My Bat Mitzvah Speech, Simchat Torah 2007: Today I am a Woman

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On the first day God created the Heaven and Earth, and it was evening and it was morning and it was the first day. On the first day, we came out of the darkness and chaos, into the light, and the order of the Universe. On that day, all idolatry, all the worship of other gods was exposed as meaningless because only the one God could create the heaven and earth, and all those things people thought were gods, weren’t gods at all. Among many things, Genesis is about the negation of idolatry, and the Creation is the proof of the One God.

And when the one God was done creating the Universe, God created Adam and Eve. Man and woman he created them, as a single unit. He didn’t create Eve from Adam’s feet or his head. He created Eve from Adam’s side that they would be partners …and soon after that, the saga, which still hasn’t ended, began in the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve in the Garden were innocent, free of sin, free of guilt…they were, in a sense, ignorant and naïve. They didn’t know anything about life or death. How could they? They had no experience. They didn’t know about the lives we lead, filled with trials and tribulations. They certainly didn’t know anything about death. What they did know was that they could do as they pleased, as long as they stayed away from the Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden, and didn’t eat its fruit.

But one morning, the snake came along and tempted Eve, by implying the eating of the fruit would empower her to be god-like with God knowledge. She told the snake that if she so much as touched the tree, she would die. The snake told her that wouldn’t be the case, so she decided to eat the forbidden fruit, took a bite and offered it to Adam, who took a bite as well.

And then what happened? THEIR EYES WERE OPENED. And they were indeed infused with the power of God knowledge. They became self-aware. They became self-conscious. What does that mean? Some commentators say they became sexually aware, but that is not the answer. They became different from the animals. They suddenly understood actions have consequences and that people have to think about how they act and what the results of those acts will be.

They lost their innocence. They felt the guilt of doing something they were forbidden to do. They knew they would be punished, but did God kill them? No. He sent them out into the world to live, to make decisions, to raise families, to make peace or make war. The quality of their lives depended on their choices—whether they would be responsible choices or choices that would hurt others.

How did the Creation and negation of idolatry immediately lead into the story of the expulsion from the Garden? What does idolatry have to do with a lesson about responsibility and accountability?

Idolatry is not about worshipping statues and making child sacrifices and having wild bacchanals. Idolatry is anything that makes you feel good for the wrong reasons. It’s anything that enslaves you, like a drug habit or an obsession about something or someone that you cannot let go. It is pride and greed and the abuse of power. It is anything that prevents you from seeing another person as a person, and instead you use them as a means to an end.

But that’s not why God created the world. He created the FAMILY of man, and with that comes the need to act ethically and responsibly, in order to pursue peace, which is what the Torah asks us to do above all else.

As children of Adam and Eve, we all share the same DNA, and we must not destroy each other. That lesson comes hard on the heels of the expulsion, when Cain learned about being accountable, the hard way. Is he his brother’s keeper? Yes, he is, and so are we all our brothers’ keepers. We know, because the entire Torah is directed at teaching us to treat each other decently and to make peace.

There are two classic distillations of the Torah, one from Akiba, and one from Hillel, who existed in turbulent times, when the way the Torah was read and understood was going through a transformation.

Akiba said, “Love your neighbor for he is like you,” reinforcing the notion of the family of man. Hillel’s classic comment was made to the gentile who wanted to learn the Torah as he stood on one leg.

“Don’t do anything to anyone that you don’t want them to do to you. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

When he said go and study, he didn’t mean to study the texts until you couldn’t make a living. He meant go out and study the world, make it a better place, care about your fellow man, and pursue peace.

On the first day, God created everything, and said to us, be my partners in Creation, be the Eve to my Adam. And as the Talmud says, while we may not be the ones who start the work, or finish the work, it is incumbent upon us to make sure we do our share.

And on Simchat Torah, God created me, as a twin to a boy, in an Orthodox family. And today, on my bat mitzvah, in a post-denominational chavurah, I can say, Today I am a Woman.

It has been a long journey for a person with short legs like mine, to be able to, on my 60th Simchat Torah, say a blessing on the Torah. It is something I have wanted to do since I was kicked out of the men’s section of the Agudath Israel of Crown Heights, when I was 9 years old—because I was a girl.

I loved the men’s shul, and hated the stairs and smell of old chulent, beef and bean stew, in the women’s shul upstairs. I loved the smell of snuff used by old Rabbi Kreiger, the famous writer of gets, who sat next to my father. I loved being under the tallis when the priests came out on the holidays to bless the congregation, and the smell of the parchment of the Torah scrolls whenever I kissed them.

