August 10, 2000
My Bat Mitzvah
Recently, I've been competing with a bunch of 13-year-olds and coming up short. This is because, as of last month, I've been studying for my Bat Mitzvah, the same event that at one point was originally, if tentatively, scheduled for June 1972. But when I was 12 and my father, who in our house was the boss on all things Jewish, asked me if I wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah, I adamantly refused. Indeed, I would have preferred to eat sawdust for the rest of my life than learn a bunch of indecipherable and stupid Hebrew prayers that no one understood anyway, and even if they did, the whole thing was ridiculous.
How did I know? I just knew. Also, Judaism terrified me. There were all those rules, all that history, all those old men in my father's shul who always looked at me like I was a piece of lint, and most of all there was the Hebrew itself. How could anyone, least of all me, learn all that stuff? After all, I wasn't all that good in English, and my grades, as my mother constantly reminded me, were none too impressive. I was intimidated before I even began.
Now I'm 40, with children of my own and all the trappings of bona fide adulthood: the house, the garden, the stretch marks, the mortgage. In other words, I'm old enough not to be intimidated by Judaism in general and Hebrew in particular anymore. Except that I am.
For one thing, there are all those prayers to learn, and I can't sing worth a damn. My voice wavers and careens like a dying animal. It's pathetic, and worse, there's nothing I can do about it. Also, I never actually learned the alef-bet. I can read Hebrew fairly well, but my own approach has been whole language. As for those underlying squiggles and dots, I have a vague notion of what sounds they make, but I have no idea what they're called. And then there's my 10-year-old son's assessment of my efforts to learn the prayers: "You're really not very good, Mom."
Even so, I practice. Oy, do I practice! Every night, lying on my bed while my children sleep and my husband reads in the next room, I practice the Kaddish and Aleinu. I haven't even taken a crack at the hard stuff.
Meanwhile, every few weeks, another 13-year-old from our synagogue dons a kippah and tallit and ascends the bimah where he or she then - it happens every damn time - belts out the entire prayer service, starting on Friday night and going on to Saturday morning, complete with chanting a Torah portion and following up with the haftarah. It's kind of scary, like listening to a 3-year-old fluently conjugate verbs in French. There's one kid now in the homestretch for his own Bar Mitzvah who not only can chant the prayers like nobody's business, but also sings like an angel. On Sunday mornings, when I wander down the halls of our little shul to pick up my kids from Sunday school, I can hear this kid (let's call him Ari) practicing the blessings over the haftarah from behind a closed classroom door. It's like listening to the lead singer of the Vienna Boys Choir, only in Hebrew. The big showoff.
Me, intimidated? Ridiculous. But when I sit down with our rabbi for my bimonthly Bat Mitzvah training session, I'm so completely intimidated, embarrassed and undone that I'm practically in tears. It's really weird. I'm not what you'd call a shy person. I can talk for hours, and the truth of the matter is that I love an audience. But the minute I hear myself tentatively, and not very well, singing the prayers, I'm 12 years old again, in my father's shul surrounded by all those mean old men swaying back and forth as the indecipherable Hebrew prayers dribble from their mouths.
A Bat Mitzvah? Are you kidding? Why should I want to make a bloody fool of myself?
But it seems I'm now committed to making a bloody fool of myself anyway. The event is actually on our synagogue's calendar, and I've told just about everyone I know, including my children's teachers, my neighbors, the other mothers at the bus stop where my oldest kid gets left off every afternoon, and my gynecologist. I've even told my father, who lives more than a thousand miles away from us, in Washington, DC. I felt a little self-conscious about telling him on the phone, so I e-mailed him about it. I didn't hear from him for a while, and then I got an e-mail back that said: "Mommy and I will be sure to attend."