bat mitzvah

after the ceremony, with the sefer torah; photo by gay lee pearce

My bat mitzvah ceremony was almost two months ago, and with all that has happened since then, it seems even further in the past. But yesterday in Hebrew class our book included a text about the ritual of Orthodox boys’ first haircuts — traditionally at the age of three, on Lag B’Omer, at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilean town of Meron, in case you’re interested — and one of the book’s exercises asked us to reflect on one of our own meaningful Jewish rituals. Since I have to do it in Hebrew, I may as well attempt it in English first . . .

I completed the adult b’nai mitzvah class in June, after seven months of study. The group of 15 — all young adults in the D.C. area — met for two hours each week; the class was held at Sixth & I and was the first of its kind for the synagogue. Sixth & I hired an outside rabbi to teach the class, a woman I had first met — and loved! — when she taught one of the sessions of the Jeremiah Fellowship I completed a year ago. As I noted at the end of our ceremony dress rehearsal, I am likely one of the few who can say that her bat mitzvah prepared her for rabbinical school. I don’t know what this first step in my journey to the rabbinate would have been like without all that I gained from the class, the rabbi, and my classmates.

We read about prayer and the liturgy, talked about the holidays, learned how to put on a tallit and lay tefillin. We wrote d’vrei torah and practiced leining our parts of the parshah. Even after all these years of my adult Jewish education, it continues to thrill me that there is always more to learn.

The class was an interesting mix of Jewish backgrounds. A few people had had b’nai mitzvah as teenagers but had not found the experience particularly meaningful and hadn’t been involved in the Jewish community since then. Like me, others had never had one, despite having been raised as Jews, and some of us weren’t raised Jewish. I in particular was in a different place in my Jewish journey than everyone else, as I began visiting and applying to rabbinical schools shortly after the class started. But we all shared a desire to deepen our commitment to Judaism.

In addition to the opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development and liturgical proficiency, the class also gave me a glimpse into the future. A curious thing happens when you say that you are planning to become a rabbi, probably not unlike what happens when you say that you are studying to become a rabbi, or that you are a rabbi: in the class and elsewhere, people began jokingly referring to me as “rabbi,” asking me questions about Judaism, and deferring to my leadership. More than one person whom I do not know well at all wanted to talk about G-d in the course of otherwise fairly pedestrian conversations. In all of those moments I felt acutely inadequate.

I am going to rabbinical school because I don’t have answers, in more than one sense. I need and want to know more to be able to serve the Jewish community, and I am well suited for the rabbinate in part because I don’t require certainty.

The class was my first experience of being a part of a Jewish community with the “rabbi lens.” As rabbinical school became a reality, what I wanted to get out of the class changed. I watched the rabbi teach and observed how she handled the class and its questions. I listened to what others said about why the class was meaningful to them. I led one of the rehearsals when the rabbi couldn’t make it to class. I began to feel less a part of the class and more an aide to the class. Of course, this position came with risks. After a tense second-to-last service rehearsal, in which we were all nervous and on edge, I snapped at one of my classmates. She was understandably upset with me, and righting that wrong and repairing that relationship (which I am happy to report did happen) took on a different import. I felt a power imbalance and a new responsibility — and the crushing guilt that must always come with being a “bad representative” of a group’s leadership. I knew it behooved me to make amends, no matter the extenuating circumstances. I asked myself for the first, but presumably not the last, time, “Can I be a good rabbi if I . . .?”

part of the amazing card my friends gave me, with pictures from their own b’nai mitzvah

The service itself was wonderful. For some reason I’ve always been cavalier about milestones, ceremonies, and celebrations. I don’t remember attaching much import to high school or college graduations, and I was fairly blasé even about my wedding (noting again for my reader(s?) that this was not my attitude towards my marriage). And it took me a while to warm to the idea of this one: My cousin found out about it a few months prior and said to me, “Hello!? You have to tell us about these things!” But the excitement came. I practiced every day, I invited friends and family, I got my hair done, and I bought new clothes (a true sign of how meaningful I held the occasion, since I loathe shopping; the best present I’ve ever gotten was when my mom bought me a wedding dress and sent it to me).

At the Saturday morning service on June 4, 2012, I gave my d’var torah, I led the amidah and the second half of the Torah service, and I had two aliyot. Almost of this involved carrying a tune, and the truly hilarious part of the day was finding my family in the social hall downstairs after the ceremony and hearing each of them exclaim as they hugged me, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I didn’t either, and I am happy to now have the confidence that I can lead services and not embarrass myself.

I remember Sixth & I’s rabbi, acting as gabbai while we read Torah, giving me a hug after I finished my aliyah, and saying, “Nice job, rabbi.” I remember that so many of my friends came to support me. I remember my mom’s thrill at meeting the rabbis who helped us lead the service, women who were both holding at least one of their small children after the ceremony. It’s not clear to me what my mom’s conception of being a rabbi is, but she turned to me as we were leaving the synagogue and said, “See? You can be a rabbi *and* have kids!”

