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Ethan Raul Bitran is a rabbi's son, so launching the lifelong process of his Jewish education is a major event in his young life.
When the boy turned 3 last Sunday — Father's Day — about 50 members of Congregation Agudas Achim gathered in the synagogue's chapel as Rabbi Leonardo Bitran and his wife, Silvana, marked their son's birthday with a half-hour-long ritual of upshering — his first haircut.
It was his ceremonial rite of passage from babyhood to boyhood.
His maternal grandparents, visiting from Argentina, and his paternal grandmother, from Chile, participated with his parents in the ceremonial snipping of small bits of hair.
But it wasn't just a haircut. Ethan sat in his father's chair near the podium with a large, framed copy of the Hebrew alphabet on his lap. Following custom, a generous pool of honey was poured over several of the letters, and Ethan did what came naturally, dipping his fingers in the honey and licking it.
"It's a symbolic way of praying that his first exposure to Hebrew, the language of Judaism, will be sweet," his father explained to the congregation.
Sweet it certainly was, but when his Jewish music teacher, Elise Barenblat, played on her guitar the lively song she uses to teach the Hebrew alphabet, Ethan didn't take the cue. He calmly continued licking the honey, producing chuckles from the congregation.
More laughter followed when Rabbi Bitran quipped, "Even if it's not today, when he graduates from Hebrew school 10 years from now, he will recite the alphabet."
The boy's silence Sunday wasn't a case of not knowing the words or the tune, Barenblat said.
"Ethan knows the alphabet, and he's usually very uninhibited," Barenblat said. "He's not bashful about going up on the bema with his father. But usually, the spotlight is on his father; today it's on Ethan, so maybe he's a little more inhibited — or maybe he's just in control."
The latter seemed more likely. Ethan readily presented a coin — a quarter — to each person who congratulated him.
"It's a tzedaka — an act of charity," Rabbi Bitran said. "The point is that he's not just learning about Judaism; he's learning how to act as a righteous person. I hope this will inspire people to do acts of charity for others."
The hair-cutting ritual is based on biblical passages that compare human beings with trees: "A person is like the tree of a field" (Deuteronomy), "For as the days of a tree, shall be the days of my people" (Isaiah), and "He will be like a tree planted near water" (Jeremiah).
And Leviticus says that the fruits of a new tree are not harvested during its first three years.
Upshering is common among Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, but not in the Conservative and Reform communities. Sunday's event was a first for Agudas Achim, the city's Conservative synagogue.
"A rabbi doesn't stop learning because he's a rabbi," Bitran said. "We all continue adding to our knowledge and wisdom. I've seen this custom with other rabbis and wanted to do it here."
After the ceremony, Rabbi Bitran took his son to his office, where a professional barber completed the job as guests visited in the auditorium.
When father and son arrived in the auditorium after the completed haircut, Ethan's long, dark curls were missing and, as Barenblat put it, "he didn't look like a baby anymore."
Silvana Bitran candidly admitted that she wasn't sure about waiting three years to cut Ethan's hair when her husband first suggested it.
"I said, 'Let's wait and see how it grows, then decide,'" she recalled. "But I'm happy now that we waited. This is a wonderful, uplifting way to celebrate his transition from a baby to a 'big boy.'"
Few of those attending had sons young enough to receive a similar ritual, but all who attended said they found it interesting and inspiring.
"It was very nice," said Adam Boyar, whose wife, Kim, and children Nikki, 6, and Brian, 9, accompanied him to the event. "It's one more opportunity to grow in our understanding of our faith."
Lenny Holzman said Sunday was the first time he's seen the ceremony in San Antonio, although he first learned of it 10 years ago in Israel. There, he said, the ceremony is a two-day celebration that draws a large crowd.
"It's interesting to see it in a Conservative synagogue," Holzman said. "It's something that connects us to our history as a people."
It was something new and different even for many older congregants, such as Don Zaike.
"I've been involved here for 75 years, and I'm still learning something new," he said.
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