Tag Archives: bat mitzvah

My First Aliyah

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.

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Jewish Identity: A Round-Trip Journey

by Donna Swarthout (Bozeman, MT)

A life-long discomfort with institutionalized Judaism is hard to shed once you reach the mid-life years. Sure, it’s great to keep an open mind, but there’s also the sense of not wanting to waste time on pursuits unlikely to enrich one’s life. Some of us narrow our options as we get older in a bargain to reduce the odds of having regrets.

Years of involvement with synagogue life had left me without a strong Jewish identity. This could be my own fault for not making a large enough personal investment, at least that’s what our rabbi and congregation president hinted at when we recently decided not to renew our annual membership. What was it that held us back? Years of trying to fit in, find meaning in the services, and carve out time and money for the responsibilities of membership had left us feeling….well, unfulfilled.

But something shifted when we moved to Germany in July of 2010. The vague contours of my Jewish identity gradually took on a clear shape. This was not a transformation of faith, but rather a return to the embrace of German Jewish culture, to the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by relatives who all spoke with the same New York German Jewish accent and whose lives were a story from a faraway place that I could only imagine.

In a place where Jewish life had been all but extinguished, our family took part in building a new Jewish presence on German soil. A void was filled as I attended services in Berlin among people who shared my ancestry and my determination to revive a part of what had been lost. The sense of connection to Jewish traditions and rituals was present for me in a way that it had never been in the States, at least not since I had left the East Coast at the age of eight to become a California transplant.

Back in the States we were part of the melting pot of Jewish America. Despite all the benefits that come from our diversity, there was also something missing that I had never before been able to put my finger on. In Germany I realized that the missing element was a common cultural heritage that connects us.

As assimilated Americans, we have Jewish identity issues that German Jews don’t have. We come together to share Jewish rituals, but the feeling does not always or often run very deep. We remind ourselves that we come from a long historical tradition that must be kept alive, but we may not feel this in our bones. We worry about things like building funds and membership growth, but how do such pressures help build our Jewish identities?

It was the return to the States that cast a sharper light on the questions that I had struggled with for so long. The journey back to my roots had helped me to find the core of my Jewish identity, but the old doubts about how to lead a meaningful Jewish life resurfaced upon my return to Montana.

One of the first discussions I had with our rabbi after our return was about my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Olivia had been struggling for quite some time to decide if her coming of age ritual would be a bat mitzvah or something outside the Jewish faith. As I listened to the rabbi recite the long list of official guidelines, I was stunned to hear that she would be required to keep a punch card to mark her attendance at services. She would need to have ten punches on the card during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, with no free coffee or hot chocolate to reward her at the end!

I’m troubled by the image of my daughter holding up her punch card to the rabbi after Friday night services. Would my daughter really be more Jewish when the card was full? If she learned her Torah portion and the requisite prayers, why couldn’t she carve her own path to her bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood? Wouldn’t a single profound experience at services be worth more than half a dozen boring ones? Judaism in America feels formulaic at times and the punch card rule symbolized a structure within which I often feel more constrained than inspired.

The end of a journey can bring emotions that range from elation to relief, from fulfillment to exhaustion. I returned from Berlin enriched by my involvement in one of the smallest, but fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. But I also had renewed feelings of ambivalence and doubt about my connection to American Judaism. Now I must weave these two strands of my Jewish self into a single thread of my identity. And I must not abandon the effort to find community amidst the melting pot of Jews in America.

Donna Swarthout lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle. Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing ProjectAVIVA-berlin.de, Tikkun Daily, and in Tablet. This piece first appeared on Jewesses with Attitude (http://jwa.org/blog) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Jewish Women’s Archive.

 

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Wednesday Night Prayers

by Arlyn Miller (Glencoe, IL)

I.

Haftarah Blessing

In the sanctuary, the girl practices for her bat mitzvah.
Beside her, the Rabbi.  In front of them, the open scroll.
Behind them, the open ark.
After reciting her Haftarah with a steady, studied pace, she begins
chanting the blessing.   The mellow warmth of the Rabbi’s voice joins hers:
for holiness and rest, for honor and glory: we thank and bless you.

