Several weeks ago, my triumphant, thriving, sensitive and sweet daughter Sammi read from the Torah for the first time.
In the Jewish ceremony known colloquially as a “Bat Mitzvah,” my daughter consciously took her place in her community by chanting three verses of a chapter from Leviticus. Like all children who become a Bat or Bar Mitzvah (literally, a daughter or son of the covenant), she studied for months to learn the melody and the Hebrew words she’d be chanting and all the prayers she’d need to know to share leadership of the service and analyze the chapter of Torah in English. She has a lovely, clear voice, and she spent weeks with headphones on listening to the sound of her tutor’s voice chanting her verses, and singing along. I’d heard her practicing, but nothing really prepared me for the feeling I would have on the day she became a Bat Mitzvah, as I stood next to her at the podium as she chanted in front of the congregation of our synagogue and all of the friends and family who gathered to bear witness. It was not what I expected.
When her older sister Ronni took part in this same ritual three years ago, I was proud and joyful, but not surprised by my emotions or the images it evoked in my head. I remembered when I had become a Bat Mitzvah more than twenty years before, in a synagogue that did not allow women to chant from the Torah. My feelings then were of pride that I’d chosen an egalitarian congregation — now with a wonderful Rabbi who also happens to be a woman –, that my daughter had such a lovely voice, and that she was so poised and calm. They were powerful but simple reactions, then.
This time was different. Though I have attended more than a dozen such services since Ronni’s, I realized suddenly that I had never really been able to picture Sammi doing this. On the surface, I’d been planning the day for some time — practical things like helping her pick out a dress and choosing a menu for the celebration afterward — but my heart had, I realized, held back some commitment to the day. Though Sammi has been well for nearly four years now, I realized suddenly as I stood next to her that I have not trusted her health nearly as much as I thought.
For context, and for those who have never attended this ceremony: for every verse of reading from the Torah, a member of the congregation or the guests gathered is given the honor of reciting a blessing. Sometimes that honor is shared among a group of people. The name for this honor is called aliyah, which can be literally translated as “elevating” or “going up.” Before chanting her second verse, my husband David and I were called to give the blessing and then stay next to her as she chanted the second and then third of her verses. There we stood, to her left as she chanted the third verse, and I looked at her as she followed along with the Hebrew in the Torah, unfurled in front of her, using a silver pointer.
In that moment, I felt the world around me whirl into a blur. In front of my eyes was my little miracle: a girl who had survived two heart surgeries, a dozen endoscopies, ear tubes and tonsillectomy, esophageal dilation and years of strange diets, x-rays, blood tests, and more. Here she was, before me, pink cheeks and party dress, braces and bare legs, chanting from the Torah. Before all the diagnoses and tests and heartache, when I held her in my arms in the hospital on the day she was born, this was a milestone I could have named with confidence. Someday, I thought, she will become a Bat Mitzvah. And now, despite it all, that’s what she was doing.
She chanted, and my eyes clouded, remembering the soft warmth of her hand as I held it across a gurney headed for the operating room. I pictured her doped and flushed in a hospital bed, fingers wrapped around the morphine button. I saw her dozing in the backseat of the car on the way home from outpatient procedures, teary and uncomfortable. I saw the dressing around the surgical scars. Like a 360° camera shot, a circle around me revealed all the versions of Sammi from her heartbreaking past, spinning around to face — finally — the vital and healthy and whole child in front of me, doing what she was destined to do, and doing it beautifully.
I wiped away a tear as she finished chanting. David’s arm around me, I reached forward and squeezed Sammi’s hand. She turned to me and grinned. We’d both made it.
Also, if you think the photos in this post were as spectacular as I did, and you’re either in the Chicago area or willing to pay for transportation, check out and then hire Chad Leverenz Photography, like we did.