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Mission: bat mitzvah

Cue the music, the lights, the camera - and the secret agents, the helicopterand the Ferrari. For a Tampa girl's 13th birthday smash, nothing is impossible.

Published April 2, 2006

[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Sasha Dominguez hangs out in a Ferrari 360 Spider in Ybor City while waiting to shoot the getaway scene in her own movie. Her family will show the film at her bat mitzvah . She’s the star.

[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
“Oh my gosh, that was so cool” is how Sasha, 13, was greeted by her friends and classmates on the dance floor after making her big entrance at her bat mitzvah party.
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Dr. Jose Dominguez Jr. ribs his daughter Sasha while taking a break from the movie scene being filmed in her bedroom: Her mom will try to wake her in the morning, only to discover she has snuck out. She’s on a secret mission. The movie was later shown to friends and family at Sasha’s bat mitzvah on March 25.
[21st Century Productions photos]
As her film begins, Sasha hides outside the ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in Tampa. Soon she would make her big entrance, turning from bank-robbing daredevil to jubilant star of her bat mitzvah party.
Sasha and her dad get direction as they film a getaway scene on the streets of Ybor City. Art Polin’s company, 21st Century Productions, was hired to shoot the movie.
Sasha races across Tampa Bay on her dad’s water scooter to meet up with a Cuba-bound submarine.

Sasha slips into Cuba to begin her secret mission after a harrowing underwater swim from the sub.  

Sasha rappels from a helicopter to the roof of the Renaissance Hotel after her daring escape from Cuba.  


Dusting day at Casa Dominguez. A taxidermist has left a path through the heads. It's a twisting trail through the living room, strewn with heads on both sides: overturned antlered and horned beasts, ram, eland, elk, buffalo, wildebeest, wildcat, doleful glass eyes gazing skyward. An ostrich peeks over the couch. A male African lion, preserved from head to tail, prowls under the TV screen.

The trail leads to the stairs. On the second floor, more strewn heads, including those of buffaloes from five continents, a zebra and a musk ox from the North Pole. In his den, Jose Dominguez hauls down a dusty buffalo beside a rack of exotic pistols and rifles, one weighted with a black grenade launcher.

Down the hall, Tina Dominguez leans over daughter Sasha's bed. There's a surfboard overhead, an electric guitar on a stand, a desk photo of grinning girls and an inscription: "Best buds for life fruitcakes for life." Beside it, another photo: Sasha, in camouflage, gripping the horns of some great dead thing.

Tina is pulling on the bed covers. "Sasha, time to get up," she says. The covers fall back, a mannequin's wigged head topples off the pillow. Tina straightens and lets loose a Nightmare on Elm Street scream.

A movie crew films everything.

A Jewish girl had her bat mitzvah on her 13th birthday Saturday a week ago. Her Jewish mother had never had one. Her Cuban Catholic father wanted to invent one. It followed tradition; it broke tradition. A congregation heard the Hebrew words of Moses; it heard a thunderous stripping of gears of a Ferrari 360 Spider. Orbits intersected and cultures collided. This is the way it is today: Collisions, and then new cultures on new orbits.

The making of Sasha Dominguez's bat mitzvah has been like no other in Tampa, says party planner Gladys Leitman. She should know. She has been doing bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs for 29 years. She has had some doozies.

One kid wanted a party that replicated his beloved North Carolina summer camp. Gladys had live trees from the camp trucked to Tampa. Another wanted the ballroom turned into an ice rink. The ice was fake, but "the room was freezing cold." Then there was the kid who wanted a "Hawaiian Night." As they wheeled in a "volcano cake" in full eruption, the fire sprinkler system went off, drowning boy, cake and guests.

When Gladys met the Dominguezes a year ago, they came as a foursome: Sasha, a pretty, 12-year-old brunette, athletic-looking, outwardly shy, but with an intensity of expression, a boldness, which her shyness doesn't hide very well; 10-year-old sister Shelbi, a playful pixie; their mom Tina, demure and friendly, newly rediscovering as a parent the mystique and poetry of Judaism that hadn't seemed so important to her as a girl; and their dad, Jose.

Jose. Taught by Jesuits. Son of a renowned Havana cardiologist who fled Castro penniless. Jose's mom carried into the United States his unborn brother and a stash of family jewels. Jose was 9 months old.