I almost started crying when I saw my father-in-law after the service. He has known more than his fair share of tragedy and thus is understandably staid, with a deadpan sense of humor. He drove 12 hours from his home in Louisville, Ky., to attend the service, a generous gesture from a fairly cynical atheist and generally non-practicing Jew. His face lit up when he saw me after the ceremony, and with a huge smile that I’ve never seen, he told me what a great job I did. In my mind I can still see his expression, and I think it would have been enough just to have that memory.

death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

life unrecognizable

Last night I dreamed that I blogged here, so I’m taking the fact that I didn’t conjugate Hebrew verbs in my sleep as a sign that it is time to write again.

Since I last posted (excluding my d’var torah, which wasn’t written for this site), I left my job, celebrated my bat mitzvah, said goodbye to my D.C. life of seven years, moved to Boston (or Brookline, or Chestnut Hill, or West Roxbury, depending on whom you ask), attended my brother-in-law’s wedding in Mexico, and started the first of two intensive Hebrew courses this summer.

Please excuse the completely unoriginal observation that moving, particularly to a new city, is one of the hardest events in the life cycle. My life has indeed become almost unrecognizable to me: I feel so little connection to who and where I was just a month ago, were it not for the anchor of my husband and my cats, I might be convinced that I had landed in an alternate universe. I don’t remember feeling this way (at least not as intensely) when I last uprooted myself and moved from Raleigh to D.C. And I can’t even think about my past life. As I hung my print of Washington, D.C., neighborhoods the other night, I almost started crying as I read the names of the places I know and love — places that seem so familiar and so far away.

The main issue here is, I think, the class. I am taking Hebrew 3 (and next, Hebrew 4) to be ready to take Hebrew 5 in the fall as part of the Mekorot curriculum (the preparatory year at Hebrew College). Four days a week, it’s four-and-a-half hours a day, with perhaps two 5 or 10 minute breaks, and with eight hours of homework each night. I’ve studied many languages, and more than one intensively, but I’ve never had an experience like this.

I’ve done almost nothing but go to class and study for the past three weeks. In the afternoons and evenings, I look at the clock and decide when my next break will be, and I actually look forward to taking 15 minutes to unpack a box or call the pharmacy (that’s what I do for fun these days). I work until midnight or beyond and then get up at 6:00 a.m. to run, shower, and then head to class. I’m not eating much. Joe works from home for now, and even though we’re in the same space more than we’ve ever been, we barely spend time together. My rabbi called last week before she left for Israel for the summer, and my first thought was, “It’s good that she’s leaving the country tomorrow; the phone call can’t last too long.” When today’s holiday was announced, I wondered, “Do we celebrate the Fourth of July here, in this land of never-ending Hebrew?”

Part of the academic struggle is my inadequate preparation: My two years of classical Hebrew and then working my own way through the Hebrew 1 and 2 book did not ready me for this particular class. It is some consolation that none of my classmates seem adequately prepared for the class. Two others have a classical background and are similarly struggling with vocabulary and speaking, while the two who completed traditional modern Hebrew courses are struggling with grammar. I’ve been playing catch-up since day one, and that’s an unpleasant and unfamiliar feeling.

I’m used to being a “good student” in the most conventional way: In previous language classes I’ve understood grammar, learned vocabulary, read texts, absorbed nuances of pronunciation — and all easily. Learning languages, I would have said, is a joy and a strength. I don’t think I realized what an amazing gift that was: The rug has now been not pulled, but jerked, out from under me.

What I am expected to digest and to produce isn’t manageable. I can only figure out some of what I should be working on to improve my skills, and even if I could determine my weaknesses, I would haven’t time to work on them. I make innumerable, embarrassing mistakes because my brain has become Hebrew mush, and right now I can’t even do correctly what I already know. Each morning as I walk into class I wonder if I’ll be able to do what’s asked of me, and sometimes I’m not. The water is at my nose, and I’m struggling to keep my head above it.

So I’m learning how to be a “good student” in a different way. I complete all of the assignments; I make myself say something even though I know my mangled Hebrew must cause my Israeli teacher’s ears to bleed; I ask my classmates for help; I remind myself that there are no grades and that I only have to pass. When the thought “I hate this language!” begins to flicker at the edge of my brain, I reach for my new mindfulness practice of reminding myself that I’m only going to get through the next six years if I love Hebrew. I meditate before class. I do my best and let go of the rest.

hydrangeas at apartment complex; photo by salem pearce via instagram

I had some inkling of this challenge: I postulated in my application that I would likely not have in rabbinical school the same experience as in undergrad, where everything came so easily to me. But I couldn’t have anticipated feeling like this.

And it’s not all bad or challenging. I’ve learned more Hebrew in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Along with all of my classmates, I passed my midterm. New England is unbelievably beautiful in the summer. I run almost every day. My husband cooks amazing dinners. I appreciate Shabbat more than ever.

There are things to look forward to as well: Joe and I have tickets to a Red Sox game, and my mom visits in two weeks. This weekend I get to see my friend Emily, up from D.C. We’re planning a day trip for Joe’s mid-month birthday, and I’ll make my first visit to Cape Cod in mid-August. And I just got an email from a fifth-year rabbinical student who is organizing a once-a-week summer minyan: An hour of morning prayer will go a long way in easing my anxiety. Plus, I got my fall semester schedule! I can’t wait for some variety in my studies. I’m taking Genres and Themes of Biblical Literature; Introduction to Mishnah; Cantillation; and Jewish Life and Practice.

And yes, Hebrew 5. The beat goes on.

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