Bat Mitzvah, Bar Mitzvah, B-Mitzvah, Re-Mitzvah: On Reclaiming Singing and Faith

Those of you who know me well know I grew up believing I couldn’t sing. In general, as a child I was encouraged to focus on areas where I could excel. If you couldn’t do something spectacularly well, why bother trying? After all, talent was considered inborn. You either had a nice voice, or you didn’t. And I didn’t. I felt a ton of shame about this, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I rarely sang loudly enough to hear my own voice, so I couldn’t learn to use my voice more musically.

The only exception to this was in the context of Jewish prayer, where I was expected to sing and chant regardless of whether I could do it musically or not. This culminated with my Bat Mitzvah at age 13. I could have declined to do it, but I didn’t, despite the fact that a couple of years earlier I had felt excruciating vicarious humiliation at the Bat Mitzvah of an older girl, whose father was our congregation’s operatic cantor. The poor girl could barely stumble through her Haftarah portion, getting corrected every other word. I think I also felt a lot of vicarious nervousness when my older sister had her Bat Mitzvah that same year, though I don’t remember it as clearly as the cantor’s daughter! In any case, I had internalized the expectation that I was to have a Bat Mitzvah. I’m not sure I even realized how new it still was for girls to do them. When my mother, usually the one pushing us into more religious practice, offered me an out because she and my father had just separated, and she didn’t really want to face the whole thing, I insisted on going through with it

I practiced hard, and managed to deliver the Torah and Haftarah cantillation and their associated blessings fairly well, along with leading a few of the other prayers. I felt present to some extent – I remember feeling blessed by the sun shining on me through the skylight of the sanctuary in the brand new synagogue, and feeling like I might puke right before beginning my Torah reading. I mostly sang in a very high voice, not feeling much below my throat. I think I was operating “on top of” a ton of feelings – pushing them away rather than figuring out how to move through them. I did enjoy the blessings after the Haftarah, which have a tune that’s a bit like a triumphal march. I remember feeling vastly relieved when the service was over. I absolutely refused to do a reprise even though our Rabbi, a close family friend, asked me over and over to do it again in subsequent years.

Reclaiming my voice and my ability to sing has been a decades-long process for me, one that came in fits and starts. In 1986 at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in England, a supportive older woman asked a few of us younger women, “If there was one thing you could magically change about yourself, what would it be?” That was easy: “I’d be able to sing,” I responded. The woman asked what song I’d want to sing and I said “The Rose,” and we sang it in the tent in the rain at night, with the woods around us, outside the fence where the US military defended its nuclear presence in Britain.

Over the years since then, I made many false starts and tried many ways to learn to sing. I made bits of progress, but I think I was always trying too hard to hear what my voice sounded like from the outside. It wasn’t until I did somatic healing work and was able to actually feel the resonance of the sound in my chest and belly that I began to have real hope. Even then, the road has been long. Particularly helpful to the combination of skill-building and emotional healing around my voice have been Barbara McAfee’s Full Voice Coaching methods, and working with my current voice coach, Rebekka Goldsmith. Before the pandemic I also had the opportunity to have super-fun singing lessons with the amazing Lynette Marguiles (and to borrow one of her keyboards to practice with — Thanks, Lynette!!). My Zen Leadership teacher and author of Resonate, Ginny Whitelaw, also provided an important image for me, of the bowl-shaped bell, which can’t ring unless it’s (mostly) empty.

My own progress astonishes and moves me to tears at times, although sometimes I still backslide into my old throat-choking terror, and into believing the story that I can’t sing. Some of the terror I feel, though, is a new kind. It’s something like fear of success, rather than fear of failure. Fear of the implications of this change. If I can sing, then what other stories that I used to believe might also turn out to be false? If I can sing, then it’s possible that nothing is truly impossible. If I can heal this wound, then perhaps any wound can be healed. What would it be like to really live with that kind of faith?

If you know me you also know that my Jewish identity is not a very traditional one. I have practiced nearly as much paganism and Buddhism as I have Judaism, and a syncretic blend is my preference. The concept of “faith” has always seemed more Christian, or Orthodox Jewish, and not usually part of my blend. It turns out that doing Jewish Ancestral Healing work and returning to more Jewish daily practice has been an important part of healing my relationship to singing, perhaps because of my early experiences with Jewish prayer. Singing Jewish songs daily with Don has been one of the greatest pleasures in our relationship, and it got us through the pandemic lock-down.

Along the way, engaging deeply with Jewish prayer and chant and the amazing new Jewish music coming out of the Jewish Renewal Movement and the Rising Song Institute, has also been healing my relationship to Judaism. When I listen to the music of Joey Weisenberg, Debra Sacks Mintz and their colleagues, I feel like they are channeling spirit. I feel joy, and I feel happier to be Jewish than at any other time.

