I did that recently. I am a member of the JCOGS, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Stowe, Vermont, and in July, I was asked to do something that I'm now really regretting.
Before I go further, a little background. When I moved to Vermont, I thought there were four Jews in the whole state. Me, Ben and Jerry of the ice cream fame, and Bernie Sanders. I was wrong, of course. There are Jews in Vermont, just not as many as in New Jersey, where I lived before. There is a reform temple in Montpelier, half an hour away, There is a Chabad House in Burlington, where the orthodox hang out and into which a young woman to whom I mistakenly said, Shabbat Shalom tried to drag me one Saturday afternoon. Then, there's JCOGS in Stowe, a vibrant congregation of maybe 200 people - some of whom are only part-time residents, but still they're members. Ironically, before World War II, Stowe was a restricted town. Jews were not allowed to buy real estate, and were excluded from staying at hotels or variously lodgings for tourists.
I am very proud of my Jewish heritage, but I am not religious. I was raised in a Conservative Jewish synagogue, but my current religious beliefs are somewhere between agnostic and believing in something that is best described as "the Force". (See Star Wars.)
I hadn't been a member of a synagogue since I lived at home with my parents. I joined JCOGS in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when Nazis marched with tiki torches, chanting, Jews Shall Not Replace US. Joining JCOGS was my way to defy those chants. Joining JCOGS was my way of standing with my fellow Jews.
There's also the fact that since I lost both my parents, I have gone to services a few times a year, not because I really believe, but to honor their memories. In Judaism, on the anniversary of the death of a close relative - parent, child, spouse, sibling - one is supposed to light a candle that burns for 24 hours (a Yarzeit candle) and to say Kaddish, a prayer for the dead. My parents would have wanted me to say Kaddish for them. I don't really think that they know I'm doing it, but I do so in their memory. I also go to services for the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippour, Day of Atonement - for the same reason I go to services on the anniversaries of my parents' deaths.
So, back to my original story: saying yes and regretting it. In early July, I was at a JCOGS function, chatting with Claudia, the woman who sets up part of the service, and she asked me to be one of the readers of the Torah for the High Holy Days.
Now, for all of you unfamiliar with Judaism, the Torah is the sacred first five books of Moses. A Torah scroll is written in Hebrew by hand, with a quill, on a special type of parchment, which can take a year and a half. A new Torah can cost upwards of $30,000, and the Torah, as both sacred and expensive, is kept in a special enclosure at the front of the synagogue, and to be taken out on the Sabbath (Shabbat) and designated holidays (like Rosh Hashanah). The day's selected portion is chanted in front of the congregation, and readings are spaced out so that the entire Torah is read every year. The holiday Simcha Torah celebrates the conclusion of the year's cycle and the beginning of the new cycle of reading.
So back to my story: I was asked to "read" ( really, I wouldn't be reading, I'd be chanting) one of the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah. Now, I did go to Hebrew school for six years; I did have the celebration of my formal entry as an adult into the congregation at the age of 13 - otherwise known as a Bat Mitzvah. I still remember enough to be able to follow the Hebrew prayer book, even if I only understand a few of the words. So, when asked to read the Torah, while I was a bit hesitant, I thought I could maybe do it. With work.
Claudia, who organizes the Torah readings, chanted a few words and asked me if I could repeat it. I did. She complimented my voice, and said she could make a tape of the portion I'd have to chant, and she would really appreciate my agreeing. She was having trouble finding enough readers.
Couple other points on Judaism: Reading the Torah is one of the biggest honors that you can receive in the synagogue, but I'd never done it, not even back in my sort of religious days after my Bat Mitzvah. Why? I'm female. There are three branches of Judaism:Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. (There are subsets of each, but this is a blog not a treatise.) In Orthodox Judaism, there are a lot of rules about what you can eat, what you can do on holidays (ie. driving, no-no), and on the role of women. Women not only do not read the Torah, they do not sit with men. Depending on how strict the congregation is, the women either sit behind a wall but can actually see the service, or somewhere so restrictive they can't see anything (or, more importantly, be seen). The reform movement was the equivalent of Jewish hippies. The services had more English than Hebrew (at least in my childhood) services were cut down from three hours, give or take, to about an hour, employed instruments, and by 1972, women could become rabbis. As previously stated, I grew up Conservative - somewhere in between reform and orthodox - and which kept most of the prayer formats and rituals but was much less restrictive. When I was young, while women and men sat together, women were not rabbis and did not read from the Torah. That has all changed - within Conservative Judaism. Women are rabbis and have equal status.
JCOGS welcomes all denominations of Jews - but does have the equality of women and men within its services.
The idea of reading from the Torah, something forbidden to me as a young woman, was appealing. Claudia's compliments on my voice were an added inducement, as was the idea of calling up people on the orthodox side of my family, and saying guess what.
I said yes.
Now, here I am, almost two months before Rosh Hashanah, trying desperately to learn the Hebrew and the chants - and thinking, what have I done? I have a novel to edit - I am participating in a stand-up contest at the end of August and have to work on my act. I am also trying to write a least one blog a week. And what am I doing? I am listening over and over to a taped rendition of the portion I am supposed to read, and not convinced that even with two months to go, I'll get it down.
If I believed in G-d (note - it's a very Jewish thing to not put the O in the word for the Supreme Being, even if one does not believe in said Supreme Being), I might believe that He (She) is having a good laugh at me right now.
I'd back out, but Claudia just sent out an email, asking if anyone wants to read a second portion. She still doesn't have enough readers. I'd back out, but then I'd have to quit JCOGS, and I don't want to quit.
So, I guess I'm going to do it. Kvetching (complaining) all the way. Wish me luck. I'm going to need it.