[by Dianna Ott]
As the saying goes, it’s never too late to learn something new.
If it had been common for girls to study for bat mitzvah back when NASA was landing men on the moon and we watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night, the six women who will be celebrating b’not mitzvah at Temple Shalom on June 29 wouldn’t be doing it now.
This ritual, part of claiming their Jewish identity and becoming more fully included in religious understanding and practice, is as important for adult women today as it is for the 12-year-old girls who now take it for granted.
“When I was growing up I thought learning Hebrew was just for the boys,” said Frances Balf. “I just didn’t feel the need,” explaining that in Louisville, even girls from Reform synagogues didn’t have the opportunity for study before the 1980’s.
How did this group of six women decide to study together? Judy Sharp, who is president at Temple Shalom, answers back with the rhetorical question, “What do Jewish people do on Christmas? Eat Chinese food and go to a movie, of course!” It was Christmas night 2011. After dinner and a movie, Sharp and Kathy Karr were discussing languages when Karr declared, “I wish I could learn Hebrew.”
“Then why don’t you?” replied Sharp. “In 1991, I taught myself from a book. I am just a little bit competitive so I decided that if my husband could read Hebrew, so would I. I offered to help Kathy in whatever way I could.”
Gradually, a group including Sharp, Karr and Balf plus Linda Wilson, Heddy Teitel and Ellen Gray started meeting once a week, and they have been doing so since last July. Their first task was to learn the Hebrew alphabet using a book ordered online called Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew, by Ethelyn Simon and Joseph Anderson.
Balf said after she saw her daughter, Becca, study for her own bat mitzvah, she, herself, became intrigued with what would be required.
“I heard there was a group forming,” said Balf, who talked to Heddy Teitel about the group. Teitel’s granddaughter, who is also named Becca, is good friends with Becca Balf and the two older women became friends when the girls were active in the youth group at Temple Shalom during their teenaged years.
Ellen Gray, who grew up in Miami, said although her sister became bat mitzvah, “it wasn’t as popular then as it is now.”
In Gray’s case, the lack of an enthusiastic teacher caused her to lose interest. “My sister had a wonderful Hebrew teacher, but after he retired, I had a year with his replacement but he wasn’t as good. The desire just wasn’t there.”
Heddy Teitel said, “I was a very social kid. When I went to Sunday School, as we did here in Louisville, I was more interested in talking about Saturday night than learning Jewish history and tradition.”
The women emphasize that what they are learning is liturgical Hebrew. “We’re not learning to ask directions,” said Sharp.
“At the beginning, we’d gather at someone’s house; we’d eat of course, then we’d study together,” said Teitel. “Along the way we got to know each other better and it was a lot of fun.”
“We’re all very busy women,” said Gray, “so once a week we’d spend an hour at the beginning kibbitzing before getting started. Now that we are such good friends, we can go to services and understand the prayers together.”
As challenging as the study has been, the women say they’ve already begun to feel more connected, especially for Karr and Wilson, who became Jewish by choice.
Their classes are more formal now since they began meeting with Rabbi Stanley Miles on Tuesday nights. The women praised the Rabbi for his support and guidance.
The women asked Rabbi Miles to help them select a Torah portion that would be meaningful for all women, which is how they selected the date of June 29. The Torah portion that day is a passage that describes the first time women were allowed to inherit property.
The portion, Pinhas, Numbers 27:8, in English reads, “Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.’”
For a service project, they’re interested in finding something that will also be beneficial to women in the community.
The women agreed that they want to show that education is continual. They hope to set an example for everyone in the community that even adults never stop learning.
Teitel agrees. “For years I’ve recited prayers in Hebrew with no idea what they meant. I took it all for granted – the meaning of the words, the history and the tradition.”
Balf said, “I understand the service better now that I’m able to read the Hebrew.”
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” she added. “You’re never too old to learn new things.”