By Lesléa Newman (Holyoke, MA)
When I enrolled in my synagogue’s two-year adult B’nai Mitzvah class, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that eventually I’d have to stand up on the bima in front of the entire congregation and lead them in prayer. But I didn’t believe that would ever really happen.
It came about sooner than I expected.
The class began in October with basic Hebrew lessons. Of the ten of us, all women ranging in age from mid-thirties to early sixties, only one of us had a solid Hebrew background. As a child, I was exempt from Hebrew school because I was a girl, and my brothers envied me. As an adult, I envied my brothers and their ability to sit in shul on a Saturday morning and actually comprehend the service.
Two years before the B’nai Mitzvah class began, embarrassed by my ignorance, I took a “Hebrew Marathon” which is something my temple offers every year before the High Holy Days. This eight hour course, given all in one day, starts with the assumption that many of us already know some Hebrew words. Most of us have read the word “kosher” written in Hebrew letters on the side of matzo boxes during Passover every year of our lives and seen the word “shalom” written in Hebrew on countless Rosh Hashanah cards. The Hebrew marathon gently builds on this knowledge and introduces participants to the entire Hebrew alphabet.
After the marathon ended, I took a ten week follow-up course, and now, in the B’nai Mitzvah class, I was learning the basic rules of Biblical Hebrew grammar. It was thrilling and mind-boggling at the same time. My classmates and I quickly learned that Hebrew resembles English as much as a matzo ball resembles a slice of watermelon, and eventually we stopped asking, “Why?” whenever a new grammatical concept was introduced along with the one or two or twenty exceptions that went along with it.
After studying Hebrew for several months with an excellent teacher who pronounced our vocabulary words in a charming British accent, we began a new course of study with a new teacher. We began to really look at the Saturday morning service and learn the different components of it. What does the Torah service consist of? What is Musaf? Now that we could read, or at least stumble along somewhat, Teacher Number Two helped us learn the “choreography of the service,” as she put it. She taught us when to sit, when to stand, when to bend at the knee and when to bow. Each class ended with her thanking us. “It was a pleasure davening with you this morning,” she’d say, despite the fact that the majority of us could barely carry a tune.
And then it was May.
Teacher Number Three took over the class, and began by handing around a sign-up sheet. On this piece of paper, we were to put our names next to a date: a Saturday morning in July or August. We did what we were told and when the sheet made its way back to our teacher, she calmly announced that on the week each of us had just signed up for, we would be chanting a Haftorah portion during Shabbat services.
Pandemonium broke out.
“There’s no way…”
“We weren’t told…”
“I thought we had another year…”
Though we were a group of (supposedly) mature adults, we were acting like a class of junior high students whose teacher had just announced a surprise quiz. I half-expected someone to stamp her foot and yell “That’s not fair!” but no one did. We were all too busy panicking.
Now my class is hardly a group of slackers. There is a doctor, a social worker and a college professor among us. There is even a woman who makes her living as a public speaker (that would be me). But clearly the thought of singing Haftorah in public filled each of us with sheer terror.
Our fearless leader assured us that we would all “get it” and it was her job to make sure of that. She told us no one steps up to the bima unprepared. “There’s always a first time,” I mumbled. Then I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that I was only chanting one-fourth of a Haftorah portion, so I’d be up on the bima with three of my classmates. Plus, my portion was only four-and-a-half minutes long. And furthermore, thousands of twelve and thirteen year-olds had learned to chant Haftorah before me. If those little pishers could do it, how hard could it be?
The second week of class, our teacher handed out our Haftorah portions. Each of us were also given a box of Highlighters: blue, pink, orange, yellow, purple and green. If we had acted like junior high school students the week before, now we regressed into elementary school children, as playful fights broke out over who got a purple box and who got a pink one.
