by Jeanette Friedman (New Milford, NJ)
On my 12th birthday I wasn’t standing in front of a Torah scroll to make a blessing but in a darkened sukkah with some friends and a birthday cake without candles. (There were no candles since I wasn’t permitted to blow them out).
It wasn’t fair.
I could stand behind the curtain upstairs in the musty women’s section of our Crown Heights shul and peek down at the men, including my twin brother, as they recited the blessing over the Torah as “Chassan Bereishis”– The Groom of Genesis.
Why, I wondered, couldn’t there be a “Kallah Bereishis”– The Bride of Genesis?
I was a Beis Yakov girl, a student at the ultra Orthodox girls-only school where they taught us the Pentateuch and Prophets and only the halacha we needed to know about running a household and being a good wife.
But we had TV at home, and I had a high school teacher, Shirley Jacobson, who taught civics and spoke about political action and talked to me about going to college.
She inspired me to convince my parents to let me to go to Brooklyn College, as long as it didn’t cost them anything except the bare minimum.
Brooklyn College saved my life.
It’s where in September, 1970, in the middle of my battle for freedom and my escape from the Orthodox women’s ghetto, that I met my husband Philip, a Vietnam vet, and we’ve stuck together through thick and thin for 37 years.
At Brooklyn College, I learned how to be a Jew and a citizen of the world without suffocating ritual.
I learned how to use my Jewish values to make the world a better place for other people, and how to make the world a better place for me—from marching against the war in Vietnam in 1965 to marching in the Women’s Lib parade in 1970.
When I joined the school newspaper, I met a group of people who gave me courage to move out and up. They were the first to appreciate my writing ability, and taught me a trade that still pays the bills. They taught me how to look for an apartment and drive a car. They taught me how to dig for information and to use the power of the pen.
Whenever I was in conflict with myself or my ethics, the first person I turned to for advice was Sol Amato, a kid from the Lower East Side who used to wait tables in the Borscht Belt. He was the dean of the special baccalaureate degree program and a very gentle man.
I remember Sol’s office and the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet filled with papers about the great philosophers and minds of the world. Sol always asked the right questions, gave thoughtful answers, and pointed me in the right direction.
And then there was the late Dolly Lowther Robinson, a sharecropper’s daughter who went to law school and became Secretary of Labor for the State of NY and a Model Cities Commissioner under Abe Beame.
Without Sol and Dolly, above all others, the road I was on would not have led to Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Chavura Beth Shalom, and this bat mitzvah ceremony in Alpine, New Jersey
When Phil and I moved to Teaneck, we had four kids, ages 1, 2, 3 and 9. We had been in town about two years when, in 1979, someone painted swastikas on the synagogue where my kids were going to nursery school.
That’s when I started down this road– with my fellow sons and daughters of survivors–which has led to meeting amazing people, including world leaders, and travels around the world.
Eventually, the road, twisting and turning, led to Rabbi Jack, who has taught me much, though I’m sure I frustrate the hell out of him because he has had to uncross all the ultra-Orthodox hardwiring in my brain.
It’s because of Rabbi Jack that I’ve looked into the Talmud.
And it’s Rabbi Jack who I want to thank for helping me with my new beginning.
That’s because as we begin the Torah cycle again on Simchat Torah, and I step up to the bimah on my 60th birthday to read the Creation and the First Day, I feel like the bride that I dreamed of when I was 12 years old.
The bride of Genesis–kallah bereishis.
A freelance journalist, editor, and author, Jeanette Friedman serves as communications director for the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. This essay appeared in slightly different form as “My Bat Mitzvah Speech, Simchat Torah 2007: Today I Am A Woman” at her blog, http://www.jeanettefriedman.com/ It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.