October 20, 2010
My heart pounds, my pulse races. I look at my husband, John, and my friends. They are seated in a semicircle, waiting for me to speak.
|Karen has continued her studies since her bat mitzvah. Photo: Steve Mitman.
It's a warm June Saturday, and soon we will begin the Mincha, or afternoon, Shabbat service. I have dreamed about and worked toward this day for three years. I've invited several friends--Jews, Christians and nonbelievers--to witness as I become a bat mitzvah, literally, a "daughter of the commandments". That I am achieving this Jewish milestone one week shy of my 63rd birthday, rather than the usual age of 12 or 13, seems to please them even more.
I look around at the decorations and flowers my friend and I have placed in the church's social hall and decide that I have no second thoughts about holding my Jewish celebration here, at the First Congregational Church of Wilton, Maine. This is where my havurah group has met monthly for Shabbat study and prayer. Though Temple Shalom in Auburn is beautiful and welcoming, it was with the havurah group, nearly four years ago, that I felt the need to bring my commitment to Judaism to a deeper level.
I steady my hands on the bima that John has made. It will hold the small Torah scroll that has been graciously loaned by Temple Shalom and transported with utmost care by friends. I wonder how I will sound when I read. Will Jonathan Cohen, who is leading the service while Rabbi Katzir is away, need to stop frequently to correct me if I mispronounce holy words, as he is obligated to do? Will Vicky, Jonathan's wife, who has given me hours of her time every Friday for the past three years, feel that her time was well spent? She has unlocked the language of Hebrew for me, one letter, one phrase at a time. She has taught me how to lain, to chant, from the Torah, something I never thought I would be able to do.
I glance at John. He will have the honor of presenting me with my tallit before I begin the Torah reading. We have rehearsed this. He will drape it around my shoulders, give me a hug, and sit down. He's made it clear that he'd rather not speak at this religious event. I understand. I know that my agnostic husband, though raised in a multi-denominational Christian family, finds it hard to relate to expressions of faith.
I welcome my guests. After a few moments of silent meditation, we recite Ma Tovu. The words proclaim the beauty of the ancient Israelites' dwellings and were first spoken by the prophet Balaam, whom I have grown to love as the complex main character of my Torah portion, Parashah Balak. In the story he is asked by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites, but instead utters the words of praise God puts in his mouth.
Soon John is called to give me the tallit, and he surprises me. In his excitement and pride, he finds words that bring both of us to tears.
Rabbi Susan, a good friend, removes the Torah from the portable Ark and faces me. I look at her kind eyes and instantly recall our pilgrimage, with three other women, to Mayyim Hayyim, the non-Orthodox Mikveh in Newton, Mass. We immersed in the holy waters, one at a time and privately, to acknowledge milestones in our lives and to connect with a Jewish tradition that has existed for thousands of years.
Rabbi Susan carefully hands me the scroll and now, for the first time in my life, I hold the Torah and carry it to each of the congregants. Those who are moved to show their respect in the Jewish custom touch it gently with their prayer books and then bring the books to their lips. We Jews are emotionally connected to this sacred object, whether we are observant or not. It is what we have been praised and persecuted for throughout the centuries.
Vicky is called up for the first aliyah. We remove the Torah's velvet cover and partially unroll the scroll. The Torah will be divided into smaller sections, and a blessing must be said before and after each section is read. First Vicky, then my friend Sheila, then I will recite the blessings.
I take the Yad, a small silver pointer, and move it over the Hebrew writing as I chant. I have practiced this many times but my shaking soprano voice drops to alto. No matter. When I dare to look up, everyone is smiling and I am thanking God for this day.
When I chant the final lines and say the blessing, I'm nearly smothered with hugs from Vicky and Jonathan. In my heart, I'm holding tightly to my late parents, secular but always proud to be Jews, and to grandparents and distant ancestors that I met from photos on a family wall. They are all cheering wildly.
Friends Sheri and Joel dress the Torah back in its royal clothes, and now it is time for me to deliver my drash, my interpretation and commentary on what I have read. First, two pages of thank-you's, then the summary, then my "thesis". No one yawns, which is what I've been dreading, it's so many pages long. But I think people relate to what I'm saying about Balak, and life and kindness, and crossroads, like the one I am at today.
Once again, I carry the Torah and this time, the congregation throws candy at me to celebrate the sweetness of life. Then I hand the Torah to Miriam, the Cohens' youngest daughter, who will become bat mitzvah herself in one year. She returns it to the ark. The Tradition continues.
Vicky delivers a speech about me, filled with praise and blessings. Eli, the Cohens' youngest son, leads us in the closing Aleinu prayer. We "make motzi" and say the blessings over wine and the delicious loaves of challah that Vicky has baked.
The table is spread with potluck contributions and catered bagels and lox. The carrot cake I designed is decorated with real flowers. We eat till we can barely breathe. Rosie, the oldest Cohen daughter, delivers her own drash. I am humbled by both her poise and her kind words about me and courage and commitment. Finally, Sam Cohen, who has come back from college for the summer, leads us in songs and saying grace. Teenagers drum on the table, adults clap to keep time. Our after-the-meal grace is loud and wonderful.
Then, it's over. I'm tired and worn, but I have fulfilled my dream to become bat mitzvah.I will not end my Jewish studies at this point; I have so much to learn. But for right now, as I leave the church with my husband and a dear friend, I feel victorious, and free to live in this moment for the rest of my life.