If they could see her now

Like most women on their bat mitzvah day, Doris Sperber will recite an aliyah and deliver a drash. In the evening, there will be a party in San Francisco with scores of family and friends.

But Sperber isn’t your typical bat mitzvah girl. Flanking her on the bimah at Congregation Sherith Israel on Saturday, Jan. 26 will be her four sons — Joel, David, Fred and Stephen — who each will read from the Torah. Her grandson, Damon, will join them to recite the Haftarah, a section from the Prophets. And Town’s End Restaurant, where her party will be held, is owned by her son David.

At 100, Doris Sperber is having her first bat mitzvah ceremony.

“I am scared stiff,” admitted Sperber, who was reared in an Orthodox family in New York City. Her mother left Poland with one of Doris’ older siblings in 1902 to join her father in New York’s Lower East Side, where he was a self-employed tailor. “As a girl growing up in Brooklyn, I went to Hebrew school, but I could not have a bat mitzvah ceremony. That honor was afforded only to boys.”

Now, the centenarian will ascend to a place she has dreamed of for nearly a century. “My mother wanted me to partake in all the Jewish rituals,” said Sperber, who lived with her husband, Reuben, in Borough Park, N.Y., and Florida before migrating to California and the Jewish Home of San Francisco nearly five years ago. “She was my shining star, and I think she’d be very proud of me.”

Sperber’s mother, a stocky woman with rimmed glasses and a serious face, was a lay leader at Temple Beth El, an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, the same shul that the father of Rita Glassman, Sherith Israel’s cantor, went to. Even when Sperber’s mother’s eyesight failed, she stood in the women’s section and taught other women how to pray.

“My mother was a very wise woman who taught women in our community to participate fully with men in shul services” even though they were behind a mechitzah, a barrier separating men and women, Sperber said. “If having an angel in one’s life is possible, my mother was mine.”

Sperber loved dancing as a child and teenager and performed mostly ballet with the Henry Street Settlement, a highly regarded dance, music, theater and visual arts academy in New York. And as a young woman, she had different plans from her mother. One of her four sisters, Lillian, arranged for Doris to meet a well-known dance performer and explore the possibility of training professionally.

“My mother said, ‘Nothing doing. You can’t leave. You could be a teacher or a social worker. But no dancer,'” Sperber recalled.

Doris abandoned her dream of becoming a prima ballerina, but dancing was always a big part of her life. She and Reuben, whom she met while studying at Brooklyn College (he was at City College of New York), entered and won a dance contest on their honeymoon cruise.

And there is a picture of Reuben and Doris, she leaning forward in a white strapless gown, a beatific smile on her face, twirling each other on the dance floor at the reception after their son Joel’s bar mitzvah ceremony in the 1940s.

Reuben opened an accounting firm and worked as a CPA, and Doris raised four boys. Even so, the two managed to dust off their dancing shoes at celebrations and on vacations or, occasionally, at sublime, impromptu moments at home. Doris later joined Reuben in his office as an office assistant, and both volunteered extensively in New York and Florida. The two were married for 75 years, until Reuben’s death at the end of November 2007 at age 100.

Another slice of life captured in a black and white snapshot adorns the wall of Doris’ room at the Jewish Home: Standing outside a friend’s brown-shingled home in New York, she leans against Reuben, who has an ice cream to his mouth, with a cone almost dangling from her left hand. Their faces are beaming.

What made them special was their dedication to others — both family and friends. The couple volunteered for the Family Alzheimer’s Center in Margate, Fla., which provides respite for family caregivers, and Reuben was on the board. Doris was involved in Hadassah for several years, and she received National Leadership and Love-of-a-Lifetime awards from the organization. Both she and Reuben volunteered at the Northwest Regional Hospital in Margate, where Doris was a candy striper at the hospital into her 90s.

At Northwest Regional, Doris and Reuben befriended one of the nurses, Holly Chong, and eventually — and informally — adopted her children as grandchildren. Chong’s three children will most likely be in the audience with Sperber’s other eight grandchildren at Sherith Israel.

“Having such a tight family, including the Chongs, is largely because of my mom’s loving, nurturing and unconditional care,” said Stephen, who began helping Sperber with her drash about a month ago.

Sperber’s sons learned early on that they had to be kind and considerate. She forbade name-calling and insisted that they practice the commandments related to kindness, generosity and respect for others. To both Reuben and Doris, human beings were unique entities and her sons were obligated to help everyone, especially those less fortunate.

“My mom was one of the early humanists,” said Stephen, an East Bay college professor and psychotherapist. “She’s always had a lovely sense of justice.”

She loved Judaism no less than she loved justice and equality. “Doris has this enormous respect and love for Judaism,” said Sherith Israel’s Glassman, who trains adult b’nai mitzvah throughout the year but is especially proud of Sperber. “She loves Sherith Israel so much, where she attends Shabbat services weekly with her son, David, that her bat mitzvah ceremony is a way to honor her life-long relationship to Judaism.”

Glassman recalled that Reuben would sing the loudest at services, and would often belt out whatever tune was buzzing in his head.

“My last memory of the two of them together is seeing them sitting in wheelchairs, holding hands on Yom Kippur,” Glassman said.

“The whole Sperber family has gone beyond the call of duty when it comes to nourishing the Jewish community,” she added.

But it is Doris, the family matriarch, who guides the family with her gentleness and quiet spiritual fervor. Yet she has steadfastly avoided any kind of limelight.

Stephen said his mother was more than content to let the gregarious Reuben be the face of the family while she toiled behind the scenes — which is why he was initially startled when she first expressed interest in having a bat mitzvah ceremony.

“What she is doing is an amazing thing,” Stephen said.

The question remains, though, why now?

“I think my father’s passing resulted in her standing on her own,” Stephen said. “She is getting a sense of herself as an individual.”

Sperber may be coming into her own as she begins her second century, but, as she will say in her drash on Jan. 26, her husband’s influence is still at work:

“Many times Reuben encouraged me to become a bat mitzvah. In part, this wonderful event is meant to honor him.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.