Now, thanks to my stepson Sam, who decided to have a Bar Mitzvah at age 36, and my husband Don who is doing his at age 69, I am taking another step on my Jewish musical journey at age 55. I recently heard the word “Re-Mitzvah,” and realized that’s what I’ll be doing when I accompany Sam and Don with singing and drumming at their B’nei Mitzvah (the plural) or B-Mitzvah (the gender-neutral term) on June 25th. God willing and the crick don’t rise (and the covid bug don’t bite), I plan to try to embrace my fear and the imperfection of my voice when I chant solo from the Torah for one of the aliyot. Hopefully, I will also have moments of joy, when I can feel the incredible resonance of sound in the sanctuary as well as in my body. (I had the opportunity to have one of my Zoom singing lessons with Rebekka in there the other day, and it was quite amazing!)

Here’s a poem I wrote to help me with my fear of singing.

Dear Fear,

I’m glad you’re here,

it’s really time we talk.

It’s all coming back,

I hadn’t the knack –

singing wasn’t like learning to walk.

You’re right that I might

be a little off-key,

but that’s not a reason to balk.

The crack in my voice

is a place for a choice,

not a reason for people to gawk!

My dearest old fear,

please lend me your ear –

it’s time for a heart-to-heart.

If I start to quack,

I’ll just take a new tack,

or ease in by humming my part.

If off-key is me,

I will let go my ego,

empty this bell and re-start.

My old terror of singing,

together we’re winging,

in faith any voice can make art!

But now that I’m healing,

and singing’s appealing,

New fears are arising on que:

If my voice wasn’t bad,

other “knowledge” I’ve had

might also be really untrue!

And what if my calling

for tra-la-la-lal-ing

makes me more than an every-day Jew?

I could be a Rabbi

or priestess in tie-dye,

if there’s nothing that I cannot do!

13 thoughts on “Bat Mitzvah, Bar Mitzvah, B-Mitzvah, Re-Mitzvah: On Reclaiming Singing and Faith”

  1. Glad to hear that you’re singing! I was reading something recently about it being good for our health. I know that it’s brought a lot to mine. Songs hold many good memories for me. Losing the capability to sing was probably my biggest fear when I had my VNS put in 2 years ago. I was never a fantastic singer, but now I really can’t be in most choirs anymore because the VNS throws my voice off when it goes off. But, I’ve learned that’s okay I can still find joy just singing with friends or with the radio and that’s all I need. We all should have music in our days.

  2. Dearest Becca What a remarkable post. You are amazing and multitalented and I look forward to hearing you sing over zoom. And you write poetry! Be well Lots of love Irving

  3. Becca,

    Absolutely loved reading your story about singing! And your poem made me smile, especially the image of yourself as a Rabbi in tie-dye😂

    In awe and with love,
    Sue Clapp

  4. Mary Sundberg Stirling

    What an inspiration! Several things jumped out to me — the crack in my voice is a place for a choice — the empty vessel allowing the song to rise — the incredible resonance of sound in the sanctuary as well as in my body, which as I read it morphed into the the incredible resonance of sound in the sanctuary of my body. The beauty of your lifesong is truly a gift – to us and to yourself.
    Love, Mary

  5. Rachel Berman

    Love, love, love this! As someone who used to ENJOY singing with you on occasion back in the day, I’m glad that you’re embracing this!

    1. thanks!! that is sweet to hear. do you remember the time you made me a tape of the prayers i was struggling to learn, and everyone was surprised at how much better i got? practice really helped, which i somehow forgot for years. also it probably helped hearing it from a female voice!

      1. Hearing it from a female voice: YES YES YES! It makes a huge difference if you can sing in the same octave and you don’t have to strain to reach notes or switch octaves mid-chant. (It suddenly occurred to me to wonder whether maybe that’s one reason people who think they “can’t sing” end up off-key — they start on the same note but when the range goes out of reach, they don’t know how to compensate, not because they “can’t” but because they haven’t learned the skill yet.)

  6. Becca, this piece makes me SO SO HAPPY!!!

    I’ve met many people who grew up as you did, believing they could not sing because somebody told them they couldn’t, and very few who went ahead later in life and learned the skill. It’s such a joy to read about how you’ve reclaimed your voice and even have a vocal coach. The story about the Women’s Peace Camp is so moving, as is the tender moment of realization in “I was able to actually feel the resonance of the sound in my chest and belly.”

    I’m gobsmacked at your reflection on what this might mean for other stories about things you (and we) cannot do. For me it’s not singing, it’s math, but it makes me curious to re-examine my own stories about other things I think I can’t do.

    And this made me laugh out loud: “I could be a Rabbi / or priestess in tie-dye”

  7. Wow (again and again, wow). I am moved by your engagement with fear, your persistence, your curiosity and you poem — with what feels like a lighthearted approach to such life-changing questions. The “Re-Mitzvah” was quite moving to witness, with this as one of the streams feeding into an ocean of meaning and love.

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