He grew up to be a pediatric allergist who lives on the water in gated Culbreath Isles. A king of Tampa's Krewe of the Knights of Sant' Yago. Race car collector. Scuba diver. Snowboarder. Practitioner of blood sports. A Saul Bellow kind of character: "first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not-so-innocent." He makes no apologies.

"My answer to anyone who questions what I do is, 'I don't know how to curtail. I'm full of life.' "

Jose and his three women came to Gladys. They told her to think big. Somehow, she knew this would take more than a volcano cake. For one thing, it would take a lot of money, but dollar figures were the one thing that the Dominguez family would not reveal for this story. Just know that Jose's budget was bigger than a buffalo head. "Go see Art Polin," Gladys told them.

*   *   *

Art Polin runs 21st Century Productions. The company makes biographical films for people who want to leave a life story behind for posterity. It also makes films for bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah parties.

Parents who come to Art usually say they want something spectacular. Then they tell him about the kid. Well, Junior plays soccer. He's very good with a Game Boy. He has a rock collection. These parents don't make it easy for Art.

The Dominguezes had a different story. First-born Sasha liked pretty dresses and was especially particular about her shoes. But she was a daddy's girl from the get-go. She wanted to do whatever he did. She rode in his sports cars and swamp buggies. He taught her to ride a water scooter and scuba dive. She tagged along on his hunting trips. When she turned 5, he put a .410 shotgun in her arms and she aimed it at a wild hog 10 yards away.

"Take him, Sasha," Jose said.

She brought the hog down with the first shot. Then she fired again. She fired four times. It was still kicking. "Finish him off," she told the hunting guide.

Jose tells the story proudly. Asked for her version, Sasha smiles and shrugs. "I was 51/2. I was just happy being with my dad."

Jose hung the hog's head in his den, yellow tusks and all. It looks deadly, even when dead. "Sometimes, when it's just me and the rednecks," Jose says of killing hogs, "we do it with knives."

Polin listened to all this. It didn't sound very Jewish to him. He grew up in a strict Jewish household. His mother made his older brother, home from the Army, leave his combat knife outside before coming in the house. But one thing Art knew: Sasha had great material. He told his prospective clients to go home and think up a wild fantasy based on her daredevil aptitudes. Some kind of secret agent theme. Maybe something like Mission: Impossible.

On the 45-minute ride home, mom, dad and the kids pitched ideas at one another: Sasha is not just a schoolgirl. Gets secret orders. Parents don't know. Bat mitzvah mission. Submarine. Ocean swim. Cuban beach landing. Bank robbery. Ferrari/helicopter getaway. By the time they got home, they had the whole story. Jose called Polin. Mission: Impossible was a go.

*   *   *

So far this story may sound little-rich-girl, a lesser version of the notorious $10-million bat mitzvah last December in New York City that included performances by 50 Cent and Aerosmith. To the Dominguez family, that's parental self-glorification. "We're not bringing in a superstar to make us look like big shots," Tina says.

The Dominguezes say they're like most other families today, blending blood and history, trying to help their children be happy, be themselves, know God. They rely on tradition, they rely on their own instincts. They don't necessarily care what others think. They have struck out on their own. Their way happens to require a helicopter and a Ferrari.

Jose has other props. He takes a daughter along on his weekend hospital rounds. Sasha was 7 when she first went with him. She felt awed when a patient grasped her dad's hands and thanked him. "The patient knew she was in good hands and that my dad would do everything he could to make her feel better," she later wrote.

Tina's Jewish parents agree with Art Polin that their son-in-law's lifestyle is not very Jewish. Wild pigs! Buffalo heads! Guns and knives! Race cars! Mission: Impossibles!

"We don't know all these crazy things," says Sheila Greenblatt, Tina's mother.

One day, long ago, such a union might have been impossible. But the Greenblatts accept that as times change, even sacred traditions can seem ephemeral. Tina had already shockproofed them by once dating an Iranian.

At first, they weren't so sure of Jose. Tina came home from her job as an X-ray tech one day and told them she'd met a pediatric resident in Orlando. He'd broken his foot in a volleyball game. As she X-rayed his foot, he got her name. He was a doctor. That was good. He was a Catholic. Oh. Well, he was a doctor.

On their first date, Jose told Tina he loved her.

"My father was the same way," Jose said.

