The sacred meets the profound in a rite of passage

I’ve always been fascinated by rituals. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through so few — no bat mitzvah, no prom (not cool, it was the ’70s), no graduation (’70s again), no wedding. Nothing sacred to mark the passage from one state of being, one phase of life, to another.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was my conversion ceremony, that magical day when I dunked in the mikvah and joined the tribe.

At least, it should have been magical. Instead, it was odd, somewhat sad, but also kind of funny.

It was the summer of 1977, and I’d spent months studying the laws of kashrut and marking up my copy of Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s classic, “To Be a Jew.” I was 19, had spent a year on kibbutz, finished two Hebrew ulpans, milked hundreds of cows, and knew I wanted to formalize the connection I’d always felt to my father’s people.

The monumental day arrived, an August scorcher like you don’t know from in the Bay Area. I showed up at the run-down Orthodox mikvah in Perth Amboy, N.J. and stood in a darkened room while three long-bearded rabbis from Brooklyn quizzed me about traif, asked me why God gave the Torah to Moses and not to Noah or Abraham (a trick question, you have to know the answer going in), and tested my Hebrew.

An antiquated air-conditioner sputtered noisily in the corner. One of the rabbis barely spoke English. I would have giggled if I weren’t so petrified.

I passed — everyone does, apparently — and was shunted off to the changing room where I disrobed, cleaned myself and stepped into the fetid enclosure that passed for a ritual bath. An elderly woman squinted at me and told me to get in the water, quick, quick, the rabbis were coming.

The rabbis were coming? Wait a sec, I’m naked here! I scrambled down the steps and hunched over in the water, folding my arms over my breasts as the mikvah lady growled at me to take my hands away and let the water touch every part of my body. Oh boy, oh boy.

Suddenly she threw a wet washcloth on my head, the rabbis stepped behind a screen to my right, one of them mumbled a prayer, and the mikvah lady hissed at me to dunk.

Down I went, and up I came. More mumbling, more hissing, down again and up again. Then once more — mumble, hiss, down, up. And I was a Jew. No muss, no fuss, dry yourself off and out the door.

In the parking lot, the sunlight nearly blinded me — was it God’s blessing pouring down upon my head? Or just summer in New Jersey?

Again, no Champagne toast, no lifting of chairs, no kicking up of heels in a wild hora. Just me and Aunt Joan grabbing a tuna fish sandwich at the local diner. 

Deprived of what should have been a glorious occasion, I decided that my next Jewish step would be marked with the proper solemnity. I was going to have an adult bat mitzvah. And I was going to don a tallit.

Here’s the thing with me and the tallit: I’m all about egalitarianism in shul. I feel uncomfortable behind a mechitzah. I like a woman’s voice leading services. I like being called up to the Torah. But I always declined the prayer shawl. I felt I hadn’t earned the right to wear it.

I was going to wait for my bat mitzvah and do it right. I was going to bask in the ritual.

Then last fall I was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a Conservative synagogue in Florida. During Shabbat services, I was called up to the Torah, and there was the gabbai smiling and holding out a tallit for me.

I paused, then blurted out, “I’ve never worn a tallit before.” The gabbai hesitated. The congregation fell silent.

I took a deep breath, thought about my carefully laid plans and brushed them aside. How could I offend my hosts? Why was I being so arrogant? I took the shawl, said the prayer, kissed the fringes, and draped it carefully over my shoulders.

And I burst into tears.

Sometimes sacred moments just happen.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].