Jewish Journey: Bar Mitzvah – by Michael T. Pullen

Do you have to do a Bar Mitzvah when you convert? Why are you doing it now? That must have been a lot of work? Where did you find the time? Why did you decide to do it?

The rabbi asked my wife and she said that I would be interested. He asked me to join the class and how could I say no?

What does a Bar Mitzvah mean when you are 39? For me there were several things:

  • I had never had a Bar Mitzvah
  • I had never had the honor of reading from the Torah
  • I had never learned how to chant Trope
  • I had the opportunity to study with 7 other adults who came at this from all different directions
  • I had the opportunity to learn more

13 years being Jewish, it seemed so right to start studying for a Bar Mitzvah. I would be able to relearn the Hebrew aleph-bet so that I could read. I would learn the trope so that I could chant.

Learning trope was a challenge. I never thought about this much until the class. I have never heard myself sing. I never sing out loud. I have never learned a tune. I cannot even reproduce a tune to a song that I have heard for 20 years. It isn’t that I am tone deaf it is more that I have no musical memory. So how do you learn how to chant if you cannot remember the tune 5 minutes later. It was work. I first transcribed the notes as dots over each letter in the word. That told me where to go up and down. But I lost all of the cadence and emphasis. So I made some dots darker and bigger for emphasis. Now I could go up and down with emphsis. Yay.

The only problem is how do you take a two syllable word and go up and down seven times.  So I had to draw the word out in latin characters so that something like b’shayla became b’shay la hahaha ha haah. Now I can see the direction, the emphasis and the syllable stretch. That is what I memorized; Hebrew marked with vowels, trope, dots, and transliterations. A Russian friend who lived in Israel for 7 years could not read a thing.

While I was practicing and listening to my portion over and over I also started on my Drash. I wrote several things here and finally posted my ultimate version. My first draft I sent to the rabbi and he gave me some good advice.  Some advice on looking for ways to bring all the ideas together. I worked hard. I sweated and got annoyed. It was all the type of writing that I have hated for years. But I finished and I think that it was better than my first draft.  Naso: Reflections of a Nazarite

The day came and I was ready. I did not feel worried or anxious about anything. The women were all worried about crying or freezing because they did not like presenting in front of people. Me, I did not mind at all. I had sent out little Jewish quotes and Omer meditations for the group to work on before the “big” day. I was not worried.

There were 7 of us called to the Torah. I was number 6. The sun was beating down on me in my suit and tallit. I was hot but enjoying everyone’s drashot. My turn came and I was ready. I had my yad in pocket and most of my drash handwritten (the wrong one was in the siddur). One of my fellow Bat Mitzvah leaned over and asked if I wrote in Hebrew or English (such great handwriting).

I walked over to the center of the bimah and started reading my d’rash. About two lines in I lost it. I was about to cry and I had no idea how to recover so I paused. Not that pausing helped do anything but focus me on the fact that I was about to cry. I was thinking “how in the world was I going to regroup and finish this?” I leaned over and looked at my family and friends, smiled and said “this was not supposed to happen.” That got a laught and broke the tension. I finished my d’rash and then had adrenaline floating my eyeballs and deafening my ears. Such a fantastic way to start chanting.

I started. “Velakach ha’cohen et hazroah b’shelah …” I prayed and made it beautiful. When I finished I kissed my tallit that touched the Torah and turned to the cantor and said “I did it.”

I chanted Torah the first time – hopefully there will be many more.

mTp With Intention

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