My Daughter the Gabbai

Nearly 15 years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to chant Torah. I grew up in a religious/traditional household in the Bronx, New York, at a time when Bat Mitzvahs were just gaining acceptance. In fact, unlike generations of women before me, I actually celebrated two Bat Mitzvahs— one was a group Bat Mitzvah with all of my Hebrew School girlfriends at one shul we belonged to and the other had me front and center on the bima rocking a red, white, and blue maxi dress and donning a shag haircut (no need to say it was the early ‘70s) at the other shul my family belonged to that didn’t house a Hebrew School. I don’t remember much about the group effort but for my one woman show, I spent hours that turned into days that turned into weeks that turned into months memorizing a tape recording of my Haftorah with my tutor who was my best friend’s older brother. Much like my childhood dance recital performances, I performed well until about halfway through and then faked my way to the end.

It wasn’t redemption I was after 30 years later; it was a real desire to learn the ancient melodies I grew up hearing. Much like a commercial jingle that you can’t stop singing, I would hum the sing song tune of the Torah chant that became an ear bug each week. A new best friend, Deborah, agreed to tutor me while her 3- and 6-year-olds and my twin 7-year-old daughters played.

It quickly became clear that my daughter Kate (aka Katriel) was much more interested in learning alongside me than playing with Polly Pockets or Barbie dolls. (Truth be told, the latter did not break my heart having never been a big Barbie fan. Okay, truth be told, at my daughters’ 4th birthday party, the invitation had a Barbie with a circle and line through it.) Before I knew it, Katriel was correcting me during my home practice sessions and answering my questions about a trope when I got stuck.

A year later, while studying the Jewish life cycle in the Sacramento day school they attended, the girls’ 3rd-grade Judaica teacher approached Deborah and asked her to chant Torah during the class Bar Mitzvah. “Why don’t you ask Kate Provance?” Deborah responded. “She can read Torah.”

I remember driving to school that infamous morning, video camera charged, brand new tape installed, and nervous as all get out (Kate recalled that I told her I felt like I was going to throw up). I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a face as calm as an ocean breeze. “I feel a little nervous, Katriel,” I said to her. “How do you feel?” “Ima,” she responded, “I got this.” And she did. Thus began my then 8-year-old daughter’s career as a ba’al koreh, a Torah reader.

At about age 11, Kate decided it was time to read from the Torah in front of our congregation, the only conservative synagogue in Sacramento. Of course, she was not a Bat Mitzvah and there were all sorts of ritual questions (and opinions) associated with her request. Our Rabbi gave her a definitive thumbs-up and so we moved forward. I remember driving to shul that morning, sans the electronics, but still nervous as all get out. Once again, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a face as calm as an ocean breeze. “I feel a little nervous, Katriel,” I said to her. “How do you feel?” “Ima,” she responded, “I got this.” And she did.

When Kate and her twin sister, Rachel, turned 13, they were welcomed as adults into the Jewish community in which they grew up and celebrated their B’not Mitzvah. In addition to leading the entire service, they decided to present a debate for their drash. Their Torah portion was Vayeira and they debated whether Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back at Sodom, or whether she was compelled by the love she had for her children and, therefore, was willing to pay the consequences in order to see them one last time. It might have been the first “she said, she said” drash to hit our shul and impressed both our Jewish and non-Jewish friends who were shocked to hear that differing opinions about the Torah portion were not just welcomed, but encouraged.

Two years later, at age 15, Kate did a month-long service learning trip in Israel with USY. When she returned, I heard a million stories about her travels and her newfound love affair with Israel. But the highlight of her trip was not the camel ride, eating with Bedouins, the Bahai Gardens, the Haifa Zoo, or any of the countless experiences that filled several pages of her itinerary. For Kate, the highlight was leading services atop Masada, being the Shaliach Tzibur. That was also the year that she was voted as, what else, Religion and Education Vice President for her USY Chapter. All of this while attending a Catholic High School where she reframed much of what she learned in her theology classes around Judaism. “We studied Baptism today,” she would share with me on the ride home. “Short story? It’s just like the mikvah.”

Kate attended American Jewish University her freshman year of college. Feeling isolated atop a mountain called Mullholland Drive in Los Angeles and feeling as if her spiritual needs were not being met, she decided to return home and attend Community College. She began attending Shabbat services with me and davened, as always, with kavanah that was well beyond her years. People looked toward her because she sings loud and proud and with a pure neshama. It turned out that the Gabbai Rishon (who replaced me after my 2-year stint) was moving. Knowing there would not be a line of candidates lining up for the job, I asked Kate if she would like to do it. A big grin stretched across her face. After consulting with the Rabbi and the Ritual Committee Chair (again, lots of opinions), my daughter was appointed as Gabbai Rishon of Mosaic Law Congregation. She was 18 years old.

Weeks later, Kate was faced with the High Holidays. Driving to shul on first day Rosh Hashanah, I recalled the moments that led her here and said, “I feel a little nervous, Katriel. How do you feel?” Once again, with her ocean breeze calm she responded, “Ima, I got this.” And she did. She had pulled together her team and seamlessly powered through the 12-page list of honors. Then she took her rightful place as Gabbai Rishon of the congregation in which she grew up.

Now, more than 6 months into her term and with a 19-year-old old soul, she has helped to direct countless B’nai Mitzvah; celebrated special birthdays, ofrufs, baby namings, and other assorted smichot; has danced the delicate decision-making dance of handing out aliyot, Torah holders, and other assorted honors; and has deftly whispered hundreds of Hebrew names and English prayer readers into the Rabbi’s ear. She has clocked several marathons running up and down the bima, learning that unless you are a Jew in the pew, flats work much better on Shabbes than heels do. She has taken on this role with great pride and, based on congregational feedback, I believe she has become a source of great pride for our shul. For sure, she has made this Ima proud. Her term will be up when she leaves to finish her bachelor’s degree in Southern California and who knows what the next step in her spiritual career will be. That will reveal itself but for now, she remains my daughter, the gabbai.

About the Author
Elissa Einhorn has 30 years of non-profit experience in the communications field. A trained journalist, she has won several awards for her writing, beginning with an award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1988 while earning a Master's degree in Communications/Journalism. She has served as managing editor and sole staff writer for the Jewish community newspaper in Sacramento, California, for 10 years. She is currently looking for writing work in Jerusalem while studying at Ulpan.
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