Friday, February 6, 2009

A Bat Mitzvah Anniversary

Today is 33 years since Friday, February 6, 1976, the day that I became a bat mitzvah. Wearing a simple, powder blue, to-the-floor dress with black patent leather Mary Janes (for which I still have the BankAmeriCard receipts, as well as other keepsakes from that evening), but neither a tallit nor a kippah, I led nearly the entire service (in English), chanted from the Torah and the Haftarah (having memorized and quickly forgotten the text), and delivered a speech. I still have that speech, too, handwritten in bold seventh-grade script on ruled three-hole punch notebook paper. Before I reveal what those pages contain, however, a word or two or three of warning.

Warning #1: Hindsight and education have taught me that back in the 1970s, my synagogue’s religious school and congregational practices provided me with a Jewish education and experiences that today I would describe as "severely lacking." Although I now know that neither the Torah nor the Haftarah are read on Friday evenings, such was the congregation’s minhag and hence the circumstances of my own bat mitzvah.

Warning #2: Given no instruction about my speech or its content except that I could write "whatever I wanted," as you’ll see, it contains no reference whatsoever to the Torah portion, about which I was taught nothing (surprise, surprise) regarding its content or its meaning, either to me or as part of the grand story of our people. What a missed opportunity...

Warning #3: Perhaps most distressing to me personally, a yekke from the get-go, was my discovery—just last night as I reviewed my bat mitzvah documents and prepared to write this post—that although I chanted from parashah Terumah (Exodus 27:17-19) in Hebrew, the text I was given to read in English—the supposed translation of that portion—was, in reality, from the previous week’s parashah, Mishpatim (Exodus 23:1-13). Had I been required to write and speak about the portion itself, perhaps this error would have been discovered in 1975, when I began my bat mitzvah studies, rather than today in 2009. Oy vey

In any event, here’s what I had to say:

I am on a journey. Journeys contain many doors and windows to be opened and explored. The first door of my journey was opened for me on January 29, 1963 when I was born. Since then, I have opened many doors and windows, some with hard to conquer places behind them.

Today, on February 6, 1976, I am passing through an important doorway. It is the doorway of my bat mitzvah. I cannot be sure what lies ahead, but I do know some things. I would like the road beyond the doorway to lead to becoming a committed and faithful Jew and a loyal American citizen as well as a caring human being.

The doorway opened tonight is not the last, but rather one of the first in my journey, since there will be others for Confirmation, college, and all the important events of my life. Tonight is not just opening up a door, but really a whole new world.

I would like to thank all of you here tonight, especially my parents, grandparents and sister for helping me celebrate my bat mitzvah as I set off through this new and
exciting doorway.

Note: Walk down steps and sit with parents.
After I finished, Rabbi Landsberg (this one, not this one or this one) also delivered a speech. Here’s what he had to say:

Jane, I should like to congratulate you upon becoming a Bat Mitzvah, -- a daughter of the commandment, and upon the significant fashion in which you conducted the service, reading from the Torah and Haftarah, -- the sensitivity contained within your original prayer, and the thoughtfulness expressed within your creative speech.

The other day I received an invitation from a Rabbi-type friend of mine who is the head of the Yeshiva in Brooklyn. It is a small academy called B’nai Avodah Zarah, -- formerly incorporated as Baala Narishkeit. It seems that his wife had recently given birth to a baby girl, and in order to find a good name for the child, he decided to ask his mishpocha for suggestions. One of the relatives said: “I think that you should name the child Sarah, Leah, Rachael, Rebecca, Deborah, Esther, Judith. These are all great women in our Jewish tradition, and by naming a child after them, you will be setting a goal for the child to strive after.” --- “No,” replied the Rabbi. “That would not be good, for if a person does not set her own goals, she may find herself to be a highly qualified swimming-instructor – living in the middle of her own personal desert.” --- So a second relative spoke up: “I think that you should name the child Zonah Bat Gernisht, in honor of your grandmother’s friend’s sister’s niece-in-law who died without leaving any children, --- not even a single Kaddish.” --- Again the Rabbi replied: “No. I do not think that would be good. A name should not be a peripatetic tombstone, -- four hundred pounds of back-breaking marble encomia, which rupture the living with guilt for the dead.” --- Then still another relative arose and said: “I do not think that you should give her any name at this time. A name is something that must be very carefully constructed over a period of many years, and is always subject to revision. I think that she should be called “Hey You!” until she is at least 80 years old, -- and we can see what she is really like.” ---“No,” replied the Rabbi. “I do not agree. A person should always have a name, --- so that we can distinguish her from a Social Security number, from an Area-Code, from I.B.M. effluvia, -- and, of course, to prevent her from being mistaken for a summer re-run.” –- “Well then,” demanded the relatives, becoming rather apoplectic,“What are you going to name the child?” --- The Rabbi thought a moment and replied: “I shall call her – ‘Rose Hidden Within the Thorn,’ – for after all, what is a person—except for a few pennies-worth of chemicals that have learned how to dream?” --- Jane, you are as a rose, -- a glorious bud just waiting to spring forth into the magnificence of adulthood. But as you do move forward, do not forget to take your dreams with you. It would be a terrible thing for you to be “all grown up,” yet dreamless. It would be as though the great marble statue of Moses, --- formed and shaped by the mind and hands of Michelangelo, --- were to split open, and we were to discover that it was hollow, -- or stuffed with old Italian newspapers. Do not spend your life trying to become a perfumed aerosol spray which will hide the stench of existence, -- yet not wage war against its cause. --- Jane! To become a genuine Bat Mitzvah is not some ritualistic foolishness; it is the taking on of a tremendous responsibility, -- a responsibility to move reality closer to your dreams.

