The Torah Reading

One woman’s journey to taking her Jewish education as seriously as her secular knowledge

by Judith Wurtman

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I chanted the last word, and turned to listen to the congregant recite the blessing following the Torah reading. Marc, the rabbi, kissed me and whispered, “Yasher koach, well done.” “I did it,” I thought. “I did it perfectly.” Could the congregation see the grin on my face as I left the bimah and walked back to my seat? People came into the aisle to shake my hand or kiss me. Back in my seat, my eyes were on the haftarah being chanted but my thoughts were on my father. Would he have been proud or dismayed?

He cared little about my Jewish education. In the chassidic village in Galicia, southern Poland, where he lived until 14, girls received no religious education and women were an invisible presence in the shul. Curiously, he had no problem with my getting a secular education after he assimilated to life in western Massachusetts. He paid my tuition through a doctorate and was proud of my academic accomplishments. But my ignorance of Hebrew, Jewish law and history was never discussed. I was a woman. So why would I want to know?

It was not hard to make a kosher home and observe the holidays after marriage. I just had to imitate my mother. But mimicry did not convey literacy. Despite numerous college and adult education courses, in terms of Judaism I was functionally illiterate. My tongue stuck on the Hebrew in the prayer book. Standing, I mumbled my way through saying Kaddish for my parents, usually three lines behind everyone else. Who can pray so fast? And when called to the bimah for the honor (torture) of saying the blessings over the Torah, I practiced the words over and over and still mangled them.

Then I had an adult bat mitzvah. Maybe this would demolish the wall that stood between me and the learned, the ones who could read and understand Hebrew, who always knew what page we were on before it was announced, and who could read the Torah in front of the congregation. Would I become one of them?

It didn’t happen. Oh, my d’var Torah was well received; it was published in a Boston Federation newsletter. But anxiety, fear and worry that I was a fraud accompanied me to the bimah. I sensed my departed father’s hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing?” he whispered. “You shouldn’t be here. You are a woman. Why are you reading from the Torah? You don’t even know what you are reading. You don’t even know Hebrew. Sit down and let those who are learned chant.”

A drug to quell performance anxiety got me through my Torah chanting, that and a year of intense practice. But my father’s whispers were right. The bat mitzvah did not bestow the mantle of literacy.

Maybe I needed to read the Torah again. I knew how to figure out the trope and pronounce the words. Would their meaning infiltrate my brain? Encouraged by our congregation, I volunteered to read every few months. But each time I failed. I made mistakes, lost the trope, did not recognize the words I thought I knew, failed to sing the correct phrase signaling the end of the sentence. Shame and relief were the only things I took away when the reading was over.

I had to learn Hebrew, not just how to read it. How many more years could I wait?

I found a teacher, someone who taught rabbinical students and who was my study mate in a course we took at Hebrew College, in Newton Centre, just outside Boston. Sigalit was an Israeli, married to an American doctor, and a demanding teacher.

Besides Hebrew grammar, Sigalit gave me an appreciation for contemporary Hebrew literature and the joy and astonishment of translating the Bible. We had lengthy discussions of the origins of various words or grammatical phrases, and she laughed when I complained that the grammar in the Bible was sloppy. “But, Judy, this was written 3000 years ago. Think of what English looked like even 600 years ago.”

So I decided to try chanting the Torah again now that I was studying Hebrew. Finally I understood that the trope wasn’t arbitrary but grammar itself. It told the listener, “Hey, pay attention, this is an important statement,” or “you can doze now, just filling in some details.” I stopped mumbling and read with what my second grade teacher used to call “expression.”

Last Shabbat, the congregant reciting the Torah blessings stumbled, and I murmured the words with him. “Please hold the wooden handles,” I asked him before starting to read. “The scroll is rolling.”

And then I read. The congregation disappeared. There was only the parchment, the words, the story told for 3000 years. An eternity of words. An eternity of readers. Finally I was among them. I think my father would have been proud.

After several decades doing research on women’s health at MIT, Judith Wurtman now blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. She is a docent at the Jewish Museum of Florida.