My daughter became a woman over the weekend. Oy, that sounds wildly inappropriate. What I meant to say is that she became a Bat Mitzvah, literally a “Daughter of the Commandment,” and thus a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. Between preparing for Leah’s Bat Mitzvah, recovering from my computer theft, and trying to tread water with some crushing work deadlines, I feel like I haven’t written in this blog since my own Bar Mitzvah in the Summer of ’72.
Poor Leah. She had to hear endless horror stories about my Bar Mitzvah every step of the way as she studied for her own Jewish Coming of Age. Happily, the contrast between the two events could not have been more pronounced. I attended a fairly strict Hebrew School for four years and studied Torah with an elderly rabbi who scared me to death and constantly yelled at me that I wasn’t up to snuff. Leah never went to a single day of Hebrew School. She only decided late last fall that she wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah and started working with our wonderful rabbi, Lisa Edwards, and a private Hebrew tutor last December. But this wasn’t your typical Hebrew tutor, this was a young woman who was part Auntie Mame, part Sarah Silverman, and part Hannah Montana. I’d often come home during a lesson to find Leah and her tutor Abby laying on her bedroom floor screaming with laughter and talking about boys.
Leah learned how to read Hebrew in a miraculously short time and chanted her Torah portion beautifully on Saturday morning. I have no words to describe how moving it was for me to watch Leah up on the bima (the “stage” of a synagogue) reading from the Torah. It was hard not to think of her ancestors in the shtetls of Poland including her great-great grandfather Itshe Meyer. Of course Itshe Meyer and his generation would no doubt have been horrified to see a 13-year-old girl touching the Torah (my orthodox family did not go in for Bat Mitzvahs), not to mention the fact that the service was being officiated by our lesbian rabbi. But as much as I respect my ancestors, I say pish-tosh to that Old World thinking in this case, Leah’s Bat Mitzvah was one of the most moving ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed.
One incredible moment came during Leah’s speech when she was talking about her Torah portion. Because her Bat Mitzvah was held on the last day of Passover, it veered from the chronological reading of the Torah and included a retelling from the Book of Exodus. As Leah was relating what that story meant to her, she started singing a song from “The Prince of Egypt,” one of her favorite films. As she sang Miriam’s words, “There can be miracles, when you believe…” she was suddenly so overcome with emotion that she broke down in tears. After several moments passed and she saw that Leah was having a hard time going on, our cantor Fran burst in from the side of the bima, continuing the song exactly where Leah left off. The rest of the congregation then joined in, and Leah soon followed and was able to continue her speech. It was one of the most beautiful shows of community support and love I’ve ever seen. Kendall compared it to the scene in “Casablanca” when the French people sing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s bar.
At Leah’s insistence, all four of her parents spoke: me and her mom Sophie, as well as Kendall and Sophie’s husband Mark. I wish I could reprint all of their speeches in their entirety, they were so moving and beautifully delivered. The rabbi noted how most kids at our synagogue have either two mommies or two daddies, but Leah was especially lucky, she had two of each! Members of all our families were present. The largest contingent flew in from France and it was the first time I saw many of Sophie’s relatives since our 1993 wedding in Paris. But on this morning we were all one joyously diverse village—multi-lingual, living on several continents, Jewish and Gentile, gay and straight, Democrats and Republicans (well, okay, mostly Democrats).
I came clean during my speech about how I constantly tormented Leah with tales from my own Bar Mitzvah and how grateful I was that her experience was so much more memorable and positive than mine had been. In truth, I remember very little about the day of my Bar Mitzvah except that at the last minute someone handed me a speech to read at the synagogue, that there was a slab of halvah at the party in the shape of Mt. Sinai, and that President Nixon went on TV that night to say that John Dean had investigated the Watergate matter and found that no one in the White House was involved in any way. Oy on all three counts! I truly believe it was the trauma of being forced to read someone else’s words on my Bar Mitzvah that led me to become a writer and that this even played a role in my decision to start this blog.
For me, becoming a Bar Mitzvah was an ending. “Thank God that’s over,” I said to myself, “enough with the Judaism already.” It wasn’t until I was an adult in my late 20s that I rediscovered how much I love being Jewish, and how much participating in Jewish ritual means to me. I hope that Leah sees her Bat Mitzvah not as an ending, but as a beginning, an entry into a world that connects us to our ancestors but also resonates to everything we are about today. Leah chanted her Torah portion in her bare feet and our rabbi pointed out how Miriam went barefoot so that she could be closer to holy ground. I love how comfortable Leah has always been in our synagogue—that’s it’s a place for her to take her shoes off and relax, not a scary building where she has to wear shoes that are too tight and be on her best behavior.
The party was great, too, Leah’s mom did an unbelievable job of planning a very classy event that beautifully reflected Leah’s sensibilities. And the food was extraordinary. I think I’ve had two dreams since then about the cheese table alone. Mmmmmm.
I chanted part of Leah’s Torah portion with her on the bima and I so enjoyed it. Instead of my constant kvetching about my own Bar Mitzvah, which had the misfortune of coming smack dab in the middle of my parents’ divorce, I want to reclaim that ritual and have a new Bar Mitzvah some time in the next few years. Wanna come? I can’t promise a gigantic slab of halvah or the chopped liver ferris wheel I saw at one terrifying Bar Mitzvah many years ago, but I can assure you I’ll be way more into it than I was in 1972!