Monday, March 3, 2014

Rosalea Fisher D'var Torah for the 50th Anniversary of her bat mitzvah

   Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Temple Beth El congregants and our guests, especially my sister and my cousin. Thank you for sharing this special 60th anniversary of my becoming a Bat Mitzvah at Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia. I will begin by sharing my memories of that milestone moment in my life and then I will speak about today’s Torah portion.

What do I remember about my Bat Mitzvah? There are times these days when I can’t remember what I’m looking for as I walk into a room, but I do remember much about the preparation and the day of my Bat Mitzvah and the feelings I had throughout the experience. It was Friday night, February 12, 1954, almost 60 years ago to the day. Our family was a member of Har Zion Temple for many years. It was in a Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia called Wynnefield. The synagogue was just a two block walk from our home.

In addition to attending Hebrew School 3 days a week, we had two B’Nai Mitzvah teachers, a man and a woman to teach us the prayers and how to chant them and Jewish traditions. I remember having trouble staying on pitch with the prayers. I knew the Hebrew very well as I had attended Religious School three days a week for many years. I also went to Shabbat morning services where I remember being the only girl. I felt like I was the only child who loved Hebrew school. I loved the preparation time learning my two teachers. My mother always proudly called me the family “rebetzin.” I think she hoped that someday I’d marry a rabbi.

It was common practice at Har Zion for two girls to become Bat Mitzvah on Friday nights. I shared the bima that Friday night with Sandra Marder.

I also studied Jewish traditions with Mrs. Rosen. My mother had studied Hebrew with her. Bat Mitzvah classes were conducted in the organ loft where the choir sat, a very dark room with a heavy wooden lattice screen that overlooked the huge wood paneled sanctuary. I remember her teaching our small group about Kashruth. I was fascinated with the reasons and rules for keeping a kosher home.

I remember walking home from synagogue that day and asking my mother why our family wasn’t Kosher. I can’t remember her exact answer, but I can remember that just two weeks later, she had transformed our kitchen into a kosher one – two sets of dishes, two sets of cutlery, and two sets of pots and pans. From that day until the day she died, she had a kosher kitchen. It all seemed very comfortable and natural to our family.

What else do I remember? In the beginning of the service, I remember my voice and my legs nervously shaking. I remember chanting half of my Haftorah portion, sharing it with my partner. I don’t remember what else or how I chanted that night. But I do vividly remember Yigdal, the last prayer I chanted. By that moment, my voice was strong and on pitch, and my legs had stopped shaking. I knew the service was over at that point, but I wanted to do more.  I didn’t want the service to be over. I loved the prayers and I loved the music. We will all be chanting Yigdal today at the end of the service.

Of course, I remember the beautiful navy blue faille dress and the matching Capezio shoes my mother bought me and the yummy sweets served at the Kiddush downstairs.  I remember the proud faces of my parents and sister and brother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles.  When I close my eyes, I can remember the wood paneled huge sanctuary with a raised bima. I remember Rabbi David Goldstein and Cantor Isaac Wall, two larger-than-life figures in their black robes who I only knew from afar. Cantor Wall’s voice was always inspiring.

And now 60 years later, I stand here with you. My knees and my voice are not shaking now. My ability to stay on pitch has improved tremendously, thanks to Hazzan Rabinowitz, Cantor Jacobson, Cantor Littman, Cantor Mordecai and Beth Styles, the present director of our Temple Beth El High Holiday Choir. A special thanks to Judy Aronin, my dear friend and present musical coach. As you can see, music is an important part of my life. It gives me great joy to sing in the choir and in the New World Chorus, Stamford’s interfaith singing group.

Today’s Torah portion is T’Tzaveh which means “you shall instruct.” It begins with Exodus Chapter 20. God gave precise instructions to “all who are skillful” for weaving, cutting and stitching to create special garments of linen and wool, precious stones and gold for Aaron, the high priest, and his sons. They would wear these garments when they performed their sacred duties. Aaron’s garments consisted of 8 pieces; the garments of the ordinary priests would have 4 pieces.  

