The last thing that I wanted at the pinnacle of pimple-faced puberty (circa 1974) was to stand in front of all of my friends and family and chant in Hebrew. My parents had given me the choice on whether I wanted to become a bat mitzvah. My response was a swift "no way" and there was no further discussion on the option of having a confirmation ceremony with my Sunday school class a few years later. At least I wouldn't need to sing by myself on the bimah (the stage in front of the congregation).
My mother admonished me that one day I would regret that decision. How could children possibly understand that they were missing out of one of life's rites of passage? I truly had no idea.
I hadn't really connected with my Jewish roots as a child. I did enjoy Sunday school when I was very young but after moving to a synagogue closer to home that rented space from a Catholic boys school, the environment wasn't exactly a fertile one to study Judaism. My religious education would take an unexpected turn when I was 12-years-old. My parents announced that we would be living in Ramat Aviv (a suburb outside of Tel Aviv) that summer. That meant that I'd miss attending my beloved overnight camp and live in a country that I had zero interest in seeing.
My uneducated imagination pictured Israel as an archaic place replete with camels and sand dunes. Fortunately, the experience turned out to be a rewarding one overall -- especially when we met the lucky relatives who had the foresight to leave Europe before World War II and settle in what was then Palestine -- but my true appreciation didn't sink in until the following year.
One summer later at that very overnight camp, I borrowed my cabin-mate's copy of Exodus and that was it. The seed that had been planted the summer before had flowered into a deep connection to Israel and my Jewish identity has been forever attached to my passion for Zionism.
Over the years I studied modern Hebrew, traveled to Israel for business (working with America's Voices for Israel), was involved with Jewish charities, etc. -- but was this enough? Why did I need to become a bat mitzvah if I had all of these other connections to my Jewish roots?
The moment to confirm my personal dedication to my religion came in its own time. I was invited by one of my dear friends to be a part of Temple Isaiah's b'nei mitzvah class last October and I readily accepted. It would be ambitious for all of us adults to learn to read and chant Hebrew, plus study Torah and Jewish history, once a week and be ready by June to chant, but I felt confident I could do it. Little did I realize just how challenging it would be!
I thought that my facility for languages would ensure an easy experience -- but chanting Torah and my specific portion, the haftorah, with its up and down inflections and truly foreign lettering is completely different. At practice, I sounded like a moose in heat and couldn't imagine how I would stand to humiliate myself at the service. The solution: listen to said haftorah every moment I was driving in my car would be the only way for me to grasp it. And thanks to L.A.'s love of road construction projects on every major surface street, I had plenty of time to perfect my performance!
So there I was last Saturday with 13 of my fellow congregants, a wonderful assortment of adults aged 30-65, blessing my first tallit (a prayer scarf which was a gift from my husband) as the prayer service began. I had never been involved in a Torah service before so it felt beautifully rewarding to be reciting blessings next to the rabbi and cantor, walking with the Torah scroll around the sanctuary and feeling totally immersed in a way that I had never experienced before.
Forty years from the initial discussion on how to publicly confirm my commitment to my religion, my time had come and I was ready for this rite of passage. I was able to truly connect to my Jewish roots spiritually which was completely different than my attachment to Israel. I managed to chant my haftorah without any embarrassing moments (thanks to a newfound relationship with my car's CD player) and it was so empowering for me, at age 51, to finally have my official milestone. When the rabbis and cantor blessed all of us on the bimah at the conclusion of the service, it was one of the most emotional moments in my life.
Milestones at mid-life have a way of being much more significant than those bestowed upon an immature teenager. I feel especially blessed to be a bat mitzvah woman and will cherish the experience forever.