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My Adult Bat Mitzvah

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 Calloway
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.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "our duty," it's the name and first word of a prayer recited at the end of three daily services in traditional Jewish liturgy. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The afternoon prayer service. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Karen Kaduson Calloway

Karen Kaduson Calloway moved from New York City to western Maine with her husband, John, in 1981. A retired elementary school teacher, she now spends her time gardening, volunteering at local schools and writing for children.

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