What followed was a seven day ritual of investiture when Aaron and his sons and the sacrificial altar were dedicated. Aaron was anointed with oil and dressed in the robe, miter and breastplate of the High Priest. He and his sons were anointed with sacrificial blood and then for the seven days, they offered bulls and lambs, flour and oil to purify the Sanctuary as God’s dwelling place. God instructed Moses to build an incense altar of acacia wood to stand before the Holy Ark.

Aaron and his sons were commanded to keep a light of burning olive oil in the Sanctuary from morning until evening. And today, we women light our Shabbat candles. We women are not high priests and our homes are not as showy as the Sanctuary, but our hearts and our hands are as pure as those of the priests, and our candles shine as brightly as theirs as we perform the mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles. 

When I prepare for a D’Var Torah, I always read many sources. I read Torah, A Women’s Commentary published by the Women of the Reform Movement. My favorite book is The Five Books of Miriam, a women’s commentary on the Torah. In this book the question is asked, “Who made the elaborate garments for Aaron and his sons?” The Torah says “all who are skillful” but does not say who made these elaborate garments. “Skillful” can also be translated as “wise of heart.” Artisans in Israelite society were held in high esteem; their ability to create beautiful items was attributed to God.  

According to Ellen Frankel, the author of The Five Books of Miriam, we can make a pretty good educated guess. Since women have been the primary weavers and tailors in every culture since before recorded time, it’s likely that it was the skillful and wise of heart Israelite women who knitted, sewed and created these garments.

Today, women still are the weavers, the knitters, the quilters, the embroiderers, although not exclusively. My mother taught me how to embroider, how to knit and how to sew. I remember sitting next to her as she “instructed” me to do the regular stitches and when I was ready, the fancy stitches. It was one generation teaching another. We were a mother and daughter bonding together. For a number of years, my mother made clothes for my sister and me. We always felt so proud to wear them.

And over the years, I have continued the tradition of her handwork by needlepointing, by knitting, by weaving and by quilting. I have made quilts for Jodi and Michael, and another quilt graces our dining room wall. I also made his tallit bag. I helped to create the TBE chuppah that many of our women worked on.

My mother and I worked on a huge cross-stitch tablecloth together. We embroidered every stitch of the table cloth and all twelve napkins. At our Kiddush lunch today, one table will be graced with this tablecloth that we created. The napkins will be on the round tables.

I was asked if today’s Torah portion is the same as it was 60 years ago. My first response was, “I have no idea.”  Then, I decided to look in my baby book. Lo and behold, there was the bulletin for that week, announcing many synagogue functions which included my Bat Mitzvah and the portion for that Shabbat – it was T’Tzaveh.  You can see the announcement in the handouts. I had no idea months ago when I asked Rabbi Hammerman if I could deliver the D’Var Torah today that this would be the Torah portion. And coincidentally, T’Tzaveh is also Rabbi Hammerman’s Bar Mitzvah Torah portion. I am honored to share this Torah portion with him.

As we have learned, T’Tzaveh means to instruct. God instructed the women to create garments for Aaron and his brothers. My teachers instructed me to chant and to read Hebrew. My mother instructed me to knit, to embroider, and to sew. She also instructed our family how to keep a kosher home. My choir leaders have taught me to sing. My friends have taught me to quilt and to knit. For many years I taught Sunday school here at TBE,  and I taught women to read Hebrew. Many of them went on to become B’Not Mitzvah. For 25 years I taught children in the public schools. And now I teach adults English as a Second Language.

In my high school yearbook the quote under my photo said, “And gladly would she learn and gladly would she teach.” It was true then and it certainly is true today. I love to learn, and I love to teach, and preparing this D’Var Torah has certainly been a learning experience.

Shabbat Shalom to all of you. Please join us for a Kiddush lunch after the service. I hope you will also join me ten years from today when I will celebrate the 70th anniversary of my becoming at Bat Mitzvah.

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