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Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

Maya’s bat mitzvah, as I may have mentioned, is coming up. I may have also mentioned that I have a Torah portion myself.

Here’s a little primer for the uninitiated:

The Torah reading is split into 7 parts. The kid learns the last part first, then goes to the beginning and starts learning each portion. S/he first learns another reading, called the Haftarah, doing that whole thing. Other people will take portions too, sometimes. I watched my BIL and FIL do a portion each for my nephew’s bar mitzvah and thought ‘that’s cool; we should do that.’ Then I thought, wait a minute! It’s a bat mitzvah, it should be the women folk!

My mother isn’t Jewish, so she’s off the hook. I went instead to my MIL and suggested she take one portion and I take another. I was very impressed when she agreed. At the time, a year ago, she didn’t even read Hebrew. She hired a tutor and learned.

But chanting Torah is way more complicated than that. Written Hebrew doesn’t really have vowels. The vowel sounds are indicated with small marks above or below the letters and those proficient in Hebrew don’t bother with them at all. What we have to learn from has the vowels. It also has other marks, to indicated how the word is to be sung. Learning that – the trope – is a big part of learning for the kid, but since we only had one portion each, my MIL and I went for straight memorization. However, when you sing something about one zillion times, you start to recognize the marks as meaning certain sounds. Doesn’t really matter, though, because the actual Torah scroll you read from up in front of everyone has none of that – no vowels, no trope. And the letters are stylized. It’s a bit like reading a medieval scroll.

The rabbi gave us photocopies of our portions and the Cantor (the singy guy at the synagogue) chanted them for us onto a CD. I downloaded it onto my iPod. Pretty much every day since the beginning of December, recently several times a day, I have been trying to stuff this thing into my head.

Today, I went met with the Cantor and sang it for him, hoping desperately that I hadn’t made any huge errors. As the header suggests quite strongly, I didn’t suck! I actually did pretty darn well. He says he’s not remotely worried that I’ll get it all done in time and that I’m 95% ready. He gave me some pointers for getting the last little bit.

This is a huge, huge relief. And now, off to study!

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The first bat mitzvah I attended was that of the daughter of one of J’s colleagues. I didn’t know the kid or the synagogue. It was an eye-opening experience.

It was an Orthodox synagogue, one that would probably be described as ‘Modern Orthodox.’ So I wasn’t particularly surprised that the bat mitzvah was on Saturday evening, rather than during a service. The rest of the experience was a surprise, though.

The kid read a couple of prayers (which could have taken her all of half an hour to learn, as she went to Jewish day school and had been taking Hebrew for 7 years at that point). She then made a speech. I expected a speech on the parsha (Torah portion) of the week, but nope, she just picked a topic. Thirteen years have elapsed between then and now and I still remember that topic clearly. It was: What Golda Meir Means to Me.

Even accounting for the fact that the kid was 12 years old, it was lame. It sounded just like the essay Maya wrote not long ago on why Meir is a Jewish hero, which took her a day to write. Golda Meir is an easy bulls-eye as far as proving Jewish heroism.

After her speech, the rabbi came up and praised her for all her hard work, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he said that with a straight face. I couldn’t imagine that he really thought this child was so intellectually weak that this paltry effort should be praised as hard work. He gave her a pair of candlesticks and we all went and had lunch in the elaborately-decorated events room.

I know that different Orthodox communities celebrate bat mitzvahs in very different ways and I don’t know all of them, so please don’t view this as a condemnation of all Orthodox bat mitvahs, but I did look at this one and vow that any daughter I had would not be treated as such an intellectual light-weight.

I was talking recently with the wife of a Hasidic rabbi and asked her if they did bat mitvzahs for the girls. They did, she said, then went on to describe pretty much what I’d witnessed at this other place. She went on to tell me that in the classes she taught, she concentrated on how to be a good Jewish adult and woman and proffered the opinion that the girls’ experiences were actually more meaningful than that of the boys, as the boys were so busy stressing out over learning the Cantillation and their Torah portion that they couldn’t absorb any deeper lessons on becoming a Jewish adult.

I think she’s selling both the boys and the girls short, as I think there is enough room in the average kid’s brain to learn how to chant Torah and how to be a good Jew, all at the same time. I confess, I did not tell her so.

She also told me that the girls are delighted to not have to go through the trials of learning how to read the Torah. I believed that. A couple of years ago, after witnessing her cousin’s bar mitzvah, Maya announced she wasn’t having one. Shyer then than now, she watched him up there in front of everyone, chanting and even occasionally making a small slip-up, only to be saved by the rabbi, and decided she would die if forced to do that.

I told her that she had no choice. She’s Jewish, therefore she is having a bat mitzvah. “I’m converting to Christianity then,” she announced. You can’t, I told her. “You converted to Judaism!” she argued. I lied: “I know. You can convert to Judaism, but not out of it.”

After sulking for a few moments, she said, “Fine. But I’m not chanting Torah.”

“Yes you are.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“Girls don’t have to!”

“Other girls don’t have to. You do.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“That’s not a reason!”

“You’ll thank me when you are older.”

“No I won’t.”

But I believe she will. I’ve seen the pride, relief and accomplishment on the faces of kids who have just successfully completed their Torah portions. I’ve felt it to, after I read from the Torah in Israel. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in struggling with something truly difficult and mastering it, then demonstrating that mastery in front of your whole community. I cannot help but think that while the girls who do nothing more than a prayer or two and a speech on what Golda Meir means to them might initially feel relieved to have avoided all the hard work they see their brothers doing, ultimately they realize they’ve been dissed. Their community is subtly sending the message that they can’t cope with anything more.

I know that isn’t what those communities intend. They are doing their best to get around the problem that they believe fundamentally that girls cannot touch the Torah while at the same time trying to give them the same sense of welcome into adulthood the boys have – different, but equal is the phrase they like to use. But of course, it isn’t equal, not when it takes a boy a year or two to prepare for his coming-of-age, and the girl really needs no more than a month or two for hers.

So, despite all the stress I’m facing preparing for Maya’s bat mitzvah, schleping her to shul school, the inevitable battles over practicing her Torah and Halftorah portion, the nerves that will no doubt be involved, I’m still grateful to be doing this.

I can’t wait to see the look of pride, relief and achievement on my daughter’s face, well earned.

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