Once we had settled down, our teacher explained the concept of trope marks. Every word was accompanied by one trope mark. Of course, this being Hebrew, in some cases a word had two trope marks. (Why? Don’t ask.) Each trope mark stands for a melody. Some trope marks appear over their Hebrew words. Others appear under, in and among the dots that stand for vowels. They have different shapes: one looks like a diamond, one looks like an apostrophe mark, and a third—my favorite—looks like a chicken bone. Trope marks also come in groups. Each group is assigned a color. Our assignment was to look at each word of our portion, find the trope mark, figure out what color group it belonged to and color it accordingly. And of course some trope marks share the same name but appear in different groups and carry different melodies. If this sounds confusing, it is.
It only gets worse.
After the Haftorah portion is appropriately marked by color, we each had to learn to sing our part. This involved reading the Hebrew words, which by the way were printed in some fancy-shmancy font none of us had ever seen before, memorizing the tune that each trope mark represented, and putting it all together. Our teacher sent us home with a sheet of paper that translated the trope marks into notes, which helped only those of us who could read music. She also gave each of us a tape. The tape did not contain our individual trope portions; that would come later. No, this first tape contained the names of the trope marks, grouped together and sung to the melody they represented. After each grouping was sung, there would be a pause on the tape so the line of melody could be repeated. (Remember “ecoutez et repetez” from high school French class?)
Have I mentioned that I’m tone deaf?
Obediently I took my tape home, popped it into my Walkman, and immediately burst into tears. When I caught my breath, I phoned my teacher.
“I can’t.” I gulped down the sobs that were threatening to erupt again. “I’m really sorry, but I’m just not capable of doing this, and I think it would be better for me to drop out now so you can find someone else to fill my slot on July 24th and…”
My teacher interrupted my babbling with exactly four words: “You’re not dropping out.”
When I arrived at the synagogue for the third meeting of our Haftorah class, I learned that I wasn’t the only one who’d had a meltdown during the week. The self-doubt in the room was so thick, you could have spread it on a piece of challah. One woman pinpointed the problem. “I don’t even know how to attack this,” she said. “Should I try to learn all the Hebrew first? Should I color in all the trope marks? Should I listen to the tape over and over? How should I learn?”
We all leaned forward eager to hear our teacher’s reply. Master of the four-word response, she smiled and said, “You’ll find your way.”
Back home, my spouse who is quite musical, volunteered to help me by playing the trope melodies on a portable keyboard and listening to my attempts to recreate them. Now despite my years of singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the shower pretending I’m Barbra Streisand, whom I really sound like is The Nanny’s Fran Drescher. With a frog in her throat. And my spouse, poor thing, has perfect pitch. Night after night I serenaded my family, trying my hardest to stay in tune.
“How did that sound?” I asked my spouse one particular evening when I thought I did rather well.
“You changed keys three times on that line.”
I was impressed. “Only three times?” I said. “I must be improving.”
The following week was June which meant that July was just around the corner. And something finally clicked. I remembered that a writing teacher of mine had once advised me to study another art form, any art form other than writing. I was crushed. Obviously my teacher thought I had no talent.
But that wasn’t the case. “It’s a good way to learn how you learn,” he said and he was right. I chose to study karate, having no attachment to how good a karate student I would become. In fact, I knew I’d be a slow learner as I’ve never been physically inclined. The first time I saw my sensei perform the kata, or series of choreographed punches, blocks and kicks that each white belt had to learn, I knew I’d never master it. (I probably cried then, too.) But I did master it. I practiced every single day. And I didn’t go on to move #2 until I had completely mastered move #1. Which took a very long time.
I arrived at our fourth class with one phrase under my belt. From here on in, class time would be devoted to hearing each of us sing by ourselves as much of our Haftorah portion as we had managed to learn. Before each “performance” our teacher allowed us two minutes of what we came to call therapy. To the untrained ear it would appear that each of us were eager to share our learning process with our classmates. In truth—at least in my case—this was merely a stalling tactic.
