Amanda Miller clutches the edge of her chair and squeezes her eyes shut. She is hoisted high above the crowd.
Delicate and white in her first formal dress, she rises and dips, like a butterfly. Beneath her, 50 people dance in a snaking chain, clapping to the off-key strains of Hava Nagila. “Amanda! Amanda!” they shout. She curls shoeless feet around the rung of the chair, opens her eyes and smiles weakly.
This is Amanda’s bat mitzvah party — the moment she has been preparing for and dreading. It follows a rigorous morning service of Hebrew incantation that Amanda has worked months to master.
The bat mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood, carries with it thousands of years of history and tradition. One of the most important days in the life of a Jew, it affirms that the child accepts the commandments — becoming responsible for his or her own spiritual conscience.
At its purest, the batmitzvah — or bar mitzvah, for a boy — is the start of a lifelong spiritual practice within a close community of Jews. At its most perfunctory, it marks the end of religious training.
Either way, it’s always occasion for a whopping good party. And Amanda Miller, 13, of Portland, worked hard for her day in the air.
Amanda began preparing for her bat mitzvah eight months ago, studying intensively with her mother, Elinor Miller. Every week they read, analyzed and memorized portions of the Torah — the five books of Moses that are at the center of Jewish theology.
To be taught Torah by her mother is a purely modern twist on tradition; Jewish women were denied the privilege of having bat mitzvahs until the 1920s. But Ellie Miller is a self-taught Hebrew scholar who each year prepares a handful of teens for their bar and bat mitzvahs at Portland’s Temple Beth El.
“It’s hard when it’s your own,” says Ellie, who is the assistant director at Pine Tree Legal Services in Portland. “It has all the blessings and curses. All the wonderful things to interact with your child in a very deep and spiritual and symbolic way. We also have all the frictions of a mother-daughter pre-adolescent relationship.
On a rainy day in March, Ellie and Amanda Miller study the Hebrew text on the family’s sofa.
Amanda can’t contain herself. She bounds off the sofa to scold the dog. She twists strands of wavy brown hair around her ear as she speaks. Sparkling brown eyes fash challenges, then quickly turn shy.
The Hebrew words on her lap are a sea of squiggles and clefs, with vowels appearing underneath the letters in an elaborate system of dots.
Amanda has been studying Hebrew since she was 5. Even so, reading the Torah aloud during her bat mitzvah ceremony will be difficult. The haunting, minor-keyed prayers that she will sing will be harder still. These she must memorize.
The musis does not appear on the page, but is taught orally, usually by a cantor or rabbi (in this case, Ellie). It’s daunting enought that most kids choose to sing one or two of the aliyot — eight portions of the Torah. Amanda will sing them all.
“It’s sort of a goal of mine to be able to do all of them. My brother and sister did that. I just thought it was the right thing to do,” says Amanda. “Because I know I can expand my mind that far.”
Today she sings aloud, showing off her skill as her mother follows along on book, smiling. Her voice is scratchy but sure. The ancient melody fills the house like the smell of challah, drawing first her older sister, Elizabeth, then her father, to the room.
“Very good, Amanda,” says Charles Miller, bowing slightly.
“Can I come in?” asks Elizabeth, 21.
Keeping the Faith
In Judaism, the bar and bat mitzvah are among the most revered ceremonies. They ensure survival.
The dangers of anti-semitism, the memory of the Holocaust, have made a deep imprint on the family psyche. But the biggest danger Jews face today, Charles Miller says, is assimilation.
“(Jews) have been so accepted into the community, it’s a real challenge to those of us who feel we need to preserve the tradition for another generation,” he says.
To protect their culture, the Millers practice many of the ancient traditions governing daily life, customs that have been dropped by less observant Jews. The Millers are conservative Jews, which means they are balanced between the strict tenets of orthodoxy and the modernized practices of reform Jews.
They keep a kosher house, adhering to strict dietary customs. They all speak Hebrew, and have been to Israel. In the summer, Amanda attends Jewish camp to reinforce her religious training.
“Our observance is very American,” says Charles, 46, a Portland attorney. “We ride cars on the sabbath, we turn lights on. We write — or at least I do. Ellie and Amanda and Elizabeth try not to.