On Simchat Torah, during the Musaf (afternoon service) I had helped tie the shoelaces of the person leading the prayers during the Amida, a prayer during which you are not permitted to move your feet. Then the older guys would wrap him in his tallis and take him out to the street, along with the pulpit, to finish. The fellows at the Mizrachi synagogue down the block went even further. They would stuff their leader into a cab and send it to Coney Island (as long as the cabbie did the driving, it must have been ok.) All this merriment followed a night of shul hopping from synagogue to synagogue to see the boys dancing with the Torah. The wildest dances took place on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenues, at 770, Lubavitch headquarters.

My 12th birthday was spent in a darkened sukkah with some friends and a birthday cake (no candles—not permitted to blow them out). I wasn’t standing in front of a Torah scroll to make a blessing. I could stand behind the curtain upstairs in the smelly women’s shul and peek, watching others, including my twin brother, do that as “Chasan Bereishis” The Groom of Genesis. Masculine, the male who gets to make the first blessing on the new year’s first reading, the beginning of the Torah, Bereishis. In the beginning. Why, I wondered, couldn’t there be a “Kallah Bereishit?” The Bride of Genesis.

I was a Beis Yakkov girl, a student at the ultra Orthodox girls only school where they taught us the Pentateuch and Prophets and only the halacha we needed to know about running a household and being a good wife.

But we had TV at home and I had a high school teacher, Shirley Jacobson, who taught us civics, and about political action and talked to us about going to college. She inspired me to convince my parents to let me to go to Brooklyn College, as long as it didn’t cost them anything except the bare minimum.

I lived in a society where talking to boys was out of the question—but I did it. Riding a bicycle was not permitted—but I did it. And when I was sent to the Beis Yakkov teacher’s seminary and told not to go to college—I went anyway. But I was still a good girl. When it came time to marry me off at the ripe old age of 18, I played by the rules and was hooked up via a shadchan, a matchmaker. The rest, as they say, is history. Legal history. Literally.

Brooklyn College saved my life. It’s where in the middle of my battle for freedom, during my escape from the ghetto, in September 1970, I met my husband Philip, a Vietnam vet, and we’ve stuck together through thick and thin, even thin air, for 37 years.

Brooklyn College taught me two trades—art and journalism, and how to be a Jew and a citizen of the world without suffocating ritual. There I learned to work the system when you have to and how use my Judaic values to make the world a better place for other people, and how to make the world a better place for me—from marching against the war in Vietnam in 1965 to marching in the Women’s Lib parade in 1970.

When I joined the school newspaper, I met a group of people who gave me courage to move out and up. They were the first to appreciate my writing ability, and taught me a trade that still pays the bills. They taught me how to look for an apartment and drive a car. They taught me how to dig for information and to use the power of the pen.

Whenever I was in conflict with myself or my ethics, the first person I would turn to for advice was Sol Amato, a kid from the Lower East Side, who used to wait tables in the Borscht Belt. He was the dean of the special baccalaureate degree program, and is a very gentle man. I remember Sol’s office, and the bottom drawer of the lateral filing cabinet, filled with his papers about the great philosophers and minds of the world. He always asked the right questions, gave the thoughtful answers and led me in the right direction.

And then there was the late Dolly Lowther Robinson, the sharecropper’s daughter who went to law school and became Secretary of Labor for the State of NY and a Model Cities Commissioner under Abe Beame. I cannot honor her enough, and only Sol and Philip realize how much I miss her. Without Sol and Dolly, above all others, the road I was on would not have led to Jack Bemporad, Chavura Beth Shalom and this ceremony in Alpine, New Jersey

When Phil and I moved to Teaneck, we had four kids, aged 1, 2, and 3 and 9. We had been in town about two years, when in 1979, someone painted swastikas on the synagogue where my kids were going to nursery school—and I started down a road with my fellow sons and daughters of survivors that led to meeting amazing people, including world leaders, and traveling around the world.

This road, through convoluted circumstances, led to Rabbi Jack, whose has taught me much in the last two years. Perhaps I frustrate the hell out of him because he has to uncross all the ultra-Orthodox hardwiring in my brain. But because of Jack I have looked into the Talmud, and I now know why the Ultra-O’s kept women away—there are things in there we don’t want our sons to even THINK about! He now has taken over the role that Sol Amato and Dolly Robinson played in my early shaping.

Sol and Jack are both 19th century men. Their frames of reference and methods of learning bear no resemblance to our world today. And I, deeply planted in the 21 century, am learning to translate what Jack teaches me into this realm. Rabbi Jack is helping me with my new beginning at the beginning of the Torah cycle, on my 60th Birthday, the reading of the Creation and the First Day.

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