My First Aliyah

Wherein a grown woman surprises herself by crying her eyes out on the bimah of the Berkeley Aquarian minyan

When my daughter offered me a packet of tissues as I was called for an aliyah, I scoffed at her. “Don’t worry,” I whispered, rising from my cramped synagogue seat and straightening my skirt as I prepared for the honor of reciting the blessings before and after the Torah reading. “I never cry when I have mascara on. I’m perfectly okay.”

Some okay. By the time I reached the pulpit to take my place next to my son’s fiancée, Karen, who had the previous aliyah, my knees were wobbling and my throat was engorged. By the time the ba’al kriyah—the Torah reader—indicated it was my turn, I kissed the Torah with the fringe of my prayer shawl, and I knew that hubris had done me in.

Nor am I talking about some ladylike welling of the eyes with maybe a lone tear. I’m talking deluge. Floodgates opening and buckets pouring forth and me shivering uncontrollably— without a tissue in sight.

“What are the names of your parents,” the Torah reader asked, trying not to look too askance, but for all I was able to answer, he might as well have asked me to cite the theory of relativity. “Mordecai and Ghana,” came the answer from my son, who was sitting in the front row beneath me, and the Torah reader announced that “Sarah, bat Mordecai and Ghana,” would now do the honors.

For Sarah, bat Mordecai and Ghana, honors indeed. “B-blessed be the Lord, the b-blessed,” I tried to sing but nothing came out. “B-blessed be the b-blessed until eternity,” the words stuck in my throat, new gusts interrupting each aspiration, “who chose us from among all the nations, and gave us His T-torah, blessed be Y-you our L-lord, who gave us the T-torah.”

By the end, forget the melody, forget audibility even. Verbal, that is. My finest hour this was not.

A blend of outrage and disbelief suffused the ba’al kriyah‘s face as he gazed at me through the heavy lens of his wire-rimmed glasses. No yeshiva manual or handbook on theological etiquette had prepared this gentleman of the old shul for the likes of me. Bad enough to have a woman in that formerly exclusive male preserve—but a woman in hysterics with, no doubt, trails of mascara running down her face? This is what you get when you tamper with taboos, his body language all but shrieked—insult, injury and incoherence.

After an SOS roll of the eyes, he continued chanting the Torah passage slowly, extending each cantillation, stretching each phrase, his clenched fists awash in the primary colors radiating from the stained glass windows.

The passage was from “Va’et’hanan,” which is a plea to the Almighty to be gracious. Amen to that, I agreed sobbingly, and especially to me. The ba’al kriyah slowed down even further, presumably to enable me to pull myself together for the reiteration of my prayer at the end.

Taking my cue, I tried to do just that: I straightened my shoulders, stiffened my upper lip, then bit it hard. But go turn off Niagara Falls. The pent-up tears were unstoppable.

So were those of many in the congregation for, as I was to learn later, there wasn’t a dry eye in the hall.

And why? What was it all for? How did I manage to bring on this unscheduled Yizkor service—the prayer for the dead? Why was this lady crying on the bimah of the Berkeley Aquarian Minyan in a way that must have seemed like nothing short of blasphemy when, in point of fact, she should be rejoicing at her good fortune? Enough with the Yizkor thing already, dear lady. What is so terrible?

Don’t ask, as my foremothers would have said.

Not that anybody was asking or that they really needed to know the answers. Just the sight of somebody with more than a half century of time on this planet bawling her eyes out and you know she has her reasons.

But, hey, if you want to get technical, or, as Bialik put it in his poem about the Kishinev pogrom, “If you have the desire to know further,” or as the Haggadah asks, “How many are the goodly favors for which we are indebted,” consider:

Just to have lived to see the day her firstborn—he of the wheat fields-of-Kansas mop of hair whom she despaired of ever seeing again when he hitchhiked cross-country at sixteen— was to be married—would have been sufficient.

Just to have seen the behind-the iron-curtain-mehitza seats to which women were relegated (which she, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, had always decried) come crashing down —would have been sufficient.

Just to have her father’s cantorial splendors (his was what the Jews call a zise moel—a sweet mouth) ringing in her ears as she tried to repeat the ancient litany—would have been sufficient.

Just to remember (because the day, davka, happens to coincide with the anniversary of her mother’s death) the stab to her vitals, upon returning home after an extended shiva, to find that the chrysanthemums had the chutzpah to continue to grow as though nothing had happened—would have been sufficient.

