My Bat Mitzvah

written by Dawn Skwersky in 1989

(my Bat Mitzvah was May 15, 1982)

I will tell you the story of my Bat Mitzvah. I feel it represents the confusion and invisibility I felt in my pre-sign language years.

When I became twelve years old, I started going to the Cantor once a week. This is the man who helps the prospective Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates prepare their singing of the Haftorah, and the singing of various blessings. My portion was called Haftorah Behokothai. At least, that is how I recollect the Cantor pronounced it for me. After the first few meetings with the Cantor, I told him felt uncomfortable about singing the Haftorah. The page and a half long of small print might as well have been the entire torah, for all I knew. I could never hear my own voice when I sang. The Cantor and I agreed that it would be best for me not to sing, but just to read it. What a big relief that was.

At each meeting we worked on the Hebrew pronunciation. Then, for fifteen minutes we worked on the blessings. The blessings are traditionally sung before and after the Haftorah. I was told each blessing was different but I was never told what the differences were. Correct pronunciation was the only goal for the Cantor, and he was only trying to get his job done. To me, it all seemed to be simply speech therapy.

A month before my Bat Mitzvah, I met with the Rabbi. Ivan Caine was a nice man with a greying Moses-like beard and mountains of wavy black-streaked hair under his yarmulke. He looked like a skinny Santa Claus. I felt privileged to visit and talk to him. After ten years of Hebrew School, I felt like a big girl having a formal meeting with the Rabbi.

We met in his office. He wanted to know if I knew why I we were meeting. I thought it had something to do with my upcoming Bat Mitzvah, I replied. He handed me a copy of a book of interpretive essays on the Old Testament- a book my mother used for her own confirmation more than 30 years earlier. He told me to read a specific chapter and to come back the next week to discuss it with him. I went home and read the chapter. It was something about a plague in Egypt in which all t he first-born sons of Egyptian families died, but Jewish sons were not affected. The story didn't make much sense to me, and when I went back to talk to the Rabbi to discuss it, I felt very stupid because I didn't know how to answer correctly. I felt ignorant. Something was wrong. Communication between us was failing.

The Rabbi told me this story was to be used as a basis for questions he would bring up during the period after I read the Haftorah and before the closing services. He told me he would ask me questions and expect me to give wise answers to the audience to tell them how much I understood my Haftorah reading. Rabbi Caine asked me questions and I felt tongue-tied. As a result, he wrote down the all questions for me along with the answers. We both agreed that the way he wrote the questions down would be the way he asks me the questions on my big day.

For the next few weeks, I met with the Cantor more frequently. I even met with a woman who lived in town to help quicken up my pace in learning how to pronounce the Hebrew words. It seemed a combination of speech therapy and reading comprehension exercises.

The Big Day was approaching. I went shopping with my mother to buy a dress and shoes. I felt nervous. I invited my whole seventh grade class, my relatives, my friends from home, my neighbors. I would have to pronounce a whole Haftorah in front of them. It was a huge task.

When the day came, May 15, 1982, I woke up early so that I could prepare to look my best. My house was situated in a city courtyard. The synagogue was juxtaposing this courtyard. Ready to go, my family and I paced the walkway to the huge granite steps that lead into the temple.

Splendorous and imposing, its interior has three sections with pew-like benches from the dais to the portals. There is a second-floor balcony and on the sides of the temple, there are huge rectangular windows divided by minature window panes. Remnants of stained-glass windows of New Testament scenes remain; witness to the building's existence in the 19th century as a Baptist Church. Most of the glass is clear. Through it one can see the townhouses that flank the synagogue. The sanctuary which the torah is closeted is ivory-colored. Its curtains are adorned with Hebrew characters and two erect lions with raised paws.

My Bat Mitzvah started with morning services led by the Cantor and the Rabbi. These services went on for about two hours. One by one relatives, neighbors, and friends entered the temple. My whole family seemed to be present but only three of my 65 classmates showed up. I attended their Bas Mitzvahs, why didn't they come to mine?

I began to relax, and momentarily convinced myself that I wouldn't have to stand up and go through the Bat Mitzvah recitation; that maybe the Rabbi and Cantor would handle the whole thing themselves. It wasn't that easy. The Rabbi trotted forward to the lectern and announced to the congregation that I was to sing my Haftorah. I can only imagine how he really announced this. Unexpectant and surprised, I saw the Rabbi motioning for me to come up to the stand.

I went up the to the dais but didn't take my eyes off the Rabbi. I had to look at him all the time so that I could judge which move to make next. I read the blessings before the Haftorah. Relatives, who my parents selected for "honors," came up to read blessings and part of the torah. Finally, it was my turn to read the Haftorah. I buried my head in my Haftorah practice book in which every word-every syllable of every word was marked with the correct pronunciation. I remember a few blunders where I pronounced words incorrectly. Imagine? I was more concerned about my pronunciation while chanting to God. Maybe God would have understood me better if I read the whole thing in English? That is how I always talked to him.

Finally, there was a break. The Rabbi brought up the story that I had read in the Old Testament regarding my Haftorah and told the crowd that we would have a little discussion about that story. Remember that we already "covered all the bases" when I met with the Rabbi and he told me how I should answer the questions? He also told me how he would ask the questions? Somehow, when he began the interrogation, he asked different questions! Where did they come from? Maybe he misplaced his notes, I thought. He transformed them into a way he thought hearing people value more? I was humiliated, I stood there dumbfounded. After his first question, there was what seemed to me an eternal pause. Branded stupid in front of God, relatives, and friends; people I wanted to show my new knowledge. The Rabbi answered his own question. He fired another. Again, an interminable long pause. My mouth dried, my mind went blank. I stared at the paper with questions and answers from the meetings I had with the Rabbi. He didn't think of the questions on the paper, but I can assume he was unaware of my confusion. I couldn't even read the words on his mouth. I muttered something, randomly selected from my notes. The Rabbi somehow heard me and agreed with my utterance, but revised it totally. Lost in oblivion. My mind was trying to bail me out by trying to hear better, but my ears wouldn't cooperate. All decoding attempts failed. For fifteen more minutes, I stood there feeling foolish-betrayed. This was the holy ritual in which I was to become a woman in the eyes of Jewish tradition. But I didn't feel the joy I was entitled. After twelve months of speech therapy with the Cantor, I felt the Rabbi and the Cantor stole the show! They became "men" all over again.

After the service, my family, my neighbors, my friends came up to me and said that I was wonderful and that I did a great job, that I was lovely. Was I really? Did they just say that because I was deaf? I was lovely because I accomplished something that was rare for a deaf girl? Was my deaf voice really beautiful? I feel that it was a farce. I needed to run away. I knew I could never make peace with God in the hearing world. I vowed that from then on I would never do anything that had no meaning for me; that I would demand explanations and insist that communication would occur in my own cultural tongue-sign language. If the dialogical exchange had been in my beautiful language, I would have felt the rite of passage I had truly earned.