This past Shabbat a friend of mine read the final aliyah of the Torah portion. The rabbi congratulated her for celebrating the anniversary of her bat mitzvah, which took place as part of a women’s adult education class 10 years earlier. When she returned to her seat, I shook her hand and wished her yasher kohech, which means “may you have strength,” but in actuality is kind of like saying “Way to go!”
“I listened to your tape this morning,” she said.
Could it really be 10 years since I’d taught her Torah trope? It seemed more recent. The whole episode, including the tape I made and how stubborn I can be, seemed embarrassingly fresh.
To say I can dig in my heels is probably an understatement. I remember visiting my cousins in Houston when I was little, and my mom and aunt wanting me to attend something at the JCC – I’m sure to get us kids out of the way for the day – and I just did not want to go. I refused and would not budge, and in the end they had to bribe me. When I ended up having a good time, I couldn’t later admit it.
As a teen I didn’t really want to go on my Israel trip – probably because, euw it might mean talking to other people I did not know. But I was wrong, it was a good, formative experience, and I guess after many decades, I can admit that. And of course there was my bat mitzvah dress, to which I’ve written an entire ode to my stubborn, pre-teen self. But that’s another story.
So now, 10 years after teaching this friend Torah, I’m going to come clean. At the time, she had asked that I teach her the cantillation so that she could read as part of a women’s service. Some of the women wanted to experience that, others were going to conduct parts of the service and others were going to give divrei Torah, or commentary, on the occasion. None of them had had a bat mitzvah ceremony growing up.
We practiced together for several weeks – her Hebrew was excellent, so my task was simply to teach her the notes of the ta’amim, or cantillation marks, that give the Torah reading its distinctive sound.
I taught her as I had been taught, which involved a “song” of the trope, or ta’amim, and going over the verses of prayer that follow the Shema before we ever began learning her Torah portion. The first paragraph of those prayers, or V’ahavta, is the one piece of the Jewish liturgy with which many of us have at least a passing familiarity that is sung in Torah trope. If you went to Hebrew school or to synagogue even once a year, it’s something you’ve probably heard, and it sounds pretty much the same wherever you go. So it makes for a useful learning guide, as you compare the sounds of the V’ahavta to the “Song of the Ta’amim,” figuring out which trope mark makes what sound. I made her tapes of these things, but not of her actual parsha. I wanted her to piece it all together, and would be happy to go over it with her.
I did it this way because in the back of my mind, I was hoping to mint a new Torah reader. Not just any Torah reader, but another female one. There were so few of us at my synagogue. It would be nice to have a new member of the tribe. So I explained my, “Give a woman a tape of her parsha and she’ll read that one piece of Torah; give her a tape of trope and she’ll leyn for a lifetime,” philosophy. She seemed to get it; even though the idea was opposed to the way so many b’nai mitzvah of our generation had learned by memorizing from a tape of their bat or bar mitzvah parsha. As if that was all you would ever read — and of course, for most, that is the case.
She learned well, had a strong voice and was all set to go. Or so I thought. Then a few weeks before the actual bat mitzvah ceremony, she asked, “Can you make me a tape of my Torah portion?”
I was stunned. I thought she’d understood; that she was an ally. I explained it all again. I didn’t want her to become some casual acquaintance of one tiny piece of text. I wanted her to read other things during the year, great things. Whole other aliyot. Things she had to sound out for herself. That was the bargain, right?
“But I need a tape. I don’t feel confident.”
I refused. I had all sorts of reasons why I was right, even though somewhere deep inside me, I think I knew that if she wanted a tape, I should just make her a tape.
I must have mused out loud about this. A lot. Because finally my husband convinced me (“Just make her the tape already!”) I should get over it. So I made the tape. I called her and said I had it and she could pick it up. And for some reason, it just sat there. I don’t know if she didn’t have time, or if there was a misunderstanding that I’d bring it over, but sat it did, on the bookshelf by the door. Waiting.
“Just take it to her already!” (My husband is very sensible, even when I am not.)
I’d made it and I didn’t want to. She could pick it up.
“Never mind, I’ll take it.” (That’s the sensible one speaking.) So my husband and son pulled out of the driveway, with the tape on the car’s dashboard.
And that should have been the end of it. But it was a hot day, and the window was open. As my husband took a left turn off the main road, the tape flew out the window and was run over by a car. My son got out of the car to retrieve it, somehow, miraculously intact.
All this came flooding back this Shabbat, when my friend said she’d listened to the tape. That it’s still here on earth, my voice forever singing, “munach, zarka, munach, segol” and so on. That I’d made it. And what a fuss I’d made over it.
Of course, I realize that in my idealized world, it would be nice to teach a woman to fish so she can eat for a lifetime, but so what if she needs a net, as well as a hook, line and sinker? That my friend has the tape 10 years hence, and that it allows her to celebrate the anniversary of this milestone, is kind of impressive. That she still has something on which she can play the tape? Even more so. And that she came back to read again? Isn’t that really what I’d wanted, all along?
Would I still be so adamantly opposed today to making the tape today? Well, as I said I’m pretty stubborn. But at least an MP3 file won’t fly out the car window.