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MY BAT MITZVAH AT 25

By Mira Sucharov

This year is a milestone for a personal anniversary that I almost always privately recognize, but which others seem to find amusing when I mention it. This week is the twenty-fifth anniversary of that hallowed rite of passage for Jewish girls: my Bat Mitzvah.

Like filmmaker Guy Maddin, I too have “my” Winnipeg, and it was partly encapsulated by my Bat Mitzvah at Rosh Pina synagogue in 1984. With Olivia Newton John creating our collective soundtrack, my 1984 Winnipeg was mini-skirts and head bands, grape crush in glass bottles from the corner store down the street from Talmud Torah, and miniature baseball hats and even smaller donuts from the Red River Ex. It was also the era of glass, brass and Lucite sculptures. Many of those decorative pieces dotted my bedroom shelves in the years following my celebration of turning a Jewish twelve.

But more than glass and brass, my bat mitzvah represented my first profound experience of the interface between the private and public experience of Jewish identification. A quarter century following my coming of age with the Judaic scriptures, the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God has worn thin for me – as seductive as I still find the prayer avinu malkeinu . But mastering my haftarah (the shul did not allow women to chant from the Torah – a rule I was hardly aware of but which now irks me) was a task I took seriously.

When my husband and I were first dating, he and my father quickly discovered that they shared not only a love of hockey, baseball and philosophy, but also the same maftir – twenty-three years apart. Family dinners soon included off-key but spirited chants of “vayikach korach ben yitzhar….” Curiously, for an agnostic and an atheist, there was obviously something primordial about that shared knowledge.

In the weeks leading up to my bat mitzvah, I regularly visited my great-grandmother in her semi-assisted living home in Winnipeg’s Garden City neighbourhood. To connect with her – a woman whose command of English was limited – I would hold her hand while singing my haftarah to her and her friends – a willing audience in cotton housedresses and slippers, perched outside enjoying the early breezes of the prairie spring.

Standing on the carpeted synagogue bima in my black patten shoes and ivory lace dress imported from the big-city Vancouver I would soon move to -- and chanting the story of Joshua sending his spies to Jericho, I recall feeling in my element in a way that would be nearly unmatched in later years. I love writing, but writer’s block sometimes set in. I love teaching, but there’s always the nagging fear of misspeaking. Keeping to the text of the haftarah was easy. There were no jokes to make, no threat of misfiring or offending or having to come up with world-changing ideas.

I recall my eyes straying from the text I had mostly memorized, and scanning the crowd to make contact with one of my older cousins. This particular cousin and I share the same first name – a quality I felt conferred a special link between us. She would quickly become someone I would seek to emulate in spheres as varied as balancing work and family, nurturing an intellectual and emotional spousal partnership, social dynamism and gracious hosting, and midcentury-modern design.

When I concluded, the rabbi spoke glowingly of my performance, – for that, like so many other things I would subsequently do – is how I viewed those moments -- as if it were a Broadway audition rather than a covenant with God. This same rabbi, Rabbi Rappaport, had presided at my grandfather’s funeral – “keter nafal merosheinu” – our crown has fallen, he said of my Zaida Moe, who died three weeks before my birth and for whom I was named, and who had been a devoted leader in the Winnipeg Jewish community.

The weekend continued with various out-of-towner functions – a luncheon at The Beefeater restaurant on Osborne and a dinner at my soon-to-be stepmom’s River Heights home, all culminating with a kids party in the basement of the shul, where we danced our hearts out to Footloose and Bonnie Tyler, savouring the final months of our 1980s childhood.

Is there some sort of ceremony, some ritual that one can fall back on, to relive those moments of friendship, family, community and unproblematic spirituality, which, when done right, can characterize a bat mitzvah? I suppose I could revisit my haftarah and find a congregation who’d want to listen to me chant it. Or I could find a contemporary Bat Mitzvah to cheer on. Or I could just relish the memories of that spring, when Cantor Daien and Duran Duran, knowingly or not, helped forge the path of community along which I’m still dancing, performing, and sometimes chancing upon a metaphysical moment.

 Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University

 
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