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A meaningful bar mitzvah; art for a great cause

Words from the heart

Rabbi Carnie Rose says while he doesn’t usually tear up when officiating lifecycle events, he couldn’t help himself last Saturday morning. The moment came right after Mikhail Averbukh stood on the bimah with his wife, Anastasia, and delivered a congratulatory speech to their son, Matthew, who had just become a bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Amoona.

“In 24-plus years as a congregational rabbi,” said Rose, “I can count only a very few times when I was moved to tears by these speeches . . . This morning was one of those moments . . . Poignant references to the blessings of being able to live in a time and place that allow for freedom of religious/spiritual expression along with the invaluable — and oft taken for granted — gifts of America and Israel. I choke up just thinking about the words shared from our bimah this morning.” 

Mikhail Averbukh came to St. Louis from the Soviet Union with his family in 1995 when he was 22 years old. He later met Anastasia, who also came from Russia; the two married and have three boys. The eldest, Matthew, a seventh-grader at Parkway Central Middle School, was the first in the Averbukh family to celebrate his bar mitzvah in over 100 years.

“Our synagogue was closed,” explained Mikhail Averbukh (pronounced aver-book), who grew up in Gorki (now called Nizhny Novgorod), about five hours from Moscow and now works as an information technology specialist. “We didn’t have a rabbi for over 60 years, no kosher food, no Jewish books. We had very limited Jewish exposure.” 

During the service, Mikhail told his son how wonderful it was to hear him deliver prayers and read from the Torah, and then went on to say: 

“Were this another time and another place, we could get into a lot of trouble for doing this. For a very long time Jews have been persecuted, driven from their homes and even killed for performing our ancient rituals. Before coming to America I never attended a single bar mitzvah or had one of my own. Neither did any of my relatives my age or any of my Jewish friends. Two or three generations of millions of Jews in the Soviet Union didn’t have this opportunity to learn about Judaism as you do today, freely, openly and visibly. Let’s not forget that today. Let’s always remember and cherish that we have a place like America and Israel and we can be free, strong and spiritual once again.”

The speech wasn’t lost on Matthew. “Since I was the first to celebrate a bar mitzvah in my family in 100 years, I didn’t know what to expect. I’m so happy it all went well,” said Matthew, 13, who ranks geography as his No. 1 subject in school.

“One thing that I realized is how important it is to keep up with Jewish traditions. These days it seems many (Jewish) people aren’t interested in that but it’s really important. Judaism would have been so much bigger if it weren’t for the Holocaust. Traditions are important if we want to keep (Judaism) going on.” 

Power of paint

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of spending a morning with Vicki Friedman. A two-time cancer survivor, Friedman runs the Arts as Healing Foundation, which champions free art classes and other creative programs that work with people battling cancer and extreme chronic illnesses. 

Friedman believes that making art and other forms of creative expression can help heal the body and the soul. Apparently, so do most of the cancer patients in her classes — when I spoke to several back then all told me how much art therapy had helped them physically and mentally, and gave them such joy.

What I didn’t realize at that meeting was what an accomplished artist Friedman is. Currently, she is getting ready for a show entitled “Constructs of Meaning” at the Duane Reed Gallery, 4729 McPherson Ave., in the Central West End, which runs from Feb. 15 to March 23. The show, in which Friedman is a special guest artist, also features works by Howard Jones, Stefanie Kirkland, Belinda Lee and Ethan Meyer, and opens with a public reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15.

Most of the proceeds from the work Friedman sells will benefit Sharsheret national, not-for-profit Sharsheret organization and Nishmah at the St. Louis J. Sharsheret provides free support and educational programming to women and their families facing a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer and to those at increased risk for developing a hereditary cancer.

“I didn’t feel I could do a show and not help elsewhere,” said Friedman. “The theme of this show is sharing — I am sharing my creative process — so sharing with Sharsheret just makes sense.”

Friedman explained that her process typically has four parts and starts with a classical pen-and-ink drawing —then she moves into color.  “Gradually, each piece I create becomes more abstract,” she said. “The goal is to embrace that image and the feelings it evokes. Only then am I able to explore the depths of what I am creating, knowing that I have the foundation to stay focused and on task.”

For more information about the show, go to duanereedgallery.com.

Power play

Joan Lipkin, of That Uppity Theatre Company, called to say that her company is producing Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” in honor of the 50th anniversary of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, the state’s largest grassroots pro-choice organization. The play will be performed at the .ZACK in the Kranzberg Arts Center, at 3224 Locust St., at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17. 

Lipkin says the event will feature one of the largest and most diverse casts of women ever seen on stage in St. Louis. “The Vagina Monologues” explores many topics: sex, relationships, sexual violence, sex work, menstruation, and more, and audiences meet women from all corners of the world who have very different lives, all dealing with how to have a relationship with their vagina. 

Ninety percent of the proceeds from the show will benefit NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. Lipkin says most everyone involved in the production is volunteering his or her time to support NARAL Missouri. 

“It is tremendous how many artists in the community have come forward to share their skills to oppose this violence against women,” she added.

Tickets, ranging in price from $18 to $100, are available through Metrotix and can be purchased online at www.metrotix.com/events/detail/naral-the-vagina-monologues, or at the Fox Theatre Box Office.