at the bat mitzvah of Abby’s sister, Naamah, in 1968. Today, Rabbi Naamah Kelman is dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem campus and was the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in Israel.
Her own bat mitzvah, Abby Kelman noted, was a “low-key affair” during which she chanted the haftarah on a Friday night at Ansche Chesed synagogue in Manhattan. She hopes to pass down the legacy piece created from Heschel’s words to her children and future grandchildren.
“It’s a rare piece that’s significant for scholars, since Heschel didn’t write much Torah commentary,” she said, “but it was written just for me. Every time I walk by and read it, I’m amazed.”