On being a Jewish girl in the 1970s & 1980s.
I was brought up in the Philadelphia suburbs to a family that attended a Reform congregation a few times a year and didn't keep kosher, although we felt ethnically Jewish. My parents sent me to Solomon Schechter Day School and Akiba Academy because they hoped that I could find a depth of knowledge that their families could not give to them and that they could not give to me.
Philadelphia in the 1970s was actually not a bad place or time to be a Jewish girl. My mother subscribed to Ms. Magazine and read Betty Friedan. She taught herself Fortran and Cobol in the 80s and put herself through a second round of college to become a programmer at fifty-two, the same age that I will be in a few months. My father was a choral director and music teacher who taught teens how to sing with a combination of high expectations, compassion, impeccable comic timing, a sense of justice and the ability to be fiercely vulnerable. My teachers, especially at Akiba, were mostly women who rode the second feminist wave along with several sensitive and thoughtful men. Learning to leyn (chant) Torah with the rest of the sixth grade seemed like the most normal thing in the world for a girl to do and while it was true that in some situations that I was less likely to be called on in class, I think that the faculty included girls in the learning process as a conscious choice.
My interest in Hebrew language and Jewish practice was magnified because my family was not observant. I loved the sacred musicality of prayer and the complexity of the Torah. My love of languages probably resulted from a brief period when Hebrew felt pretty much like English to me. I look back on what I now call “1980s Jewish Hogwarts” with nostalgia, despite years of social challenges and a habit of chronic, uncomfortable silence that was often mistaken for shyness. Despite the fact that bnai mitzvot in our Reform congregation usually didn’t do much more than wear a fancy new outfit and read a few passages during the service, I decided that I wanted to fulfill the traditional mitzvot. I can still see the faces in the pews of our reform congregation watching me with a combination of confusion and boredom while I chanted the Aliyah prayer and then leyned the week’s portion in its entirety because no one else in the congregation either wanted to or knew how. I still remember my Bat Mitzvah parsha - Akedat Yitzhak - the sacrifice of Isaac - a story that has always been deeply moving to me. Despite the awkwardness of standing alone before my community and knowing that what I was doing was not at all understood, or worse, valued, I powered through with a ferocity that has, I think, been a quality that has assisted me well throughout my life. I learned early that being the only one with an idea doesn’t make it wrong. Experiences like this one gave me the mental callouses that are required to get out there and do silly, sacred and crazy things in the name of art.
Stay tuned for Part 2: A Bat Mitzvah (sort of) at the Western Wall