I am publishing this on the thirtieth anniversary of my adult bat mitzvah, which was held at Congregation Beth Shalom, Clifton Park, NY.
My education at Congregation Beth Shalom in Plattsburg, New York, was strong in Jewish history and traditions, but it was very weak in Hebrew. If I wanted to learn the language needed to follow the service, I either had to attend twice during the week, difficult with its one hour round trip, or I had to be preparing for a bat mitzvah, not something females did in the 1960’s in Upstate New York.
Our father had grown up in New York City in the Depression. His bar mitzvah ceremony was celebrated with several other boys in his Eastern Parkway synagogue, including the president of the shul’s son. The honor conferred on this golden boy was his reading most of the Torah portion and the haftorah and giving a speech while the remaining b’na mitzvoth were left with very short prayers and shorter participation. The party consisted of some sponge cake and wine back at my father’s house followed by playing sandlot baseball.
As a result of my father’s experience, his son was to have everything denied the father. Jay’s bar mitzvah was a huge celebration. Over 120 people were invited to the service, including relatives we had never seen before and never saw again. Immediately following the service, my parents hosted a lovely reception at the Cumberland Hotel in Plattsburg. We all got new clothes for the party; I remember how special I felt in the “balloon” dress that was popular in 1961.
As was the tradition in our reform synagogue, one’s Jewish education officially ended at sixteen years old with a Sunday morning confirmation service . My class consisted of three girls: Susan Singer, Andrea Siegel, and me, none of us who had had bat mitzvahs. We recited prayers and gave speeches. Mine was on anti-Semitism. How in the world my teacher ever encouraged that topic and how I ever summarized its history in less than ten minutes I’ll never know, but I felt proud in my white robe and mortar board cap. A reception followed. What I remember most was how one of my teachers gave Susan and Andrea cards with cash gifts and completely ignored my presence. Not the sweetest memories to carry from my simchas.
Despite the snub,I loved learning about Jewish history and traditions. I attended classes with the grade behind me and even helped out in the primary grade classrooms. Once I left for college at Albany State, I attended services for Rosh Hosanna and Yom Kippur at Beth Emeth, but I was not involved in Hillel nor did I take any classes in Judaic Studies that were beginning to be offered.
It was not until my children were born that I began to be interested in studying Judaic topics again. Over the years, I took some basic Hebrew and playbook Hebrew classes so I could better follow the service. In the years I stayed home with my children, I seriously considered going back to school for a second master’s in Jewish Women’s Studies. When time constraints ruled out classes, I began a self-tutorial, reading books by Anzia Yezierska, Tillie Olsen,Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, and other noted Jewish female writers. This all went on the back burner when I returned to a full-time teaching position in 1986.
In 1993, however, Flo Miller, one of Congregation Beth Shalom’s teachers, suggested that I take a Haftorah trope class that summer with two other interested women. The four of us met each week around Flo’s kitchen table. By the end of the summer, each of us had chosen our own Haftorah for our adult bat mitzvah. I chose Mishpatim, the Torah portion whose date for reading that year fell on the week of my father’s ninetieth birthday to honor him and, coincidentally in the year of my forty-third birthday to reaffirm my link to Judaism on what would have been the thirtieth anniversary year of my own bat mitzvah. Over the next several months, my lunch hours at work consisted of a quick bite and at least two practice sessions with the Haftorah. Once a week, Flo would call me on the phone, and I would again read the Haftorah to show her how well I had progressed. By winter, Flo, Rabbi Harry Levin and I decided that I would also read two Torah portions at the service.
My bat mitzvah, which was held on February 4, 1993, was not a huge affair. My parents and Larry’s parents could not come from Florida, and my siblings were too spread out across the country. Many members of the the synagogue attended, however, along with Larry’s sisters and brother-in-laws and a few close friends, I A Kiddish followed, and then my family and friends went to a Chinese restaurant for a celebratory meal.Meanwhile, I taped a full rendition of the Haftorah and Torah readings and sent it to my father for his birthday.
I would love to say that the experience resulted in many more Torah and Haftorah readings at Congregation Beth Shalom. Unfortunately, learning Hebrew did not come easy to me. It never flowed off my tongue, and even though I enjoyed the musicality of the tropes, I continued to stumble over the Hebrew letters and vowels. My next experience reciting Haftorah for a service proved to be even more difficult for me than the first, and I have not tried again. I continue to enjoy attending services and have high respect for the congregants who volunteer to read Haftorah and Torah portions. And through Jewish book clubs and my own independent reading, I will continue to study and appreciate my chosen faith.