I stood on the bima, a place I'd never been before. I hadn't been allowed. It was a Friday night, and in my memory, the place was packed. The months of memorizing off of an LP were over, and it was officially my bat mitzvah. No Torah for me, though. I had never seen the inside of a Torah, and wouldn't for another 10 years. I was chanting the first and second chapter of Song of Songs, which, in retrospect, was a curious choice for a 12-year-old girl. But then again, no one had never really expected me to study this particular text, just memorize the melody, and since I was a singer, that was pretty easy. No Haftorah. No leading prayers. I think I wrote a speech thanking the rabbi, cantor, and my parents and sisters, but I have no memory of what I said. Frankly, I don't think I wrote it except for the thank-you part; the rabbi probably did. Then there were cookies at the back of the synagogue, and the next night, some friends came over to my house for a party. I got Israel bonds as gifts.
What does a bat mitzvah look like in the late 60s, at a Traditional synagogue? There you have it.
In V'etchanan, we read familiar words: "V'shinan'tam l'vanecha, you shall impress them upon your children" (Deut. 6:7), the first paragraph of the Sh'ma. I knew those words pretty well, but only to recite, not really understand. So what exactly was impressed upon me during that bat mitzvah experience? Or the five years of four-times-a-week Hebrew school that preceded it?
Well, I learned to daven, to pray. That has stood me well ever since, no matter the "style" of service I've attended. Of course, I learned Ashkenazic Hebrew back then, so I needed to re-learn modern Hebrew pronunciation. Sometimes, when I'm in the keva zone (rote) instead of the kavanah (intentional) zone, the old pronunciation comes out. I also learned that I liked Jewish stuff, but didn't tell my friends that.
After four years, the boys and girls were separated; boys went on to study more Torah. I was supposed to learn how to be a wife and mother. Their message was Torah study wasn't for me. If that wasn't the message they intended, that was the one that came through. I am glad I grew out of that particular limitation and I'm not sure I ever learned what they thought I was supposed to.
Back to V'etchanan. Moses is quite concerned about the future. He mentions the children of the Israelites, the future generations quite often: "And make them known to your children and your children's children" (Deut 3:8), "When you have begotten children and children's children and are long established in the land" (Deut 4:25.)
I come from a rich tradition, with a path to guide me in the future. Those glorious texts are there for us to wrestle with and even dismiss, but we have to learn them first, we and all our children. We can't pass down feelings; we are experiential beings, who need to share our feelings enveloped in action. So, if your children's children are to be long established in the land of Jewish living, they need meaningful ways of doing Jewish. First, find yours.
As for that Friday night long ago, I can still feel the weight of my father's hands on my head, blessing me. The 12-year-old worried those big, somewhat awkward hands would mess up my beauty-parlor hair. The adult wishes I could hold them again.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.