Dor to Dor: In the Light of Torah, the Torah is light

A family photo of Elaine Alexander’s children, Noah and Ariel at Noah’s bar mitzvah.

By Elaine K. Alexander

When my son Noah became a bar mitzvah in May if 1994, it was a milestone for me as well. Both of my parents survived the Shoah as, very-nearly, sole next of kin to an extended family of 100-plus persons. Then when I was 11 and my sisters were 13 and 7, our dad died. Our childhood was at once tumultuous and meager. There was scarcely any family who belonged to us. And we did not belong to any synagogue or practice Jewish rituals at home. Wherever we lived, Jacob’s tents neighbored, in a cloud of smoke, directly over the house and Hitler was the Unseen Presence.

For my own children, Noah, now 30, and, Ariel, 27, I was able to do something entirely different, but without family rituals or familiar traditions to guide me. So when my first-born read from the Torah with five score friends and relatives there to witness it, I felt it as a personal achievement.

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The day before, early on Friday afternoon, Noah, Ariel, their father and I met at the synagogue with the religious school director, Lisa Goldstein, for a run-through. At Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Ill., it was Rabbi Taylor’s practice to have only Jewish parents lift the Torah after the reading for the ritual display to the congregation. Because Noah’s father had remained an Episcopalian, it was up to me to do it. Lisa showed me the little trick with the knees and I practiced once or twice. But I weighed, then, about 100 pounds and the Torah seemed impossibly heavy. I was nervous about being able to raise it the next day and was ready to abdicate my role to Rabbi Taylor or my brother-in-law.   After the rehearsal, events unfolded wondrously. At Friday evening worship, Solel’s music director, Bernie Ebstein, had the the choir sing from Psalm 91 – With trumpets and sound of the horn/Shout ye before our Sovereign, God – as a small tribute to Noah, who, as a mere seventh grader, was the shofar blower, the baal tekiya/master of the blast, at Rosh Hashana family services.   

Then on Shabbat morning, Solel’s white-walled sanctuary was bathed in an ethereal light as Noah’s chanting, sweetly on the cusp of manhood, bloomed full and tuneful. His D’var Torah, which followed, was superfluous. I and everyone else had already understood it all, even those who knew not a single word of Hebrew. My friend, Peggy, later said that Noah had set the plaster walls to ringing. And Rabbi Taylor murmured, when Noah had finished chanting, “Kid, you don’t need a horn.”

 And then it was my turn to lift up, pivot and show the inked parchment to the congregants. Recently I heard that in extraordinary circumstances, we are fortified by a dose of natural opiates that makes us insensitive to pain. That’s why we can raise up cars or perform similar feats that we otherwise couldn’t. It was only then that I understood why when I lifted the Torah scroll on the day Noah became a bar mitzvah, the scroll that had seemed overwhelmingly heavy the day before seemed entirely weightless. I was amazed. A little triumphant. Dazed.

 If Rabbi Taylor hadn’t given me a bemused cue to set the Torah back down, I wonder how long I would have stood there, entranced with the magic scroll that rose of its own volition and at full arm’s length, hung in mid-air a foot over my head. I had intended to lift it up, but it was rather as if I myself had been lifted up. All I had to do was hold on.

Elaine K. Alexander lives in Creve Coeur and is a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth. Her son, Noah, is a shofar blower at the temple. Alexander is writing a memoir about being the child of Holocaust survivors.

‘Dor to Dor’

“Dor to Dor,” is an intermittent Jewish Light series looking at various aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections (“dor” means generation in Hebrew) through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area. Some of these columns may deal directly with Jewish issues, other may not, but we hope you’ll find each one informative or entertaining or, better yet, both.

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