Learning to read Torah

Learning to read Torah

What it feels like to be allowed back on the bimah

Ms. Wildman’s bat mitzvah invitation; as was a trend then, it’s embossed on a cup.
Ms. Wildman’s bat mitzvah invitation; as was a trend then, it’s embossed on a cup.

On the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah, I offer the following reflection.

One of my fondest wishes as a little girl was to do everything that boys could do on the bimah.

From the time I was 4, I accompanied my older brother to junior congregation. It was just the two of us. My father was at work, and my mother had gone to shul on Friday night and was enjoying a Shabbat of her own making at home. By the time I was 5, I knew all the prayers by heart. The service was held in a small, simple room in the basement of our synagogue. It was filled with children, and it resonated with laughter and song. There I learned to daven, I was a chazanit, I had aliyot, I held the Torah, I sat on the bimah. All the “jobs” were accessible to me.

One Shabbat, after a major snowfall, when it was too dangerous for our mother to drive us, my brother and I trudged through the heavy snow to the synagogue so that we would not miss the service.

When I moved upstairs to the grownup service, however, the situation changed radically. Suddenly the bimah was a place reserved exclusively for men. A girl could not be called up to the Torah or carry the Torah around the synagogue or daven. Once a year, on Simchat Torah, I was thrilled to have an aliyah to the Torah along with all the other girls and women. I remember the excitement of ascending the bimah, of being covered by a huge tallit, of being close to the Torah and reciting the blessings.

I used to fall asleep every Friday night listening to my brother prepare his Torah reading for Shabbat morning. The rhythmic cadences of his chanting lulled me into a pleasant reverie. He would repeat each line over and over until he had mastered it — and on Shabbos morning there he was on the bimah with all the other boys, reading from the Torah.

Judith Wildman today

My bat mitzvah took place on Friday night. I chanted the kiddush, which was appropriate, and the haftarah, which was totally out of context. On Shabbat morning my brother and friends read from the Torah, and my teacher chanted the haftarah. I was permitted to lead the Ashrei.

What made the situation even more poignant for me was that my teacher, Kenny Goldblum, had taught me “as though I were a boy.” For months we studied together every Shabbat afternoon, sitting across from each other in his den on the first floor. He taught me each trop note, one by one, so that I would remember them. There were no tapes or recordings. I listened to him and I practiced. We discussed the meaning of the haftarah and how it related to the Torah portion. He knew so much and valued each question and always gave a reasoned answer.

He taught all of his students how to have poise on the bimah, how to look down at the haftarah book yet maintain eye contact with the congregation, how to breathe, what to do if we forgot a note. All of his students were lifers — whatever we learned, we remembered for life.

Change came slowly to synagogue life. When my second niece had a baby naming in early 1980, I became the first woman to chant the haftarah at her synagogue. I watched from the bimah as three men left the synagogue before I even sang the first blessing. At that moment I no longer existed for myself alone. I was every woman, and I was determined to do a perfect job. I found it thrilling.

When I first came to Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair I noticed the haftarah honor was often given out during the service, and the gabbai was always looking for someone to chant it. When I asked if I could chant a haftarah, one of the male members objected because he didn’t know me — and anyway, I was a woman.

Rabbi Perry Rank persuaded him to give me a chance, and I have been chanting ever since.

Ms. Wildman at 16.

In my thirties I finally learned to read Torah, assisted by a tape from my Torah teacher. That was not the way he liked to teach but it was unavoidable, since we now lived in different states. First, he chanted the Torah trop and then he sang the first aliyah of Beresheet. I practiced the trop while I was carpooling and I listened to the tape over and over.

It was not the same as if he were there in person, but at least Kenny was with me in spirit on my learning journey.

When I later read Torah in a synagogue in Northampton, Massachusetts, at a cousin’s bar mitzvah, someone came up to me and asked, “Did Kenny Goldblum teach you how to read Torah?” I was proud to be Kenny’s disciple and to pass the trop I learned from him and those skills onto my three daughters.

When I turned 50, I learned the entire parashah of Chayye Sarah, which was the parashah I would have chanted had I been a boy when I turned 13. I had a second bat mitzvah, where I led the service and chanted the entire Torah portion and the haftarah.

I love the cadence of the notes, the unfolding of the story, the repetition of certain ideas, first the thinking, then the doing, then the retelling. Reading from the Torah makes me feel connected to the text. I am a storyteller for the congregation, emphasizing what the trop already tells us is important. I am so glad that our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and I all have been given this opportunity to be counted, to lead, to chant, to tell the story of our people from the bimah.

Just like the boys.

Judith Wildman has been an attorney in solo practice in Montclair for the past 25 years and is a longtime member of Congregation of Shomrei Emunah there. She and her husband now live in West Orange.

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