Miriam's Dance: Exploring My Jewish Roots
by Isabel Oberlender
When I used to think about Judaism, I thought of it as more of a title than an identity. I was born into an entirely Jewish family, I practiced most of the customs, and I begrudgingly attended Hebrew School every Sunday. It wasn’t that I felt impartial or disconnected from my religion, but everything seemed as though it were a routine attached to me by association. My view of Judaism fragmented as a young girl when my parents divorced. Holidays spent between my parents strongly differed in strictness of religious observation and overall comfortability. I remember specifically that my paternal grandmother, my Bubbe, often told me that if I didn’t marry a Jewish man or raise Jewish children, she would disown me. Judaism became a force acting on me at all times in different degrees.
Sitting in the pews of my Synagogue on occasional Friday nights and every Sunday morning, I would stare through the ornate stained-glass windows and ponder the existence of God. The pressure my father’s family put on the importance of Judaism only constricted and confused me. I found myself attempting to speak to a higher power numerous times; a myriad of questions unanswered and unheard. I don’t think I was older than ten when I decided not to affiliate with any religion. Judaism felt like a sheath of threatening obligations that I had come to own through birth and I decided not to cloak myself within it.
After I turned twelve, I assumed that I would not be having a Bat Mitzvah. A Bat Mitzvah, or Bar Mitzvah for males, is a coming-of-age ceremony in Judaism for children who have turned thirteen. The child must read from the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and is then on treated as and expected to have the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. Due to my established atheism, I believed that abstaining from a Bat Mitzvah was rational. My father was outraged. Seemingly offended by my choice, he ignored my wishes and set a date for my Bat Mitzvah. Once again, Judaism seemed to be an effort acting against me.
I recount timidly standing outside the synagogue for my initial Bat Mitzvah lesson. My Rabbi and Cantor, the Synagogue's musical prayer leader, were such wonderful people and I feared disappointing them. It wasn’t their fault that I couldn’t find God and rejected my Jewish upbringing. When the Cantor called for me to enter her office, her kind voice filled the halls of a place I once detested visiting. That afternoon, we discussed how my ceremony would proceed and what I wanted to learn. She asked me how I felt about becoming a Bat Mitzvah and she provided me with the choice to personalize my day. At my departure from her peony-shaded office, I felt as though I had experienced an epiphany. For the first time since I could remember, I was given a voice in my religious happenings and I was being heard. Although I wasn’t being heard by God, I was finally given a choice rather than a predestined fate.
In the year leading up to my Bat Mitzvah, I learned how to chant Hebrew prayers, worked to understand passages of the Torah, and discussed the meaning of being a Jew. Weekly sessions spent with my Cantor were heavily anticipated. Sitting in a plush chair across from her, I had the freedom to ask questions about the faith of my ancestors and receive honest, authentic answers. Before taking part in the Bat Mitzvah process, there always seemed to be a supreme lack of answers in response to my questions about Judaism. My Cantor not only supplied answers to my controversial questions about Judaism, but she also gave me the strength to practice Judaism on my own terms. The sessions ended with the singing of nostalgic Jewish songs. Our voices filled her office in decadent harmonies and at long last, I was happy with feeling Jewish.
Three years after my Bat Mitzvah, I still do not believe in a god. Nonetheless, I am a culturally-affiliated Jew. When my Bat Mitzvah came, I felt a wave of triumph wash over me. Days before, I was forced to make a choice that resulted in my paternal family not participating in my Bat Mitzvah. The relationship between my father and I was quite unhealthy even without the influence of Judaism hanging over it. His narcissistic behaviors and verbal manipulation put a gargantuan emotional strain over my childhood. As I approached the ceremony that would initiate my Jewish adulthood and grew stronger as an individual through this transition, I slowly achieved the confidence necessary to stand up for myself. During any Bat/Bar Mitzvah, the child’s parents usually present a blessing over her/him before the reading of the Torah. The prospect of my divorced parents bestowing the blessing together was something I truly yearned for. The moment I asked my father, he refused. If he couldn’t perform the blessing with his wife, my stepmother, he wouldn’t provide any blessing at all. I hesitated at the thought of my stepmother contributing a blessing, as she had worsened the relationship with my father and also took part in the verbal abuse. My father was the sole individual who pushed me to have a Bat Mitzvah and yet, he failed to compromise with my only request.
For the final time, days before the ceremony, I asked my father to perform the blessing with my mother. Without the emotional upset that many fathers should feel, he pulled himself from the ceremony that he forced me to have. In the three days before the Bat Mitzvah, his entire family followed. With the support of my Cantor and Rabbi, I was able to choose this fate on my own accord. On that day, I stood before the Torah with the pressures of a preconceived notion of Judaism lifted. Although the entire side of my father’s family glared at me from their side of the pews, I felt free. Regardless of who I marry, how I raise my children, or if I even believe in a god, I am a Jew. The teachings of Judaism have so much more to offer than piety alone. Looking back, I remember feeling similarly to Miriam, the sister of Moses, dancing in the wake of her newfound freedom after the Jews escaped from Egypt and the religious oppression of the Pharaoh.