Parashat B’reishit 5777

Rabbi Janet Burden, 28 October 2016

Q: When is a bat mitzvah more than a bat mitzvah?
A: When you are invited to be Kallat Bereshit and have never read from a Torah scroll before…..

That was my situation back in the early 90’s when I was given that wonderful honour by my home community, Beit Klal Israel (BKY). I had pretty reasonable Hebrew for a lay person, but as a convert to Judaism, I had never had a bat mitzvah. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to disqualify me in the eyes of Rabbi Sheila Shulman. “You can do this,” she said. “You know you can. So do it.”

Fortunately, I had a few months to prepare, but I decided that I wanted to leyn the piece for this special occasion. Lacking a formal tutor, I was given a tape (yes, we were still using cassettes then!) by the wonderful Vivi Lachs. I listened carefully (and seemingly endlessly) to that tape as the great day approached.

Of course, I was more than a little nervous, and not just about the reading. Even in a community like BKY, which was founded on the principle of radical inclusivity, there were people who weren’t too keen on converts taking visible roles in the community. Fortunately, Sheila wasn’t one of them. She commented once that all those who identify with the Jewish community in an era of decreasing religious affiliation could be understood as Jews by choice. Her generous and unstinting support of me was, and remains, precious to me.

Nonetheless, I have come to understand over the years that born Jews who are struggling to discover meaning and value in their own Jewish identity sometimes find it hard to be confronted with a person who has chosen to embrace that identity without the comfort – or discomfort – of years of Jewish memories, of a personal Jewish history. I had to create my Jewish identity ab initio, endlessly choosing what was, and was not, meaningful for me. I had to become Jewish by living Jewishly with an intensity that for some was uncomfortable. Very few others in my community built their own sukkot, trekked up to Golders Green to buy a lulav, and so on. Perhaps it seemed to them that I was trying to prove something, and maybe there was an element of that in the early days. Bottom line, however, I performed the rituals because doing so added beauty and meaning to my life. That is still the case.

I will never forget the thrill – no, the JOY – I experienced, reading from the Torah in at the rented Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel that Simchat Torah. It was cold, grey and rainy outside, but the warmth inside came from more than the radiators. After Sheila called me up to read, I chanted the first line of the blessing: “Bar’chu et Adonai Ham’vorach,” which was followed immediately by a huge clap of thunder, so loud and so strange that we all had to laugh. I relaxed and began to leyn. I knew the piece by heart so my mind was free to think, ‘Forever and always – this is my life, for the length of my days.’

May this be God’s will – for it surely remains mine.

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