August 28, 1997
My 25th wedding anniversary iscoming up fast. Wish me luck.
I'll need all the good fortune I can muster,thanks to one of the ways I've chosen to mark this momentousoccasion. Of course, Bernie and I will be celebrating conventionally,with a party for some of our oldest friends. But, in tribute to thegood times and the bad times (and the sad times and the mad times)that make up 25 years of matrimony, I've also decided to readhaftarah once again at our synagogue. Right now, I'm mulling overjust exactly what compels me to link this milestone in my marriedlife with the urge to stand up in front of my congregation and chantfive pages from Isaiah.
First, some background: When Bernie and I gotmarried in 1972, we chose to hold our wedding in a synagogue, not ahotel ballroom. My family rabbi performed the ceremony, and ourmuch-loved cantor sang. So we knew from the start that a religiousorientation would be part of our life together. Still, we belonged tono congregation of our own (on the High Holidays, we tagged alongwith our parents). And our daily lives contained no real attempts atJewish ritual.
This began to change with the birth of our firstchild. It seemed right to hold a naming ceremony for her, with thesame rabbi who had married us now presiding. When the time came, weenrolled her in a Jewish nursery school. We proudly watched her play"shabbat eema" one Friday afternoon, and kvelled when she learned toask the four questions. But it was not until she entered the firstgrade at our neighborhood elementary school that we took the big stepof joining a shul. The purpose, of course, was to give Hilary anafter-school Jewish education, which would culminate in a bat mitzvahwhen she turned 13.
It was chiefly Hilary's bafflement at being askedto sit in a classroom at 4 p.m. -- when her friends' school day waslong over -- that led me to think more deeply about Jewish education.One thing I quickly discovered was the unfairness of expectingsomething of my children that I hadn't required of myself. My ownchildhood education in things Jewish had proved to be sadlyinadequate. After years of weekly Sunday school, I was still ignorantof many basic Jewish prayers, and I could barely tell an alef from abet. I faced the conclusion that it was time for me to go back toschool.
So I threw myself into an adult course inprayer-book Hebrew, taught by a gifted member of my own congregation.We started with the alphabet; by the end of the year, those few of uswho stuck with it had a fundamental grasp of Hebrew vocabulary andgrammar. Delighted to be able, for the first time, to understand theprayers I was saying, I inaugurated the Friday-night dinner ritual bywhich our family still abides.
The course in Hebrew also empowered me to schedulemy own bat mitzvah. (Hey, better late than never.) Floored by my ownaudacity, I asked our cantor to demand of me anything he'd require ofa 13-year-old bat mitzvah candidate. Thus began my study of thehaftarah tropes, those snatches of music that allow us to chantpassages from the prophets much as our ancestors did. I learned todecipher the squiggles denoting the centuries-old tunes that haveadhered to the various words of the text. Ultimately, the soulfulmelodies themselves became a form of uplift. For me, the act ofchanting was akin to the emotional resonance of a meditation. As astudent in Japan, I had participated in a daylong Zen ritual. Thatexperience was fascinating, but in no way did it touch me on apersonal level, as the words and sounds of my own tradition soemphatically do.
When I read haftarah, I will not pretend tounderstand everything I'm saying. Although I always begin by workingline by line through the text, playing the Hebrew words off againsttheir English counterparts, there are whole sections that elude me.But what joy when I come upon a word here, a line there, that speaksto me directly.
On my bat mitzvah day, I took special pleasure inmouthing a phrase (from Ezekiel) that seemed to sum up my emotionalstate: "Lev hadash v'ruach hadasha," which translates as "a new heartand a new spirit." I did indeed feel blessed with a new spirit, onethat has helped me connect far more closely with my congregation andmy faith than I had once dreamed possible.
Now, as I struggle to learn my third haftarah, I'malso reflecting on the meaning of my actions. Why did I choose totake on this quixotic task? Partly, perhaps, it's my way of makingtime stand still, of advertising that I still have the skills (andthe voice) to handle this very public performance. Partly, it's achance to solidify my link with my heritage and my community. It'salso a means of flaunting the fact that I, as a Jewish woman of thelate 20th century, can do something that would have been taboo forJewish women of earlier generations.
I recognize that, in all of this, I have barelymentioned my husband of 25 years. But in celebrating my Jewishgrowth, I am also celebrating Bernie's perfect willingness to let megrow. His own heightened involvement with Judaism has paralleledmine: Where I've focused on gaining Jewish knowledge, he hasdedicated himself to serving the community in leadership roles. Ilike books; he likes committee meetings.
So, despite all the tsuris of our hectic dailylives, we make a good team. Perhaps that's why I was meant to chant,as part of our anniversary festivities, the haftarah that ends withthe lovely words "joy and gladness shall be foundtherein/thanksgiving and the voice of melody."