Traditions are a way to unite generations and cultures by having shared experiences to celebrate life’s milestones. There are formal traditions like Jewish bat mitzvahs which mark a child’s entrance into adulthood and there are informal traditions like blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Some people like traditions and find comfort in having a common way in which to acknowledge the passage of time. Other people shun traditions as boring and predictable. However, when the predictability of formal traditions and the unpredictability of clumsiness are combined, it is anything but boring.
Our niece, Anise, was preparing for her bat mitzvah. When I read an e-mail from Oregano’s sister asking us to participate in the ceremony, I gasped. I knew tradition and clumsiness were about to have a head to head showdown in a temple. During a portion of the ceremony the ark is opened and the Torah is removed. Oregano and I were asked to hold the Torah, a Jewish Bible written in convenient, portable scroll form. The rabbi would place it in my arms and then it would be my job to hold the Torah and lead the rabbi, cantor and Anise in a parade around the sanctuary. Oregano would get the hand-off to hold it as they prepared it to return to the ark.
“Your sister is familiar with my long-standing history of clumsiness, isn’t she?” I asked Oregano when I finished reading the e-mail to him.
“I’m sure she’s heard the legendary tales of how you broke your middle finger doing laundry and fell in a manhole in front of your entire graduating class during graduation rehearsal.”
“What exactly is this going to entail? How heavy is the Torah? Can you walk around behind me in case it starts to slip out of my arms?” I fired these questions at him with great trepidation. I didn’t want to disappoint Anise, but a lifetime of unintentional slapstick comedy does tend to undermine my confidence in my ability to carry out seemingly unathletic endeavors.
“The scroll weighs about 50 pounds, but you won’t have to pick it up, the rabbi will hand it to you. It will be my job to hold the Torah after you are done so I can’t be part of your jaunt through the sanctuary. The rabbi will be with you the whole time,” Oregano replied.
“I sure hope he’s got good reflexes,” I said, envisioning a disaster of Biblical proportions.
We e-mailed Anise’s mom to tell her we’d be honored to participate in the bat mitzvah ceremony. Her reply was, “Oh, we didn’t think Aunt Paprika would actually say yes. We’re thrilled!”
Apparently, she is familiar with my proclivity to poorly timed physical mishaps. I’ve suffered public humiliation before because of my clumsiness, but never while wearing a dress and carrying a religious object in a house of worship. Preparation would be my key to success this time. My training began in earnest after that e-mail. I started carrying heavy, unwieldy objects like 25 pound bags of cat food while walking around my house. My strength training regimen consisted of lifting 50 pound boxes of kitty litter. Like professional athletes, I visualized a successful Torah lap, but having never seen the inside of this temple, I had to use my vivid imagination. After 8 weeks of training, the day of the bat mitzvah arrived and I was as ready as I could possibly be.
When we entered the sanctuary I was ecstatic to see that it was even smaller than I had imagined. Phew! What I didn’t expect were the stairs leading to the bimah (altar). I totally forgot that there would be stairs. How could I have made such a miscalculation? I should have practiced carrying the bags of cat food up and down the stairs in my house. Too late now; I’d have to improvise and hope that all of my training had prepared me for this unanticipated obstacle.
The day was supposed to be all about Anise, but if I dropped the Torah and it ripped into two pieces that rolled down the aisle, no one would be focused on her. They would be focused on trying to capture what was sure to become You Tube’s next viral video. When the rabbi called me up to the bimah I felt like an Olympic runner being called to the starting blocks. I climbed the stairs and turned to smile at the congregation. It was show time! No turning back now. The rabbi placed the Torah in my arms like it was a baby; a 3 foot long baby weighing 50 pounds. My knees buckled under the weight, but the transfer went smoothly. I was eager to make my trek and get this over with before my luck ran out and disaster struck. As I stood there trying not to shift the weight cradled in my arms, the cantor began singing. The Torah was getting heavy and I hadn’t even made it to the stairs yet. No one mentioned I’d be holding it as they sang a few songs. I’m sure the songs they were singing had some spiritual significance, but all I heard was the theme from the movie Rocky playing in my head. As Rocky Balboa ran through the streets of Philadelphia on my mental movie screen, I visualized an uneventful lap: no dropping, no tripping, no ripping.
The music stopped and the rabbi gestured toward the stairs. In reality, there were only 3 stairs, but it may as well have been a Mayan pyramid. As gracefully as I could manage holding a delicate religious scroll more than half the length of my body, I descended the stairs and began my march around the blissfully small sanctuary. I was focused. When I made the turn at the end of the aisle, I was almost home free. I was a Torah carrying machine as I carefully climbed the steps and made it successfully back onto the bimah. Hooray!! I wanted to spike the Torah, high-five the rabbi and do a dance to celebrate my success, but I restrained myself. The rabbi directed me to a throne-like chair and I was able to take a load off while holding onto the Torah during the next musical interlude.
When the song concluded, someone lifted the Torah from my arms; it was probably the rabbi, but it could have been the janitor. It didn’t matter to me. I had survived my encounter with the Torah and more importantly, the Torah had survived its encounter with me. Years of ineptitude made me nervous about my ability to fulfill my duties during the bat mitzvah. Maybe all I needed was some divine intervention to finally lift the curse of clumsiness. Could this successful lap around the temple have been my personal victory lap? Perhaps I am no longer the graceless, petite clod I perceive myself to be, but rather, a graceful, petite swan. Just 6 days later, the euphoric feeling of my victory lap still fresh in my mind, I gouged a huge chunk of skin out of my thumb while cutting cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich. As I sat there applying pressure to stanch the blood coming from my wound, I realized that some victories are short-lived.
** I’d like to give a shout out to Anise’s friend, Louisa, who reads Good Humored every week. She was so excited to meet me at the bat mitzvah that she was unable to speak. I have that effect on people, but have always assumed they just thought I was too boring to talk to.**