“We’re pretty committed to our tradition. But Judaism is a very personal religious,” he says. “There are 613mitzvoth(commandments). Nobody is expected to observe them all. You pick a few that are meaningful to you and that’s how you embrace your tradition.”
The bat mitzvah is Amanda’s first embrace.
A Twist on Tradition
In her course of study, Amanda has mined her Hebrew text for meaning, as well as melody. Following her recitation at the bat mitzvah, she must give a speech in English, her personal interpretation of the Torah.
Today, she is puzzling with her mother over and inconsistency in the text. In one section, a prophet says that the Jews are just like everyone else. In another, he describes them as the chosen people.
“It just confuses me,” says Amanda. “The rabbi said, what is it to be chosen? I said, we follow the commandments.
“But what if a non-Jew followed the commandments? Could they be chosen?”
Ellie is clearly pleased by this question. “Her struggle to reconcile those two texts is very touching and compelling to me,” says Ellie, as Amanda bounds off the sofa and disappears into the kitchen.
“The fact that she was so torn, as we all are, to think that we’re special. And the recognition that everyone is special. That’s the crux of it right there: You work it through for the rest of your life.”
Ellie wasn’t able to share this level of interchange with her own mother, Rose Bartel. As the daughter of an orthodox rabbi, Rose was denied the Jewish education that her brothers received. “That was pretty typical of what was done with girls back then,” says Ellie. “But she resented it terribly.”
As the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah, Ellie says her drive to educate her own children was, in part, a testimony to her mother. “I wanted to succeed, on some level, because I knew she hadn’t been able to have it.”
For Rabbi Harry Z. Sky, who will preside over her ceremony at Temple Beth El, Amanda’s bat mitzvah is a simcha, a joyous occasion.
“Every rabbi dreams at least once a year, he’ll have an Amanda,” he smiles. “(Her) sense of life, the commitment to things Jewish, it being so natural to her, like the garment she wears. It’s as if it’s her own skin. When you find one where it’s so obvious and definite, you get excited.”
The Community Gathers
The day arrives — April 23 — sunny, blustery, daffodils in bloom. The temple is brimming with people.
“Big day, big day,” booms Charles. Swollen with pride, he weaves through the congregation shaking hands — “Good shabbos.”
At the door to the temple, prayer shawls sweep over shoulders. “It’s going to fill up,” says one congregant.
Sky enters the sanctuary and takes his place at the bimah, or altar. Amanda follows, teetering in white pumps and white lace, grinning at her friends in the crowd.
After the rabbi opens the service, Charles and Ellie are called to speak.
“You come from a family that feels passionately about Judaism,” says Charles. “Take the heritage. Protect it. Love and nurture it. As a bat mitzvah, you are now a woman.”
Amanda takes her place at the bimah, her head barely visible, and begins to chant the prayers.
“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonaie ehad.” Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
The long service begins, a series of readings, recitation and prayers uttered mostly in Hebrew. For 2 1/2 hours, Amanda reads and sings. She is grave and her voice is strong. Only occasionally does she slip a sly glance at her parents in the crowd.
As the service ends, Sky addresses her before the congregation: “Amanda,” he says. “You’re now a bat mitzvah. How do you feel?”
“OK,” she says.
“I want you to know that your bat mitzvah today is one of the top five of my career.” He turns a conspiratorial eye to the congregation. “Let the other four guess who they are.”
In the temple’s social hall, Larry Nelson and the Kadima Band are pumping out the Hebrew tunes after the service.
Amanda holds a slab of pizza in one hand and beats the rhythm of the song out on the table with her other. Sixty teen-agers surround her — boys on one side, girls on the other.
Before Amanda is hoisted aloft in the chair, Mark Miller, 24, gives a toast to his sister, and for a moment the hall is quiet. “I need some wine,” yells Amanda, and the crowd erupts with laughter.
He holds up his glass and salutes the girl “who’s been part of my life for all of her life.”
“To Amanda,” he says solemnly.
“Amanda.” Two hundred and fifty glasses clink.
Ellie looks at her daughter, surrounded by admirers, flitting from table to table.
“What I think is so amazing about the whole process,” she says, “is that it comes at an age when teen-agers are notoriously full of self-doubt, trying to figure out who they are.
“This gives you a strong answer and leaves a lot of room for questions. It says: ‘We want you, you’re one of us.’ ”
Published by Maine Sunday Telegram