August 23, 2019

Climbing to Reach Bat Mitzvah

Standing on the eastern tower of Masada in the Negev Desert, watching the sun rise higher in the sky over the Dead Sea, reciting a Hebrew passage from the Torah, I cried with joy, triumph and anticipation as I was in the midst of what I considered the most personally momentous occasion of my life to that point — my bat mitzvah celebration.

Granted, I’m a little old for this. When I was approaching the age of 12 (47 years ago), my parents offered me something not very common for girls at the time — a chance to recite my haftarah, followed by a big party to celebrate my coming of age. I declined what they considered a bat mitzvah.

I’ve attended many bat and bar mitzvah ceremonies and celebrations (some having overwhelming extravagance) through the years, yet none of them ever moved me as much as one that I did not attend but wrote about last year.

A young woman, on her first visit to Israel, recited the haftarah on Masada at sunrise.  As I interviewed the woman and wrote the article, I realized that I wanted that. I wanted that with every fiber of my being and soul.

After a year of study, diet and exercise with the help of friends, family and my rabbi — following an adventurous journey to Masada — the day finally arrived. At 3 a.m., I woke up excited and ready to climb the Snake Path. Armed with a flashlight, pictures of my parents and a loaded backpack, I set foot on the path, hoping to be on the plateau by sunrise at 6:40 a.m.

The trail was pitch black and not marked well enough for someone who gets as nervous as I do. It was scary for a while until false dawn, and by then I was about halfway up and amazed that my heart had not given out.

Unfortunately, it became obvious that there was no way I’d make it to the top by sunrise. I got through the entrance gate by 7 a.m., and I was totally wiped but continued to the highest point, the watchtower on the east side. I practiced my Torah portion and broke into tears because I had missed the sunrise by 20 minutes.

Looking down at the ruins, I found the synagogue and the small storage chamber I reserved for the ceremony. The side facing west, toward Jerusalem, was totally open and there were some wooden planks across part of the top; it looked more like a place to shelter animals than a synagogue.

The rabbi and my guests arrived at 10 a.m., and I set up the pictures of my parents so they were “there” with us. The rabbi got the Torah, and after passing out siddurim (prayer books) we began the morning service. As we prayed, tourists snapped pictures and shot video (I wouldn’t be surprised if my bat mitzvah ended up on Facebook or YouTube).

Then it came time for me to read from the Torah.

As soon as I started, it suddenly just wasn’t me. What came out of my throat was so clear and in tune that I didn’t recognize my own voice. I finished my Torah portion, did the ending blessing and again cried, shouted for joy and danced, and everyone danced along with me. That 2,000-year-old rough-hewed ruin of a storage chamber seemed to glow and sparkle. It was the most beautiful, spiritual, holy, radiant place on Earth. I’d never felt this way before — so filled with joy I couldn’t contain it.

We finished the Torah readings for the day and concluded the service and everyone was thanking me for the experience, which felt strange because it was they who had helped me.

After we returned the Torah, everyone else wanted to climb down the Snake Path; I decided to take the cable car down.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we stopped at Ein Gedi for lunch, and my friend, Laurie Hoffman, had prepared a speech. She told me that she had been very moved by my reasons for doing this, and she remembered how I said that my kavanah (motive) was to put the spiritual and religious aspects of my bat mitzvah in the forefront, and not to try to have a party to outdo my neighbors.

She told me I failed. “Anne, you’ve outdone all your neighbors,” she said. 

And yet if it hadn’t been for the support of my neighbors — as well as my friends and my family — what started as a solitary challenge would never have happened.

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.