Just to hear her new Gentile mehutanim—in-laws—(who had been silting next to her) supplanted by the ba’al kriyah when he referred to the parents of their converted daughter as Abraham and Sarah—would have been sufficient.

Just to recall that it was strictures like these which had made her rebel against Orthodoxy in the first place—would have been sufficient.

Just to be brought back to the fold by, of all people, her counterculture son, after his own previous forays into Quakerism, Grateful Deadism, and, go figure, Buddhism via the Divine Light Mission—would have been sufficient.

Just because that selfsame son, who made a conscious decision to infuse his life with holiness, has thereby picked up where his grandmother’s Holocaust-destroyed family left off—would have been sufficient.

Just because she suddenly realizes how the years have piled up like credit card charges at holiday time— would have been sufficient.

Just because—

She could go on and on. No matter. Any one of these dayenus would have done it; together they had the makings of a cardiac arrest. And what is it with that she all of a sudden? I am that she, she is that me, enough with literary obfuscation. Life, ah sweet mystery of same, with its sunsets and sunrises, with its mountains and seashores, with its matzoh balls and Chocolate Decadence Cake—that same life can also be a font of unrestrainable tears at the most unsuitable moment.

But who has time for philosophizing when all I can think of is a tissue, a tissue, my worldly goods for a tissue. Surreptitiously, or so I hoped, I wiped my face with the back of my hands. The ba‘al kriyah eyed me as though I’d set Judaism back a couple of centuries and pulled his prayer shawl tighter around him. “You that cleave to God, you are all alive today,” he intoned, still stretching out each word, giving them full value.

“You are all alive today….” The words resonated in my ears. Were they alive today, my mama and papa, they of more than blessed memory? If so, what did they make of this spectacle, the outraged ba’al kriyah, the Gentile mehutanim, the converted bride, the prodigal groom, not to mention their crybaby daughter at the, gasp, egalitarian pulpit?

Would they have laughed, would they have cried, or would they have shaken their heads in disbelief? But above all, would they have accepted it? Papa, yes; but mama? I think not. Life had made Mama compromise in many ways during her nearly fourscore years but religion was not one of them. “I’m too old to change,” she used to say, as she unwrapped her glattest of glatt kosher food on visits, “and I wouldn’t want to if I could.”

Although the ba’al kriyah continued to stall in hopes of seeing some let-up, there was none. And try as I might, rubbing my eyes, trying for yogic breaths, playing my I’m-not-really-here game, nothing helped. The bitter herbs continued.

Suddenly, my almost-daughter-in-law, ashen-faced Karen, who had been standing by helplessly, covered my hands with hers and slowly guided them to the handles of the Torah for support.

Her hands were warm and steady, mine were wet and trembling. For the first time in my life, wonder of wonders, I was actually touching a Torah. My heart hammered painfully against my ribs as I circled my palms around the burnished wood.

Always the two Torahs rested high in their Ark in my father’s synagogue, bedecked in velvets, encrusted with jewels, crowned with silver, to be taken out by priestly Levi’im and Cohanim, to be worshiped only from afar by mere female mortals. The Torah, the Book, as in People of the; the Torah, which until the re-establishment of the State of Israel was called the portable Jewish homeland; the Torah, which, when too bedraggled for further use, is buried in a formal funeral in holy ground.

Before me in a blur was the exquisite calligraphy, the broadened beths and kafs to make uniform margins, the careful hand printed letters with their distinctive squiggles. I grasped the handles of the Torah tighter and shut my eyes. When I opened them I saw the concerned face of Karen. “Thank you, Ruth,” I whispered to her, and I knew by her smile of comprehension that the biblical reference was not lost on her.

Somehow it worked, braced by that mystical link with my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents going back to the Ba‘al Shem Tov, I sing-songed the second half of the prayer as I had heard my father do hundreds of times, even remembering to add the feminine pronoun of “You” and its concomitant verb changes for this gender-sensitive congregation, and culminating in Papa’s distinctive signature cadence when he came to “blessed be You our Lord/Lady, Who gave us the To-o-o-rah.”

Rising above the chorus of amens that greeted my finish was the proud voice of my son, because of whose Aaf-ruf (Yiddish for the traditional custom for grooms being called up to the Torah on the Sabbath before their wedding) I had been honored with my first Aliyah.

Marianne Langner Zeitlin is a novelist who lives in Rochester, New York.