II.

Kaddish

In the library, two 6th grade girls practice reciting the Kaddish prayer.
An 8th grade boy listens, tutoring them.  They take turns repeating the lines,
punctuating them with an easy camaraderie.  The prayer holds this, too.
In the courtyard, the snow is lit white against the dark night sky.
Yit-gadal v‘-yitka-dash sh’mei raba, b’al-ma di v’ra chi-ru-tei….

 

III.

Shehecheyanu

In the classroom, the Cantor is teaching trope to the students.
In unison their voices overflow into the hallway, where two 4th grade boys
and their teen helper sit cross legged on the floor practicing
the Shehecheyanu: Blessed are You, Adoni, our God,
Sovereign of the universe, for giving us life, sustaining us,
and enabling us to reach this season.

_____

Arlyn Miller is spending a year chronicling the life of her synagogue  (Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL) as its Writer in Residence.  “Wednesday Night Prayers” appears in slightly revised form in the March 2011 KOL.  A poet, essayist and journalist, Arlyn also teaches creative writing in schools and in the community through Poetic License, Inc.  You can find out more about her work at: www.poeticlicenseinc.net.

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Now What?

by Ellie Sugarman (Sarasota, FL)

The many hours, weeks and months that I’ve spent learning Hebrew are almost over.

I will become a bat mitzvah on May 9th, 2009 at Temple Sinai in Sarasota.  My family and friends are planning to attend.

It’s been a challenge to learn not only how to read directly from the Torah, with its minuscule print, but having to learn how any mark under or above each letter alters its sound.

The unique markings above or below the letters, or at the side of a consonant, tell you whether to hold or repeat the sound.  Certain markings will tell you to sound more than one consonant together.  These marks are called the “trope, ” and they help listeners know when a new thought begins and ends.

So, I had to learn not only how to chant the letters which make up each word, but how to stress or elongate the syllables.

All this is not very easy, especially for someone my age!

It’s common for children of thirteen to become a bar or bat mitzvah.  But occasionally an older individual who never had a bar or bat mitzvah dreams of a ceremony of his or her own.

For me, becoming a bat mitzvah became a goal after I found myself as a widow after fifty-nine years of a good marriage. It was very unsettling.  I needed to feel rooted again.

Perhaps I am unique in this need, but I felt learning about my Jewish heritage would offer me solace and well-being. I felt I was on the right path.  I felt sturdier and protected.

It was when some dear friends invited me to welcome the Sabbath over the course of many Friday evenings that I began to have these “feel good” feelings.

Observing the Sabbath each week at their home, and chanting the blessings for the bread and the wine, allowed me to feel the love and warmth of my hosts.

I hadn’t realized what was happening to me.

Returning to the synagogue was helpful, too, and a Sabbath service that I attended about six months ago at Temple Sinai was especially reassuring.

I was asked to recite one of the prayers before the Torah was read, and I was able to do it well.

Walking back to my seat, I had an epiphany. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

It had been a cloudy, dreary day, but for a minute the sanctuary suddenly appeared so very bright and sunny.  Everything around me was glowing.

I blinked my eyes, and the natural color of the room returned.

If someone were to tell me that they had experienced this, I would have listened but possibly would have challenged the truthfulness of it happening.

I do not doubt my experience.

My motto has always been, “Yes, I can.”

I don’t know what else I will be able to learn or accomplish in the years ahead.  Right now, I’m looking forward to becoming a bat mitzvah.

After that, who knows?

There’s always a trip to the moon!

Ellie Sugarman, a perennial student, will be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah on May 9, 2009, to read her Torah portion, Emor. She has volunteered at the Women’s  Resource Center for the past seven years and was a docent at the Ringling Museum of Art for more than 15 years.

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An Act of Atonement

By Harriet Kessler (Woodbury Heights, NJ)

We were probably the first girls– Susan Fuld and I–to be bat mitzvahed in all of Rego Park, NY.