When my turn came, I told my Haftorah comrades how scary it was for me to sing in front of them. “I’d rather write a five-hundred page book,” I told them, which, though I am a seasoned writer is a terrifying undertaking. I also told the class the dream I’d had the night before: I opened a brand new copy of my latest novel and each word was accompanied by a trope mark which had to be color-coded! When the laughter died down, I took a deep breath and sang the two words I had managed to learn. When I was finished, I felt proud as if I’d performed an aria from Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House. My teacher could not have been more pleased.
As the weeks passed, each student’s classroom solo grew longer in length. Each student also had to face her own demons. One woman felt confident about her singing but had fears about her ability to read Hebrew. Another woman read Hebrew easily but was self-conscious about her singing. I had serious doubts about my ability to read Hebrew and my singing, but nevertheless I forged ahead. (I also decided that I was not going to sing my Haftorah, I was going to chant it, which seemed much less intimidating.)
Since practice makes perfect, I practiced my portion every single day. The weekend before my big debut, I packed my tape and color-coded Haftorah portion and traveled to Colorado to teach a writing retreat being held at a convent. There, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains among the deer, the writers and the Poor Sisters of Saint Frances Seraph of the Perpetual Adoration, I had another dream: my friend Victor who had died of AIDS when he was 51 and who hadn’t set foot inside a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah, sat beside me and, with infinite patience and love, helped me sound out the Hebrew words. I took enormous comfort from the fact that Victor had come all the way down from Heaven to give me his blessing.
And then the big day came.
As is my habit, I focused my anxiety on the all-important decision of what to wear. Pants or skirt? Glasses or contact lenses? Hair loose or swept back? I got myself together and did a last minute check in the mirror. Even though I looked okay, something was missing. What was it? In a flash, I knew: my Bubbe’s gold watch which I only wore once a year, on the High Holy Days. My grandfather, whom I had never met but was named for, gave the watch to my grandmother as a Mother’s Day gift from the children—my mother and two uncles—long before I was born, and I do not remember ever seeing her without it. I fastened the timepiece around my wrist, wound it up, and raised it to my ear to hear its tick. Now I was ready to make my way to the synagogue. Once there, I took my seat with the other three members of my Haftorah group and the service began. There up on the bima, leading the opening prayers, was one of my former karate teachers! I took this as a sign that everything would be okay.
And it was.
My group of four climbed the steps to the bima at the appropriate time. Our teacher, who coincidentally was wearing the same outfit as I was—a pink blouse and black slacks—stood beside us, ready to provide a prompt if necessary. I looked out at the congregation and caught sight of my spouse sitting with my best friend. In front of them was my Hebrew teacher, near a dear friend who has known me since the year I graduated from college. I am a regular at our shul’s Sisterhood meetings, and many of my “sisters” were sitting on the pews as well. Everyone’s face was awash with kindness.
I did not chant my Haftorah portion. I opened my mouth and sang those ancient Hebrew words with all the passion I could muster. When the last member of our group was done, our teacher sang the blessing after the Haftorah in her beautiful, melodious voice. When she was finished, my group started moving off the bima to take our seats but our teacher stopped us. She had us stand there while she told the congregation that it was our first time on the bima and how proud of us she was. A spontaneous chorus of “Simen Tov und Mazel Tov” broke out. I grasped hands with two members of my group and cried. And beamed.
After my Hebrew teacher gave the D’var Torah and one of my classmate’s daughters led the Musaf service, I retired to the social hall with my spouse and my friends for the kiddish. There I was hugged, kissed, and kvelled over. By the end of the morning, my face literally hurt from smiling so much.
Right before I left the synagogue, my Haftorah teacher gave me a hug. “See you in the fall,” she said. “We’ll be studying Torah trope in September. It’s a bit different from Hatftorah troupe, but I think you’ll manage it.”
Sure, I thought. Piece of (honey) cake.
Lesléa Newman is the author of the novel, The Reluctant Daughter; the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk; the poetry collection, Still Life with Buddy, and the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies. You can visit her website to learn more about her work: www.lesleanewman.com