From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Bat Mitzvah Blues

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

Mary Anne Radmacher

At age thirteen, I had my bat mitzvah. I was always the youngest kid in my grade, so I had already spent a year going to everyone else’s bar and bat mitzvahs. They were all pretty much the same: the girls would be dressed in ruffly floral dresses, the boys in their first new suits. Each kid would give a short speech and would chant or read the prayers over the Torah. Afterwards, the rabbi would take the kid aside and talk to them quietly for a few moments. We always wondered what was said, but no one ever revealed what was said to him or her. The service would end the same way it always did, and then the real fun would start. The reception. Either at a hotel function room or in the social hall of the synagogue, these always ended up being the same, too. A catered lunch, a DJ, a birthday cake and embarrassing speeches, and games and dancing for the kids. Everyone from Hebrew school and regular school would be there. Sometimes there was a theme; there were always goody bags.

After a long year full of weekly tutoring sessions with Cantor Einhorn, and torturous study sessions at home in my room, it was my turn. My whole extended family descended on our house. Family friends I hadn’t seen in years sent me presents and savings bonds. I had two beautiful new outfits to wear: a black and white skirt and vest suit to wear to the Friday night Shabbat service, and a black dress with hot pink and black ruffles on the bottom with a pink flower attached to the chest that I would wear on Saturday. My aunt Frieda had brought me two pink scrunchies that matched the dress, and I planned to wear them both.

Saturday morning I woke up and felt very nervous. I ate breakfast and washed up as if it were a regular day. I got dressed. I stood in front of the mirror staring at myself. In my dress, black stockings and shoes, with my hair pulled back in a hot pink scrunchie, I thought I looked awesome. I sighed, grabbed my coat and my binder and went downstairs. My family oohed and aahed and snapped some pictures. We drove to the temple and went in. Downstairs, we sat in the front row of the chapel. The pews were full of my family members and friends and other congregants. The morning was a blur. I dutifully read along in the prayer book, stood up and sat down with everyone for the important prayers. I was so nervous. I dreaded the moment when I was called up on the bimah.

Finally the moment arrived. I walked up on the bimah, my head down, clutching the binder tightly. I sang out the prayers over the Torah. I didn’t miss a word, and I thought it sounded pretty good. Rabbi Zecher held the Torah scroll aloft. She rolled the Torah out on the podium, and using the pointer, she found the place where I was to begin reading. I took the pointer from her hand and stared down at the tiny, hand-lettered text. I knew my portion by heart, but suddenly the words would not come out and the letters started to blur and swim on the parchment.

I didn’t know what to do. Everyone’s eyes were upon me. I tried to say something but couldn’t. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of embarrassment. To make it worse, I started to cry. No one said anything. The rabbi put her arm around my shoulder and walked me off the bimah, into a little room behind the chapel. She handed me some tissues and asked me what was wrong. What was wrong? I really didn’t know. I just knew I couldn’t do it, couldn’t go out there and read my Torah portion. And I certainly would never be able to face any of those people ever again. For a few minutes, the rabbi and my parents tried to calm me down. I had never gotten stage fright before. It seemed cruel that I had it now. After what felt like forever, I dried my face as best I could. I took a deep breath and let it out. It rippled through me. At this point, my eyes were red and puffy and my hair had pulled free from its scrunchie. I swiped at my eyes again, and then I was ready. All the way across the bimah, I stared straight ahead, not wanting to look at the people sitting in the pews, not wanting to look at the cantor and the other rabbis who sat waiting. I adjusted the microphone. I sniffed. It sounded loud. My voice was shaky, as was my hand holding the pointer. I blinked my eyes and focused on the words drawn in precise calligraphy on the scroll before me. To my relief, the words came. I read the portion straight through with few mistakes, my voice wavering at the start but growing more confident as I went along. When I was done, the Torah was returned to the Ark. Everyone smiled. I read my speech, my voice still a little raspy from crying. The rabbi pulled me aside for the secret chat. I won’t tell anyone what she said, but it made me feel good.

Before I returned to my seat in the front row of the chapel, I got a round of applause. I was surprised: in all the bar and bat mitzvahs I had been to, no one had ever clapped before.

Rachel Moore

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