Today we will read from a very special Torah scroll. Our Torah (MST#357) is one of 1,564 from Czechoslovakia rescued by The Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, England. Our Torah is what is known as an “orphan” scroll, from an unknown town in the region of Bohemia~Moravia. However, we consider the Czech town of Teplice as its honourary home, in honour of Pepa Livingstone (z”l), a member of our community from Teplice who survived the Nazi atrocities. The Czech scrolls — held as a sacred responsibility by the Memorial Scrolls Trust — have been given a second life. Now, they can be found in over one thousand synagogues on five continents, bringing new Jewish life wherever they go. They have played a part in an estimated 100,000 Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. We use it with great reverence for its history, and as a reminder of a community now destroyed, a moving testimony to Jewish resistance, and a remarkable tribute to the Jewish ability to revive and regenerate.
The above is from the programme for La Neige’s bat mitzvah.
In one of Douglas Rushkoff’s books–I think it’s Coercion–he tells the story of taking a car for a test drive with a car salesman. There’s a point where the salesman always asks the prospective buyer, “So, can you see yourself driving a car like this?” That is when the buyer usually crashes the car. There is something metaphysically strange about that moment, when you are doing a thing that you dream of doing, and asked to dream about it while you do it. The Historian and I joke about that moment. Usually it is something mundane, like, “Can you see yourself eating a meatball like this someday?” As Proust and his madeleine point out, when you eat a meatball, you might be simultaneously eating every meatball you have ever had. You might even be connecting with everyone who has ever eaten a meatball. There’s something special about the way that past, present, and future can be connected through experience or words or objects or rituals.
Back when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer I remember going to see a therapist and saying, “I’d better get my spiritual shit together because I’m going to need it!” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have my spiritual shit together now, but it’s certainly more together than it was.
At that moment, I was already on the path to getting more together. After La Neige was born, I started going to an adult class at the local reform synagogue, and then the new rabbi invited me to join the adult B’nei Mitzvah class in 2010. I knew that I wanted my children to have the grounding and background that a religious upbringing would give them, so we joined. I didn’t so much need to have a bat mitzvah, nor did I even know what one was, as much as it seemed like the thing I needed to do before I asked my kids to do it.
Soon thereafter I remember going to a bat mitzvah and standing in the back, fortuitously next to a box of tissues. As the congregation went though the steps of a normal service, I remember crying the entire time. The girl at the front that day–we’ll call her S–was a cerebral petite blonde that I could easily see as a stand-in for La Neige. Knowing that I would be bat mitzvahed soon and my daughter would be someday, it was like we were all linked by an invisible chain. I was simultaneously watching my 5-year-old daughter, myself, and an amazing young woman. “Can you imagine yourself driving a car like this?” Yes! Yes, I can! [crash!]
There’s a lot to like about Reform Judaism, including the reverence for our connection to the past. The prayers that we say at every gathering contain a mixture of the profound in English and beautiful Hebrew. As Rushkoff pointed out in Nothing Sacred, reading texts in Hebrew and in a group or minyan means that they are always open to critique. (And if you haven’t read Rushkoff, drop whatever you are doing and find yourself one of his books.)
In 2013, I had my own big, fat, 40-year-old bat mitzvah. Here’s something else I realized recently: religion is boring! The experience of the sacred comes from doing the same thing over and over again. Over time those profound experiences become mundane, and that means that you have really internalized them, I figure. That must be why we make the bat mitzvah such an onerous experience, so that we will not be overwhelmed by the sacredness of it all. At the same time as you are leading a service, you also have to worry about not tripping on your way to the bimah and whether there will be enough bagels for everyone.
Two weekends ago La Neige had her bat mitzvah. It was a beautiful, magical experience. And also pretty boring. She chanted a long, complicated portion from K’doshim, and a bit of haftarah. She worked hard on her reading, and her Hebrew tutor was both patient and demanding. Her voice was strong and delicate, as she read the complicated passages that she was so proud to have learned by heart. Many important people who have known her all her life were there, including congregation members, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The whole ceremony was a reminder about how the past, present, and future connect because you can’t have a future without a present spent connecting to the past. Plus, you have young adults in the present reading from the past–an act of giving in itself–so that they can carry their learning into the future. And when she read, she read from a Torah that was itself rescued from wartime Czechoslovokia. (To make things even more interesting, the family of one of my dearest friends is actually from Teplice.)
We read a bunch of different Torah portions to choose this one, and, can I just say, they don’t make any sense. I think it’s part of the wisdom of modern religion to say that a bit of interpretation is required when you read old texts. I know there are people in the world who think that ancient texts have inherent meaning, to which I say, WTF? I mean, yes, there are pieces of it that stand beautifully on their own, but don’t try to read it straight through and think it makes any sense. If you pull selectively from there, you can certainly find some great stuff. La Neige’s portion included a reminder to honor one’s mother a father, always a good lesson; welcome the stranger, so relevant to today; when to eat sacrificed meat; just to name a few.
That tension between the mundane and the profound is what makes religion interesting to me. Go to a service, in any tradition, and it is easy to think that there must be something more interesting and worthwhile to do than this. But is there, really?
[featured image is K’doshim, taken from from https://wrj.org/blog/2019/05/10/wrj-voices-kdoshim ]