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That First Aliyah

In Which Going Up to the Torah Feels Like a Public Hanging

When summer wanes and the New England leaves begin preening, my thoughts return to my spiritual moment in front of God and everyone that occurred four years ago. Back then, I had always thought of myself as “Jewish lite” — a born Jew uneducated in religious doctrine and incapable of true Jewish behavior. I attended synagogue only twice annually on the highest of holy days, where I sat in the back of the sanctuary in seats waiting accusatorily for latecomers like me. Just to put things into perspective, mine would most likely be the cell phone that rang during the rabbi’s sermon.

When I moved to a new town, I intended to perpetuate my Jewish liteness. Therefore I arrived at the local synagogue I had just dutifully joined, as I’d joined but not frequented the synagogue in my last town. I slid comfortably into the back row Rosh Hashana morning, and cracked open my prayer book, forgetting, as I did annually, that the pages were numbered from back to front. I was surreptitiously flipping my prayer book around so I could read it, when all the way in the front of the sanctuary the rabbi said, “For the next aliyah, I’d like to ask new members to join me on the bima.”

Of course, this did not apply to me, since I had been born a Jew, and I had already taken my rightful place in the back of the room. However someone lurking among us back-row people didn’t see things my way. “There’s a new member over here,” proclaimed an usher standing by the entrance. As I’d entered the sanctuary he had said, “Welcome,” and he’d handed me the very same prayer book that now rested correctly oriented on my lap. I turned with the rest of the crowd to see who had been outed and discovered that the usher was pointing at me.

I’d been exposed! The powers that be had caught me masquerading as a real Jew, and though I had paid my dues to this new synagogue, I in no way belonged. As penance, I walked the gangplank that was the aisle leading to the bima, then stood before an ocean of genuine Jews. Thankfully, one other woman in the sea of people had been ratted out and approached the bima, too, where someone threw prayer shawls over our shoul ders. It would have been a comfort, had I known at the time, that non-Jews didn’t get to wear these accessories on the bima. As it was, I stood there draped in this tallis with my ignorant presence hiding underneath.

“Ma hashem shelach?” the rabbi asked me.

I stared him down, trying to telepathically convey that I didn’t understand a word of Hebrew, and it worked.

“Your Hebrew name?” he translated.

I knew this one. “Yael Menucha,” I said, pleased with myself for having a Hebrew name and remembering it.

“Bat?” he asked me.

I stared at him again, and this time the rabbi didn’t need telepathy to understand that I was in need — desperate need — of translation.

“Your parents’ Hebrew names?” the rabbi asked.

I had never known my parents’ Hebrew names. It had been a miracle I’d recalled my own. “Jeff and Celia,” I blurted, the best I could do under duress.

The rabbi inserted the names Jeff and Celia amid guttural Hebrew consonants, and then he posed the same questions to the other woman who seemed to understand what was happening better than I did.

Relieved that this aliyah business was done, I was preparing to return to the refuge of my seat in the back row (even if it was near that treacherous usher), when the rabbi muttered so the congregation couldn’t hear, “Please step up to the Torah.”

Say what?

He ushered us to the podium where the Torah scroll lay already unfurled, taunting me with its Hebrew hieroglyphics. Now I watched carefully as the woman beside me touched the fringe of her tallis to the parchment, kissed it, and then wrapped her hand around the wooden handle. Being not a complete imbecile, I followed her lead with the fringe touching and kissing. Had I known upon what I was embarking when I’d left my house that day, I would have skipped the lip gloss, which left a pink, sticky smudge on the borrowed fringe. (I schemed to sneak it out, launder it, and return it at Yom Kippur. I then commanded myself to stop scheming on the bima and pay attention.) It was all going okay, considering, until I accidentally latched my hand around the hand of the woman who had already claimed the nearest space on the Torah handle, at which point the rabbi gently chastised me to “Please find your own space.”

Mortified, I stretched my hand as far as it would reach until it landed above hers on the handle, and there we were, two newcomers to the community who had suddenly found ourselves at what felt (to me) like a public hanging. This, apparently, was what an aliyah was all about.

I was stuck in this position, in front of God and every Jew in my new town while the rabbi chanted page after page of Hebrew. This part of the aliyah introduced a new set of anxieties. I knew I was supposed to hold onto the scroll during this interminably long Torah portion, but how was I supposed to look? Should the expression on my face be jubilant, as a congregant being honored? Should I look pious and repentant? Should I wave at the three people I knew in the audience? It was too late for me to cock my head and pretend that I understood the Hebrew words the rabbi read after the little question-and-answer session that had just gone down. I concluded (with no supportive evidence) that it would be safest to look serene. Of course, serenity was difficult to achieve standing in heels before an audience of strangers with my arm at an awkward angle, a renegade curl stuck to my lip gloss.

Yes, this Torah portion did eventually end, and by then one of my feet had started to fall asleep and the rabbi was privy to what lay underneath my tallis, religiously speaking. He held up a laminated card bearing transliterated Hebrew in English lettering, so the words, though gibberish, were at least legible. When he opened his mouth, I opened mine, too, blind faith that something would emerge that would not humiliate me further. What happened next was it, my spiritual moment, my flicker of light!

A tune was added to the words on the card that was shockingly, miraculously familiar, and I was able to sing along. I didn’t even need the card. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, perhaps because my parents forced me to attend religious school when I was small, or perhaps because I had forced myself to attend at least the minimum services throughout my adulthood, this little Hebrew ditty had been stored, along with Cat Stevens’ Moonshadow and the B52’s Rock Lobster, the least kosher song I knew. I had been standing there for the entire Torah portion, for my entire life, dwelling on my ignorance, when this song had been inside of me all along.

In the final moments of my first aliyah, my voice, the voice of Yael Menucha singing in Hebrew, merged with the community of voices in my new synagogue, the one I had joined. The mask of serenity I’d slipped onto my face became real as I comprehended that I somehow, despite the odds, did belong. Not only had my cell phone not rung and disrupted the proceedings, but my mere presence had actually contributed in some way to the service.

I still only attend the occasional service, but now I am not shy about sitting in the center of the sanctuary. I view my first aliyah like a hazing, where I was promoted from “Jewish lite” to “Jewish medium.” As I descended from the bima that day four years ago, hands of strangers reached out into the aisle, and I shook them as I marched back up the gangplank to my back-row seat. I didn’t recognize any of the faces attached to those hands, but they all recognized me. After my very public spiritual moment, everyone at the synagogue knew my face, and one thing was certain. Thank God and the usher — both were starting to grow on me — I would not be considered “new” anymore.

Jill Shulman lives in Amherst, Massachusetts and periodically attends shul.