Bema Comfort

I attended religious school, called Hebrew School back then, at a time when girls didn’t see much bema action.

Yes, I had a Friday night bat mitzvah and chanted a haftorah. And I had the privilege of being the first girl in my synagogue to say Kiddush during her bat mitzvah service. My sister had celebrated her bat mitzvah seven years earlier and chanted the Kiddush during her bat mitzvah when we lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and my parents, who wanted no less for me, took months to persuade our rabbi in Trenton, New Jersey to allow my chance.

But come Shabbat mornings, the mechanics of the Torah service eluded me, as I wasn’t taught to chant from the Torah or to dress it after the reader finished chanting from the scroll. Yet somehow I was taught the prayers for an aliyah, to sing along with my whole Hebrew School class.

So flashforward forty-some years when I find myself a member of an egalitarian congregation with ushers who one Shabbat morning offer me the sixth aliyah. 

My first response is to think it’s an honor. My second is a bolt of electric anxiety. Not because of chanting a Hebrew prayer before the congregation, but because of a host of logistical questions that run through my mind:

Where do I stand before I chant? Where do I stand afterward? Whose hand do I shake when I’m done? And which side of the bema do I leave from? Our sanctuary, built in 1959, is complete with steps leading up to a large pulpit area.

Although I’ve watched many men and women go up for their aliyah, I didn’t observe the choreography of how they did it.

The usher sees my worry.

“Everyone’s nervous the first time,” he says and kindly answers my quickly whispered questions.

All goes well, and I feel more prepared if offered an aliyah another time. But when it’s my nine-year-old daughter’s turn to lead the congregation in the Ashrai prayer—one of the ways our congregation includes children on the bema– I understand when she asks me to walk her to the bema steps and walk her back down the aisle with the chorus of yasher koach greetings that she anticipates other congregants will greet her.

Rachel knows the prayer well, whose hand to shake, and which side of the bema to leave from. But the walk through the aisles she finds daunting, and as she stands to walk through the sanctuary, I’m right behind her, knowing one day she will no longer need me, and grateful she’s learning to navigate the etiquette of ritual in girlhood.

-Bonnie Beth Chernin

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