Survival of the Mitzvah-est

My daughter became a bat mitzvah at the end of January. She killed it. She sings “like an angel,” my husband says. She gave a d’var torah (a lesson on scripture) about allowing people to be who they are, about suicide among LGBTQ youth. My pride in her knew no limit.

As she had requested, I learned a bit of Torah for the service. I was terrified, but I learned it, with the excellent help of the cantor, who has been (I think mistakenly) let go. I wore a hat, which I often do, but I also wore a prayer shawl, a tallit. I had no choice–the ritual committee would not budge on this point. Ya wanna read the Torah, ya gotta wear the tallis. I could refuse, and disappoint my kid, or I could suck it up. I sucked it up.

I felt a little better about it, because I was wearing a tallit that had been lent to me by the cantor; it was one he had designed and had made for his daughter. He was of a mind that the women’s garment should be a bit different, so the sides were partially closed to make arm holes. The blessing was embroidered on the collar by his wife. I was honored that he saw fit to lend it to me. It didn’t change my thinking that the tallit is a man’s garment; as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I’m a fan of custom and tradition. I’m conflicted about the roles women play in the synagogue. My ambivalence is no one’s problem but my own, but I wish people would not treat it as though it were a simple issue.

I was asked afterward how I felt in the moment, wearing it. The truth is, I didn’t think about it at all while I was up there, and I got a kind of “Aha!” response. But there’s no “aha.” I didn’t think about it because I was emotional about my daughter’s big day, my family’s bizarre decision to sit many rows away from us, and my own terror about what I was there to do–sing a prescribed tune in Hebrew words that have no vowels.

I was moved and excited by reading from the Torah. I memorized well. I felt nothing from the tallit, but the act of reading–that made me feel like I really was a member of the community, an active participant. The real deal. An emes yid. But that lasted only a little while and was soon replaced by the sense of being a fraud.

The bar or bat mitzvah must learn the trop; that is, the series of marks on the page that tell the reader how to sing the words–how many notes, where the accent is, etc. They learn it thoroughly, hopefully, and once they really know it, it becomes much easier to memorize a piece of Torah. And when they read their Haftorah (a short reading from the Prophets), the marks are on the page, along with the vowels. But Torah scrolls are hand-written by scribes, and they do not include vowels or trop. I never learned the trop. What I did, basically, was memorize a song, the same way I have learned the words to One Direction songs. I listened again, and again, and again to a recording of the cantor singing it. I hadn’t learned anything at all. I was not the real deal.

But let’s get back to the tallit. It seems to me that the tallit should mean something. My reaction should not be the same as when I get a flu shot–“Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” Here is a ritual garment over which one must pray before dontalllitpom-miriam-karp-webning it, and I didn’t think about it in any way past “guess I’ll have to wear it.” I feel no grand conversion, no desire to buy one for myself. No amount of pink or purple or beads or sequins will change that. I do not scoff at other women for this–I admire their beautiful shawls and support their decision to wear them.  I do believe it to be a personal decision, and not one my synagogue should make for me. I do not like to be legislated, when it comes to my body, and that includes my clothing.

It doesn’t stop there. Another way that women are being included in the service is adding the names of “the matriarchs” to one of the prayers–one. These are women who really aren’t discussed at any great length most of the year, but they are now receiving acknowledgment during the Amidah, the standing prayer. I’m glad we’ve added them. But let’s be realistic. It’s the equivalent of “I have a little dreydel” at a school’s Christmas, oh, excuse me, “Holiday” concert. Throw it in there, and “they” won’t complain.

Judaism is patriarchal. It will take a long time to change. I am a Jew. I take a long time to change.

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