Round and round we went, feet crossing this way and that, circle within circle within circle of people, all dancing, all going round and round, breaking to swing a partner, like a giant chicken dance without the flapping. In the center of our concentric rings, my friend was teetering high on a chair hoisted above the crowds. We were celebrating her, her Bat Mitzvah and the B’Nei Mitzvah (plural) of seven other adults who hadn’t had the opportunity for a Bat or Bar Mitzvah when they were 13.
I was having so much fun dancing and learning to do the Horah, it was hard to believe that a few hours earlier I’d been standing in the foyer of the synagogue feeling awkward and worrying. Would it matter that I was German, even though my family left Germany before World War II, the way it matters that I’m white when I’m in a room full of black people even though my family came to the US long after slavery ended?
Deciding not to think about it, I followed others from my friend’s group into the large worship room and tried my best to do what they did. Not only was it B’Nei Mitzvah, it was also the synagogue’s young adult Shabbat Service and the seventh day of Hanukkah. There was so much going on. I opened the worship book and was a bit surprised to find the page numbers going in descending order. Everything in the book was written in Hebrew, transliterated Hebrew in English letters and English.
The readings, the recitations between the Rabbi and the congregation, all these were in Hebrew. When the Rabbi spoke to the congregation, that was in English. She explained the day’s Torah reading, the story of Joseph from Exodus. She gave the Cliff Notes version of the entire story up to the point of the day’s reading, everything about Joseph being thrown in a pit by his brothers, rescued and then sold into slavery and how his ability to interpret dreams had saved him. She even mentioned his technicolor dream coat and ended with a soap-opera style “last time on..” and a good “dun-dun-dun.”
The day’s reading was printed in English in the bulletin, but the actual Torah reading was done in Hebrew by the B’Nei Mitzvah. And they weren’t reading a transliterated version; they were reading real Hebrew. They took turns, each chanting a few sentences of the passage, their voices rising and falling in a beautiful rhythm.
Although the chanting was in Hebrew, it felt very familiar and reminded me of Catholic mass. Many things in the service reminded me of Catholic mass. The way the Torah scrolls were treated, from the time they were removed from the Ark behind the Rabbi until they were returned to that place, reminded me very much of the treatment of the host; the standing, the bowing and kissing of thumbs, the reverence. I don’t know if that’s evidence of the connection between Judaism and Christianity or if these were only things that are similar across many religions.
The service was full of music. I didn’t dare try to pronounce the Hebrew words of the songs, yet certain familiar words caught my ear as everyone around me sang. “Amen.” “Adonai.” Words I knew from my own church services. As I listened, I looked around the room, watching. The joy illuminating people’s faces as they joined in lively songs of praise, the tears moistening the corners of their eyes as they sang the somber Kaddish to remember the dead; whether happy or sad, it was all prayerful.
And then, voices began to sing in English. Not just a song in English, a song I knew. “Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary; Pure and holy, tried and true. With Thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.” Standing there together, our voices lifted in praise all with the same prayer, it was illuminatingly clear, We truly are all God’s children.