Adult bnot mitzvah: I kvetched but did it

I was raised in Cleveland's finest ultra-Reform Jewish tradition of the 1950s and '60s.

Our main service was on Sunday morning, we didn't study Hebrew, no one wore a yarmulke or tallit and High Holy Days marked the opening of fur season. To this day, the smell of moth balls evokes nostalgic memories of Rosh Hashanah.

Bat mitzvahs didn't exist at our temple and bar mitzvahs were cursory affairs: A short reading from the Torah without chanting, speeches or leading the service.

I didn't feel cheated, deprived or the victim of gender inequity. A bat mitzvah was as important to me as being baptized.

So why, only days after my 48th birthday, was I on the bimah at Oakland's Temple Sinai chanting the story of Joseph, celebrating my bat mitzvah?

At first, I wrote it off to happenstance. I enrolled in Beginning Prayer Book Hebrew without any plans of becoming a bat mitzvah. I just wanted to learn the prayers so I didn't look like a fool when I did "bimah duty" as a temple board member.

But when the course ended, people started forming b'not mitzvah groups and, not to be left out, I signed on with five friends. Our commitment included an escape clause — anyone could drop out should the process or sheer anxiety become crippling.

We settled on a date and the six of us met to discuss what kind of party we wanted to have.

Hebrew continued the next year and a b'nai mitzvah class that met with the rabbi was added. Eventually, the cantor gave each of us a packet with our Torah and haftorah portions, and a tape on which she had recorded our parts and the blessings.

When it came to actually studying, I followed my children's example. I kvetched, whined and procrastinated.

I waited three months before I even opened the packet and didn't start studying in earnest until my first appointment with the cantor was scheduled. I realized what an important role I played in my children's bat and bar mitzvah by nagging them.

Trying to pack Hebrew and cantillation into my failing hard drive was a challenge. My friend Nina and my children tutored, encouraged and advised me.

"Every time you learn a new phrase," my 14-year-old son Sammy advised, "start by chanting the phrases you already know. That way you won't forget it."

"Don't memorize your portion," Nina said. "Becoming a bat mitzvah means reading from the Torah. And, if you memorize it and forget where you are, you're sunk."

"Awesome, mom," Morgan, my 16-year-old daughter, said. "You'll be great."

I played and replayed my tape until I thought it would snap. I walked around the house chanting blessings and my Torah portion until even the dogs howled when I belted out "Vaya heeeeeeeeee."

Slowly, painfully, a phrase at a time, I learned it all, but I suffered along the way. At my lowest point I decided I would rather spring for new invitations without my name on them than endure the humiliation I was sure was coming.

Finally, just as the rabbi promised, I mastered it.

And on that Saturday morning when I stood on the bimah and read: "In this scroll is the secret of our people's life from Sinai until now. Its teaching is love and justice, goodness and hope. Freedom is its gift to all who treasure it," I understood what it was all about.

I was part of the chain that started thousands of years ago. The document I held was as valid then as it is now.

My being there was not an accident. It was a way station in my growing Jewish awareness. It was a journey that started with me trying to keep up with my children's rapidly increasing knowledge of Judaism. But along the way it became my journey. And what I discovered touched my soul.

And I knew what it meant to be part of a Jewish community, to feel the acceptance and warmth of others who celebrated with me and would be there for me in the future. I saw my father who had flown in from Cleveland for the occasion, new friends who I knew would become old friends, old friends who had supported me through the traumas and shared the joys of the past 25 years, and members of the congregation who had heard the rabbi's frequent reference to our b'not mitzvah.

But my husband and children stood out most of all. Morgan and Sammy were largely responsible for my being there that day and they knew it. They were proud of themselves and of me.

Even the b'not mitzvah group was not accidental. They were all my friends before and have become better friends since.

Of course a b'not mitzvah with six participants does have its complications. The service was long enough that we considered handing out bag lunches. Our walk through the temple with the Torahs was the longest on record. When family members simultaneously presented us with our tallitot, it looked more like a Moonie wedding than a Jewish lifecycle event.

The one blessing we planned to do in unison didn't quite work out that way.

After "baruch atah adonai," we all went off in different directions. But the rabbi told us it was OK to make mistakes and we all got it out of the way at the same time.

There were advantages doing a bat mitzvah as an adult. No one's voice was changing. We made the cantor sing a song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat."

But most of all, we were there because we chose to be.