It was 1946, and our shul, the Rego Park Jewish Center, was a storefront across from the public library on Booth Street.

I don’t remember the rabbi’s name. And I don’t remember anything about the ceremony. I do recall that Susan and I prepared for and went through the ritual together, and that of all the 12-year-old Jewish girls in P.S. 139, we were the least likely bat mitzvah candidates.

Both of our families were ideologically secular.

Susan’s parents, middle-class intellectuals, were college educated civil servants who read The New York Sun at night. Her father, an accountant, and her mother, a grade-school teacher– Zionists who made aliyah some seven years later when the House Un-American Activities Committee came calling–believed that religion was the opiate of the people.

My parents, a self-taught plastics engineer and a housewife, were labor-oriented high school graduates who read The New York World Telegram and were Workmen’s Circle devotees. In fact, living in Far Rockaway before our move to Rego Park, we could have doubled for the family that ate on Yom Kippur in Woody Allen’s Radio Days.

Despite our parents, Susan and I went to synagogue.

Not that our parents objected. They simply looked at us incredulously when we called for each other and trotted off to children’s services every Saturday, questioning what we found so appealing about spending time in the synagogue.

I dreamed of becoming a writer and a singer, and shul meant stories and music. David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Noah.  Such high drama! I loved the Bible stories because they were exotic and powerful. And I loved the songs–David Melech Yisroel, Hine Ma Tov, Shalom Alecheim, Ein k’Eloheinu–that let me show off my high notes as I sang at the top of my lungs.

Shul also meant celebration. The best was Simchat Torah which I so enjoyed that my mind’s eye often returns to a chubby little girl in a sailor dress and brown oxfords, her black corkscrew curls bouncing as she parades with all of Jewish Rego Park (except for Susan’s parents and mine), dancing down the center aisle of the old Jewish Center.

But if we went to shul despite our parents, we prepared for our bat mitzvah because of them.

For Susan– and it was all her idea–the Jewish rite of passage was intended to help her parents bear the pain inflicted by her older sister.

Dorothea, Susan’s senior by seven years, had married a Catholic boy, graduating from high school and eloping the next day with him before his Army unit left for Europe. Secular or not, her parents were devastated.

I never questioned why Susan’s performance of a ritual that was meaningless to her parents would help matters. But I took her word that becoming a bat mitzvah would assure her folks that they still had one Jewish daughter.

For me, though, the bat mitzvah meant atoning for my father’s sins.

I knew–even at 12–that my father had battled his temper all his life, usually without success except where his family was concerned. When I was eight, for example, we’d moved from Far Rockaway because of his shame following a 3 a.m. arrest. (The police car’s screaming siren had alerted all the neighbors.) His crime? Socking the arresting officer’s brother-in-law in a fit of road rage.

But, more significantly, my dad’s 13th year had come and gone sans bar mitzvah because of his lack of control. Like the young boy in “The Conversion of the Jews,” an early Philip Roth story, my father was the thorn in his heder rebbe’s flesh. Taking nothing on faith, continually interrupting the class with a relentless stream of questions, he eventually provoked the rabbi into striking him with a stick.

Where Philip Roth’s protagonist responded to his rabbi’s blows by screaming, “You don’t hit over God,” running from the schoolroom onto a rooftop, and threatening to jump unless all the Jews converted, my father simply hit the rabbi back–and ended his own Jewish education.

To my young mind, his missing out on a bar mitzvah meant that he wanted for Jewish legitimacy. I decided that he needed validation and that I needed it, too.

Was my father pleased? I don’t remember. Was I less isolated? I don’t recall that either. If I was, the feeling didn’t last.

Looking back, though, the bat mitzvah seems like a milestone in my unending struggle to be a good Jewish-American.

It was my first act of atonement, and, possibly, my most genuine–a touchstone that I return to year after year.

Harriet Kessler, whose first love is short story writing, is longtime editor of The Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey and Attitudes Magazine. You can read her work at www.jewishvoicesnj.org

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Kallah Bereishis

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.

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