His father had passed his mother in his car one evening as she strolled Havana's moonlit Malecon. She was alone. She was, in his eyes, a goddess. "He pulled over and said to her, 'I'm going to marry you. What's your name?' "

The Greenblatts thought Jose could be too impetuous, might be short-term. Then early in their courtship, Tina fell ill, coming down with a 104-degree fever. He showed up at her home, exhausted in his scrubs and lab coat, and sat next to her until daylight, holding her hand.

They were engaged within three months and married within six by a rabbi. They later tried to marry again before a Catholic priest, but the priest refused because neither Jose nor Tina could promise that any children they had would be raised Catholic.

Their son-in-law is "a man who knows what he wants," says Bill Greenblatt. "He amazes me."

"I went to art school; I believe in creative minds," Sheila says. "He exposes Tina and the girls to things we never dreamed of."

"As long as they do what they do with a full heart, we as grandparents have a saying," Bill says. "Go with the flow!"

*   *   *

In some ways, Sasha's bat mitzvah preparation - a yearlong process - has been more harrowing for her than hunting wild boar.

School has never been effortless, but she has parents, especially a father, who expect success. She has to work to make it look easy. Torah Hebrew, with its lack of vowels or punctuation, was a quantum leap in difficulty.

Kids like Sasha sweat it out in the study of Conservative Rabbi Marc Sack every year at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. It's the cluttered, softly lighted study of a scholar, filled with Jewish tradition, volumes of works in Hebrew, a portal to Judaism for kids who have known nothing like it.

More and more, the kids who come through his study are like Sasha. "In the Jewish world, we are seeing less and less typical," he says, ancient texts stacked around him. "Three of my next five b'nai mitzvah families are interfaith. Another is a convert. I can't tell you there is a single norm anymore.

"With all these kids, not just Sasha, I see the tension of rigorous preparation," Sack said. "I see the beginnings of fear. 'What am I going to do?' I feel the cold hands, and I see the worried expressions. And I see them beaming after the fact."

The bow-tied rabbi paused. "With Sasha, I'm still seeing impending terror."

To become a bat mitzvah is to become at 13 a Jewish adult, to submit to the commandments of Jewish life. Learning to read from the Torah is how Jewish kids get there. It enables them to lead hundreds of fellow congregants in worship, often their first experience in public speaking. "They come through the process with an incredible sense of accomplishment," Sack said. "It's a magical moment, for the child and the parents."

As a little girl, Sasha wanted to be Catholic, like her father. But by sending her to the Hillel School of Tampa, her parents set her on course to realize her Jewish identity.

For Rabbi Sack, why they did that is one of the most interesting things about Sasha and her family.

"A Catholic and a Reform Jew send their daughter to a very Jewish day school and arrange for her bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue," he said. "Sasha has clearly bought into it, but her personal journey has not been easy.

"The real issue is that Jose and Tina as a married couple, as parents of Sasha and Shelbi, are telling their kids, 'We want you to be Jewish. We're going to give you the skills to be Jewish.' Jose is fully supportive; he's on the board at Hillel. But they are still Jose's daughters as much as they are Tina's; they will love and carry on some of Jose's traditions."

*   *   *

Jose's traditions? Back to the movie.

Here's the plot: Parents having breakfast a couple of days before Sasha's bat mitzvah. Tina reminiscing about Sasha's unusual childhood: her interest in disguises, her martial arts training, her marksmanship.

(Jose has one speaking part: "Yup. Uh-huh.")

Mom goes upstairs to wake Sasha for school and finds a mannequin's head under the blanket. She screams.

Shelbi, in her jammies, holds up a DVD. "What's this?" It's Sasha's secret orders. Boss telling her that a certain "strange individual" has gotten into trouble and sold his priceless collection of original Beatles recordings to pay his legal expenses. (Photos of Michael Jackson under arrest, and with breast augmentation.)

Recordings have fallen into hands of criminal gang operating from "a stronghold in Cuba." Sasha's orders are to go to Cuba and get recordings back for "a grateful public."

The DVD screen suddenly disappears in a puff of smoke.

Then, that Mission: Impossible theme song.

Sasha slides down rope from bedroom window. Fires up dad's water scooter. Meets up with submarine. Lands on Cuban shores in scuba gear. Runs through jungle. Drives swamp buggy at breakneck speed. Picked up by mysterious woman in Hummer (Grandma Dominguez). Blows up "Banco De Cuba." Escapes with mysterious man (Grandpa Dominguez) in red Ferrari convertible. Rides helicopter back to Tampa. Climbs down rope to rooftop of Renaissance hotel. Charges down stairs. Rips off ski cap. Bursts into bat mitzvah party, stunning family and guests.