Let me tell you a Bat Mitzvah allegory. – Do you know what an allegory is? An allegory is a socially acceptable way to cheat on a Rorschach Test. – Once upon a time there was what seemed to be a stage. Some called it the world; others called it home; some people thought it was infinite; still others viewed it as the last vestige of a vaudeville show. Anyhow, there was a person who claimed that she wanted to go out on the stage, -- do her song and dance, -- read some poetry, blow her nose, have a baby, and use Ajax the foaming cleanser. The stage manager called ut: “You’re on!” – but the person replied: “Wait a minute! I have not yet memorized my lines, and I am waiting for my horoscope to say ‘A-OK,’ and besides, I am still putting on my makeup.” So the manager came back later, and the person had deteriorated into an actress, and her hair had grayed a bit. “You’re on!” said the manager, and the actress replied: “I am not sure that this is the right vehicle for my talents, and the producer is an antidisestablishmentarianist, -- and I have to go to the bathroom, -- and as I told you before, -- I am still putting on my makeup.” So again the manager disappeared, only to return a millennium later in a wheelchair. “You’re on!” he called out in a vacant-stare voice, and the actress had makeup upon makeup upon makeup, and had degenerated into a thing, -- for the makeup had dried out her skin, and blood-shot her eyes, -- and given her pimples. – “I am not yet ready!! I have not yet finished putting on my makeup.” But the stage manager said: “It is time to go, like it or not, anyone around my base is ‘it’ – and he was dressed in black, drove a Cadillac, and carried a shovel. “Where are you taking me?” she called out. “I am taking you to play out the part for which you have been preparing. I am taking you to the cemetery.” – “To the cemetery?” she screamed. “A cemetery is for dead people.” – “Not necessarily,” replied the stage manager. “A cemetery is a place for people who spend all their time putting on makeup, -- but who are afraid to stand in front of the footlights.”

Jane, that is your Bat Mitzvah message. You may say to yourself: “That is not a very happy story. Should not a Bat Mitzvah story be light and frothy and meaningless, taking up the slack between Tzena Tzena and Oneg Shabbat?” – I like you Jane; I would not do that to you. – This evening you have become a daughter of the commandment.

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who realizes that not even God is strong enough to stop the pendulum from swinging, -- that the clock which ticks the count-down of our existence cannot be silenced, -- and that wrinkles can be caused by worrying about wrinkles;

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who understands that although make up may be used to cover blemishes, -- there is no greater blemish than losing our own reality under the suffocating paint of a need for society’s applause;

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who is an integral human being, -- writing her own lines and wearing her own face, -- rather than being an understudy for a god, -- sitting in the wings, waiting for a mishap;

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who knows that the world is not a stage, -- that we are not puppets who mouth someone else’s lines, and marionettes who dance to yet another person’s tune, -- that we need not be ashamed of our own face, our own mind, and our own choices, -- that we do not have to hide from ourselves and the world under a blanket of corrosive makeup which not only quickly becomes indelible, but which also hardens, becomes cold to the touch, and does not allow any room for growth.

Jane, now is the time; now is the time to be the person you really are. Always remember: A Bat Mitzvah is not someone who worships at the altar of appearances; rather is she someone who bows down only to a god who says: “I wish to hold your hand, -- not your glove.”

Perhaps now, 33 years after the fact, I understand, at least in some small way, what it was that Rabbi Landsberg was saying to me on that oh-so-long-ago evening. Then again, as so often was the case when he spoke, perhaps not…