Learning to Read Torah for My 85th Birthday
I was 58 when I started learning Hebrew. My mother had died, and I wanted to honor her with the Kaddish prayer.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’may rabbah…. When I began reading those transliterated words, it was as if the very heavens shook something loose in me and spun me into something larger than myself. I became part of a continuum of Jews who, for centuries, had shown their respect for their dearest ones. I was connected to those in the past as well as to Jews in the present who were saying Kaddish, whoever and wherever they might be.
Yet something was missing. Reading the prayer phonetically was not enough. I wanted to read it in Hebrew, the language of my people. And so, after I began saying Kaddish, I joined a Read Hebrew America class being offered by the National Jewish Outreach Program.
It took time and study. I labored over the little T’s, dots and dashes that gave the vowels their sounds. Is it eh or ah, fah or feh? But I kept at it, and after a few months, I was starting to read along, all the while feeling the presence of the matriarchs—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah—and now, among them, my mother, Malka Weingarten.
When my mourning period ended, I continued to attend Shabbat services at my Conservative synagogue, Etz Hayim at Hollis Hills Bayside in Queens, N.Y. My spiritual home and fellow congregants became an important part of my life.
That importance only grew when my father, Max, died eight years later, and then again when my dear husband, Herbert, passed away in 2015. And still again in 2019, when my 60-year-old son, Alan, was torn from my life after battling ALS for more than eight years—the worst-of-the-worst imaginable for a mother.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’may rabbah…. My community recited along with me at Alan’s shiva, giving comfort as best they could to me and my two daughters, all the while knowing there could be no comfort. I had lost a beloved child; how could there be anything but pain?
Benumbed with grief—maybe because of it—I wanted, needed to be in the world again. I forced myself back into socializing, reading and writing. And into the synagogue. Did I pray there? To whom? For what? Alan was gone. Three years prior, my daughter Leslie had been diagnosed with an advanced breast cancer that seemed to reject every treatment. I was full out of prayers. So I sat, at times following the service with my rudimentary Hebrew, at times not. But always, I knew I was in the right place.
On the Shabbatot when I carried the Torah, I would rest it up against my shoulder, the blessed scroll cloaked beneath its embroidered velvet robe and hammered silver breast plate, a crown atop its regal head. Arms around the Torah, I hugged it to me as if it was a living breathing being.
Two years ago, when my Leslie lay dying in her hospital bed, she said to me, “I want you to say Kaddish for 10 years.”
She wanted to be remembered. She need not have worried.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’may rabbah…. I knew it by heart now. I was reliving every mother’s nightmare. My heart was broken, but not my love of Judaism.
For months, every day in synagogue, I chanted Kaddish in Leslie’s honor. Fifty-five and in her grave. And I, her almost-85-year-old mother, was in excellent health. The wrongness of it! She’s in a better place? She’s no longer suffering? Please!
During shacharit one morning during the mourning period, it occurred to me that the services were always led by congregants—congregants like me, only more adept at reading Hebrew. But I knew some had not always been so adept; they were once beginners, too. I thought, I could push myself out of my soul-crushing loss into something positive. I could take charge of my grief. I could learn. I would learn.
So eager was I about the prospect of mastering Hebrew that I could barely sit through the concluding psalm. So worried was I that I might change my mind that I rushed to the rabbi immediately after the service.
He said I would first learn the end of shacharit that beginners “cut their teeth on.” My gums began hurting in anticipation, but I couldn’t back out now.
My synagogue’s ritual director mapped out my study plan. I marked the parts in my prayer book, and he recorded himself reciting those same passages on my phone so that I could get the rhythm and pronunciation just so. Three times a day, every day for several months, I went through my part at home and twice a week with him at the synagogue. Over and over, refining it, until he thought I was ready.
Yet I was nervous. Would I read so flawlessly before the congregation?
I did not. I erred and it wasn’t divine, but I forgave myself.
Foolhardy or fearless (a little of both?), I wanted more. I wanted the ultimate read. I wanted to read Torah for my upcoming 85th birthday.
Anxiety bubbled up. Reading from a prayer book was one thing; there are vowel marks to sound out the letters. A Torah scroll is vowelless—and I would be clueless. But the rabbi broke it down for me into manageable parts.
I learned Torah the way my children and grandchildren had learned their bar and bat mitzvah portions. First, from a printed page with vowel sounds. Later, from the rabbi’s recording. Finally, I studied from a photo taken of the actual scroll from which I would read. Through last summer and into the fall I practiced. This would be my Carnegie Hall.
Finally, the day came. On September 17, 2022, I read Deuteronomy 26: 16-19, the Ki Tavo parsha, which comes toward the end of the yearly Torah cycle. Four sentences, a total of 1.7 minutes.
Hayom hazeh, Adonai, Elohecha mitzavchah…. “The Lord your God commands you this day…” Sacred unchangeable words from the parsha.
Reading Torah, I was more than myself. I was an inheritor of the paths laid down by my parents and grandparents and those who came before them. My daughter Rhonda by my side up on the bimah. Her daughter, Molly, child of my child, was unable to be at my reading but had sent me her Torah pointer. Holding it in my hand, I moved it across the holy words. And my mother, in whose loving memory I had first begun to learn Hebrew, was there with us. Forever in our hearts.
Rita Plush lives in Queens, N.Y. She is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out, Feminine Products and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News.