by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL)
I sat between my husband and brother and watched the snow falling through the stained glass windows of the synagogue as I folded and unfolded the piece of paper in my hands that held the prayers said before and after a Torah portion is read. My cousin Walter sent them to me in the mail, written in Hebrew along with the English pronunciation. I practiced saying them on and off during the two-hour drive from our home to Princeton, New Jersey where the synagogue was located and where his son, David, was to be bar mitzvahed. I was both nervous and excited to be called to the bimah for an aliyah with my brother. It was my first time.
Expecting a Reform service, since that’s how I remembered Walter being raised and where I feel most comfortable, I was surprised to find myself surrounded instead by the songs and prayers of my childhood—the cadence of a Conservative Jewish upbringing I long ago left behind.
While my brother and all the boys went to Hebrew School preparing for their bar mitzvahs, I was sent to Sunday School with the other girls. Our teacher, Mrs. Sands, was a beautiful, young Israeli. She exuded class and charm and had a figure we adolescents dreamed of having as adults. Full of life and ready with a smile, she had short, blonde, wavy hair. Her dangling earrings would catch the light and brighten the glow about her. Mrs. Sands had us mesmerized as we learned how to read Hebrew from a book similar to the English reader, “Dick and Jane.” She taught us how to speak conversational Hebrew and to write in Hebrew script. She led us in Israeli folk dances and taught us Israeli songs.
Then one Sunday when we arrived for class, Mrs. Sands wasn’t there and we were told she wasn’t coming back. Most of us figured she was let go because we were having too much fun and the Rabbi wasn’t happy about that. Another theory was that she pronounced Hebrew words in the more modern, Israeli way. In the end, all we knew was that the Rabbi fired her. We never found out why. And the injustice of his act led to an act of my own.
I decided I was done—done with Sunday School, done with the synagogue and its sexist rituals, done feeling warmly toward the religious teachings of my youth. If Mrs. Sands wasn’t welcome, I didn’t want to be part of the establishment that didn’t want her.
I was pulled from my childhood memories as I heard the Cantor call my name along with my brother’s. The English “Judy Rosner” sounded out of place, but then the Cantor used my Hebrew name, Y’hudite. It rang true and sounded just right. I was shaking as I took my place before the Torah scroll open on the reading table. I felt a catch in my chest that made me worried I might cry. Somehow I managed to say the prayers I had practiced along with my brother. My daughter told me later she could barely hear me over my brother’s boom. My husband was kinder and told me my voice complemented my brother’s nicely.
When we finished reciting the prayer after the Torah reading, the Cantor began moving me to the other side of the reading table. I wasn’t tuned into the choreography of Torah reading, which he soon realized as he muttered somewhat annoyed under his breath, “No one seems to know where to go.”
Rather boldly, I whispered back, “That’s because it’s my first time.”
“Your first time?” the Cantor asked incredulously. “We’ll have to do something about that.”
And then came the best part. The Rabbi rolled the Torah together and put a cloth on top as if to say, “Well get back to you in a moment,” and then he and the Cantor sang a special prayer just for me because it was my first aliyah. Then the whole congregation sang the congratulatory song “Siman Tov! Mazal Tov!” In effect, I was becoming bat mitzvahed, Conservative-style. I felt proud, beautiful, and very special. Mrs. Sands would have approved.
This wasn’t just a religious coming of age moment for me. It was a political one as well. Here I was, a woman in a Conservative synagogue, permitted to stand at the bimah and given an honor. The synagogue of my youth would stand for no such thing. Women took no part in the service, were not bat mitzvahed, and were never called up to the ark.
So now that G-d’s house has accepted me—on some of my terms, anyway—I feel better able to open my sanctuary, my heart, to G-d. I still haven’t forgiven my childhood Rabbi for firing Mrs. Sands, and I still feel a bit like a foreigner in a Conservative synagogue, but I’m delighted that women now play a greater part in the service and that female rabbis have made their way to the bimah.
I’ve been honored with an aliyah a number of times with my husband in recent years, most notably at the bat mitzvah of our daughter. And each time I’ve been nervous and excited when singing the prayers. However, none has had the emotional impact of my first time before the Torah at the Conservative synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey at the bar mitzvah of my young cousin, David.
Judith Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach. She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions. Her primary focus now is memoir.
For more information about Judy, you can visit her websitewww.therosnergroup.com.