I had my first meeting with the cantor on Friday. At our synagogue (is this how it works elsewhere? I have no idea), the cantor and the rabbi divide up the work of preparing the B’nei and B’not Mitzvah.
The rabbi works with you on the meaning of your Torah portion, and on the drash or speech you are to write and present about it. The cantor helps you learn to lead prayers and to chant the Torah and Haftarah portions in Hebrew.
Up until now, I’ve been meeting about every two weeks with our temple’s senior rabbi to talk informally about Judaism. It’s been totally unstructured and conversational – the only agenda has been the questions that I bring in on that particular day.
Now, with the cantor, things are getting a little more structured.
I’ve got a three-ring binder with the words, translations and transliterations of the major prayers that make up a Shabbat service, and a CD of what they sound like when they are sung or chanted. I have a workbook (kind of like a 3rd grade math workbook) published by the Union for Reform Judaism with the Hebrew and English text of my Torah and Haftarah portions.
I’ve also got some sheets that explain the Torah cantillations – little marks that will apparently tell me when to raise or lower my voice to correctly chant the Hebrew.
Now, I have to say that this seems a bit unfair. It’s hard enough to navigate an entirely different alphabet without having a second set of alien symbols that are like traffic signs for all those foreign letters.
Go fast! Go slow! Watch out for the curve! Sheep crossing! No – no – no – baa! – aak!
But here’s my mantra whenever anything seems daunting about this process:
Twelve-year-olds are doing this every day. My twelve-year-old did it. So chill out and do it.
In any event, I’m not cantillating yet. My assignment for the next two weeks is to review the major blessings and prayers from the Shabbat service – the blessing for wearing a tallit; the blessings before and after reading the Torah and Haftarah; the V’ahavta, Avot v’Imahot, G’vurot and Kiddush.
Most of these I already know. I didn’t grow up going to a synagogue, but I’ve been enough times as an adult, and I listened to my daughter practicing these enough, that I am easily able to follow along during services. The cantor had me chant them on Friday and said I did pretty well.
“That’s pretty good,” she said. “And remember, when you’re up there, there will be other people chanting along with you.”
But “pretty good” isn’t what I’m looking for.
I told her that I wanted to know all these prayers as well as I know the Friday night Kiddush.
“I want to know them well enough that if I’m shipwrecked on a desert island, I can lead a service on my own,” I said.
She nodded and seemed amused. And it is admittedly an amusing image – Robinson Crusoe celebrating Shabbat under a palm tree. (And what about his man Friday? Does Friday celebrate Shabbat? Or does Shabbat sanctify Friday?)
But in fact, I wasn’t thinking Friday or Crusoe or even “desert island” when I said “desert island.”
I was thinking about concentration camps, and those stories of random anybody Jews leading a Passover seder or a Shabbat service in the bleak, dehumanizing barracks of an Auschwitz.
That’s part of the reason I undertook the Bat Mitzvah process. God forbid I ever end up anywhere close to an Auschwitz. But if I am, I want to be one of the people who can keep Jewish culture and identity alive.
I want to be able to rely on my own Jewish competence — kind of like having an earthquake survival kit, only for Judaism.
I shied back from saying that to the cantor because it seemed a bit melodramatic. I came up with the “desert island” idea instead.
But even setting aside the extreme Holocaust imagery, the concept still holds. I want the self-sufficiency of being able to lead a service myself. I want to feel secure enough in my knowledge of Judaism to pass the traditions on to the next generations.
Even here in 2010 California — where the biggest threat to those next generations is not anti-Semitism but Jewish ignorance and assimilation.