Whole thing takes seven minutes.

*   *   *

Sasha's Mission: Impossible required 27 hours of filming, about 100 hours of editing. It required a sound effects guy (six different helicopter sounds, seven different Ferrari sounds), a special effects guy, a guy to transfer digital to film, a helicopter pilot, a Ferrari driver and a grip.

Jose supplied his own Hummer, water scooter and swamp buggy. A pal, helicopter instructor Ron Beasley, loaned himself and his bird. Another pal, John Puls, loaned his red Ferrari. Jose got the job of grip. He had to carry the camera.

The last scene was shot outside the Italian Club in Ybor City. This would be "Banco De Cuba." Sasha was to run inside, set off a ground-shaking explosion (accomplished by jiggling the camera), then run out and jump in the Ferrari, driven by Grandpa Dominguez. Grandpa would roar off down Seventh Avenue.

It was a Sunday morning. Curious passers-by stopped, thinking this might be a Hollywood film crew. Jose watched for cops.

Grandpa was appropriately dressed in a fabulous sheared beaver coat and a leather fedora. He waited behind the wheel of the Ferrari. Dan Nelson, another pal of Jose's who picked up the Ferrari, stood on the curb, leaning over Grandpa nervously.

The car growled and shuddered magnificently. Its worth is about $100,000. Its clearance to the bumpy, pothole-y Ybor pavement was about 4 inches.

Grandpa gripped the wheel, ready for action. Dan gave him his final instructions. Was there a squeak in Dan's voice? "This is forward, this is reverse."

*   *   *

At Sasha's Saturday morning bat mitzvah, she read from Exodus, the second book of the Torah. The Israelites have fled Egypt, wandered into the wilderness. God tells Moses they must build a tabernacle.

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying:

"On the first day of the first month shalt thou rear up the tabernacle of the tent of meeting.

"And thou shalt put therein the ark of the testimony, and thou shalt screen the ark with the veil."

If they build the tabernacle, God promises to live in it and bless them. The project unites the disparate Israelites into a community.

Sasha chanted from the ancient Hebrew texts. Afterward, in English, she recalled for the congregation how she tagged along with her dad on his weekend hospital rounds. She described how happy his patients were to see him. "It was then I decided I wanted to be a doctor like my dad so I could make people smile like he did," she said.

"In my Torah portion, the book ends with God's constant presence. . . . I feel that just like God, we can also give people the confidence to continue their trek, whether through illness, like my dad does, or just by being a good friend to someone who is in need."

*   *   *

At the party that night at the Renaissance, bulky men in black checked the security badges of the 300 guests. They asked if anyone had seen Sasha. The ballroom was nearly dark, the tables covered in black, with fluorescent green sashes on the chairs.

Sirens went off, Ninja dancers with white searchlights popped out of puffs of smoke. The kids, in tuxedos and gowns and some in shades and top hats, howled from their tables. Two projection screens began playing the seven-minute movie. More howling and cheering from the kids, especially when Michael Jackson appeared with boob job. (Score that one for Art Polin.)

When the movie ended, there was a loud bang at the ballroom doors and an explosion of silver confetti. Sasha burst in wearing black ski cap and ninja garb. She marched through the tables under a pounding disco beat. She was grabbed by more dancers in fluorescent green trench coats and orange fedoras. She disappeared behind them and suddenly emerged in a fluorescent green gown, arms raised, flashing a red Top Secret sign.

The crowd was delirious. Some guests simply gaped. Sasha looked happily dazed.

*   *   *

Sasha and family have had a week to recover. Guests are gone, the heads are back on the wall. Shelbi's bat mitzvah is two years away. She wants to be a chef someday, so Gladys' volcano cake may offer food for thought after all. But there's plenty of time for that.

Yes, peace and serenity have descended upon Casa Dominguez. It's quiet. Maybe a little too quiet. Jose's gears are turning. He has always wanted to bag a leopard. In Africa. Wouldn't a safari be something? Out there in the wilds, the whole family. How about this summer?

Africa! Safari! Jungle drums! Snarling leopards!

Oy vey!

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or

[Last modified March 30, 2006, 12:22:05]

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