By Daryl Hafter and Ellen Schwartz
Sometimes, it’s important to try something extraordinary, something challenging, something new. So we did: The two of us decided to have an adult bat mitzvah.
Some history: Daryl Hafter and Ellen Schwartz became close friends while team-teaching a humanities course at Eastern Michigan University. In the late 1980s, Ellen proposed having a joint adult bat mitzvah. “Oh, no,” Daryl said, “I’m really busy with an article, two conference papers, and a review.” Ellen was relieved! But then, this fall, Daryl called her up. “Remember your proposal about a bat mitzvah?” she asked. “Let’s do it!” Lily Ladin had been helping Daryl learn to read Hebrew since she never learned it as a child, and a good goal seemed to be an adult bat mitzvah. So, we began to plan.
First, we needed a tutor. Daryl suggested Lisa Bardach, one of the regular tutors at Beth Israel Congregation. Lisa is a speech pathologist who works with a number of different populations. This turned out to set her up as the perfect tutor for us. (More about this, below.)
Next, we needed to choose a date and a portion. Working with Rabbi Caine and the Beth Israel Congregation calendar, we were offered four choices. Some were not terribly interesting to us; some would have been very difficult to handle (rules for treating your slaves?). But one — Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25: 1–40) — was perfect. Independently, we each knew this was the right portion. It concerns the instructions to Moses for creating the tabernacle in the desert. The associated haftarah from I Kings 5:26–6:13 lays out the directives to Solomon for building the temple. As an historian and the daughter of an architect (Daryl), and an art historian (Ellen), this was clearly the choice for us. It was also the latest date, giving us a bit of extra time to prepare.
While Daryl had been working all along, Ellen had to catch up reviewing her aleph-bet. A book called Hebrew with Joy and its associated audio files helped her get ready. The BIC staff provided us with prayer books (a lovely gift!), a chumash, and a bar/bat mitzvah booklet which allowed us to mark up the text. So, in October of 2022, we began to work with Lisa. We did this through a mixture of in-person and Zoom sessions. She began with a pep talk. “Now, you know that you’ll have to give a d’var, a short talk on your portion. But don’t worry — it won’t be too scary … ”
“Lisa!” we interrupted. “We’re two retired college professors. The d’var is the least of our worries!”
Learning the Hebrew and the trope — now, those were our big challenges. Lisa has a tried and true system: We started with the blessing before the haftarah. She made us individualized audio files for everything we’d need to chant, as Daryl is a soprano, Ellen an alto. We each learned a verse a week. And what a challenge we were to teach! I saw how each of us learns, and these were by different methods. Daryl, as a choral singer (and from a musical family), decided to transcribe her verses into musical staves and notes. Ellen, a visual learner, adapted Lisa’s flash cards with visual patterns to indicate the melodic line of each trope.
Lisa was the most creative and patient teacher I have ever experienced — when one thing didn’t work for one of us, she’d come up with an alternative method. Slowly, we learned and finally mastered our haftarah sections, Daryl doing the blessing before and the first half, Ellen doing the second half and the blessings after. For those last blessings, Lisa had another trick up her sleeve: She helped us to see the limited number of trope patterns and how they fit together. And while we learned our sections, Daryl was inspired to write a new poem about the experience. She read it as our introduction to the haftarah reading — a special treat!
By now, we were feeling more confident and began to see that we could do this! But there was still a huge challenge: reading from the Torah. As many readers know, the Torah is written without vowels, and without any indication of cantillation. The note pattern is different from that used for the haftarah, too. But slowly, verse by verse, we each learned our section, along with the blessings before and after.
In addition to this, we each worked on our talks. Ellen focused on the history and archaeology of the two sites, linking them to their Near Eastern context and considering why they focused on so many details. Daryl spoke of her understanding of the architectural process from her own experience and offered philosophical musings on why these instructions were written the way they were. And while we weren’t planning big blowout parties as families often do for their young teens, we still had to choose a kiddush luncheon menu, order flowers, and craft invitations (both electronic and print) and a booklet explaining the service to guests unfamiliar with the process. A great joy for each of us was inviting family and friends for honors — aliyot, reading of certain prayers, lifting and dressing the Torah, and so on. We were thrilled at the enthusiastic response we got from our children, Daryl’s grandchildren, and other family members and friends who took on the often-unfamiliar tasks. Ellen’s younger son designed our explanatory booklet, complete with ornaments. And we had other touching moments as we planned what to wear: Daryl’s son gave her a tallit and kippah of her own; Ellen wore her late father’s tallit and commissioned a wire kippah, something quite new to us in the world of ritual garments.
Next, we practiced a number of times in the sanctuary with Lisa, going over what she humorously termed “choreography.” It was intimidating to actually read from the Torah scroll, along with remembering where to stand when, and all the ritual elements that make up a Shabbat service.
And then, as the day approached, the big ice storm hit. The synagogue was without power for four days. Daryl’s house lost power for even longer. We finally decided to go ahead with the ceremony, even if everyone had to wear coats and we couldn’t offer lunch. That very morning, at 2:30 a.m., the power came back on at the shul. The Beth Israel staff was incredible, coming in very early to put together a kiddush luncheon and make sure everything was as ready as it could be. We were even able to have the service put on YouTube, so family and friends who couldn’t make the trip could join us online.
February 25 was a day neither of us will ever forget. Everything went off without a hitch, thanks to Rabbi Caine and all the staff and volunteers in the congregation. We were thrilled to share this event with so many people who mean so much to us, and we felt waves of love and support throughout the whole morning.
So, if you are considering such an undertaking, we encourage you to do it. It truly was the event of a lifetime!
Learning the Haftarah In tenth century Yemen a boy was reading Right to left And singing as he read. He grew up hearing song with script. His elders chanted prayer, from ancient time. On the page, the melodies were spelled as one, vowels next to trills. No possible confusion, That’s how it was. I, coming late to learn, had always followed Left to right. Songs were separate, bundled with a choir. Reading, in a chair, alone. How could there be a tie To one, twelve centuries ago? It’s like prehistory to me! But listening to the chant, the words would be bereft without the song. I grab the melody. I am that boy in Yemen! Right to left. Daryl M. Hafter