El Adon-think-so: Battling singer's block with help from my mom
My New Jersey bat mitzvah party was a lavish affair. I could tell you about gown shopping at Neiman Marcus, the custom, glow-in-the-dark backdrop the party planner made to tie my ‘Jackie’s Jungle’ theme into the catering hall’s décor, or the amethyst silk bows adorning the front flap of my invitations, which were so large, we had to mail them in hand-calligraphied boxes instead of envelopes. However, the part of my bat mitzvah that lingers with me is practicing shacharit for Shabbat while at summer camp in the Berkshires.
My parents sent me to Conservative Jewish Day School since kindergarten. As such, in addition to chanting the entire Torah portion and haftorah, I was expected to lead all the services. I knew most of them from school, but being a defiant nerd, I would study for secular subjects during morning prayers, so there were some songs I didn’t know.
It was a year seven rite of passage at Camp Danbee to retreat to the un-air-conditioned canteen with cantor cassette tapes to study. During instructional swim, this was the only excuse which trumped ‘that time of the month’. So I would sit on the musky couch, breathing in the muggy air, with Rabbi Rubin’s adenoidal soprano reverberating throughout the Sharpie tagged rafters: “Danielle wuz here ’95;” “Michelle & Tory BFFEAEAE.”
In late July, I hit singer’s block at the El Adon prayer. My synagogue’s nusach had a complicated yet repetitive melody that just wouldn’t stick. I would rewind and replay the tape over and over; the soundtrack of that empty bunk became nasal vibrato, click of the button, backwards chipmunk voice, click, rabbi replay, followed by my unsure alto. I dedicated the rest of my summer to perfecting the breaststroke and decided to return to my studies when I got home.
At summer’s end, my family went on a trip to Vermont for hiking, biking, boating, and all the other outdoorsy stuff my parents like and I loathe (my idea of a vacation is margaritas on the beach or museums in a European capital). I sat in the rental house kitchen with my player, wearing the tape and my nerves thin.
One night, after everyone had gone to bed, I was still sitting at the table battling El Adon and crying at the low volume necessitated by their sleep. My mother shuffled out of her room, puffy-eyed and crazy-haired to ask why I was crying. I admitted between sobs that I had procrastinated all summer and still couldn’t get this stupid prayer. She pulled the Shaker chair out, set it beside mine, fingered the open siddur, and started to sing. She sat with me all night, progressing verse by verse, me echoing her bell tones with increasing confidence.
To this day, when I roll out of bed in time for the morning service, I feel a special connection with that prayer and sing every word by heart. When I stood on the bimah in March 1999, wearing my periwinkle wool suit and metal smile, I did El Adon like a woman.
Jacquelyn Julie is an editor at TribeVibe.
Do you live in the Boston area? Join JWA at the November 20th event Today I Am A Woman: Celebrating Bat Mitzvah in Boston and Around the World to discover bat mitzvah stories from around the world, meet other bat mitzvah girls, create a craft project, and explore your own bat mitzvah story with maps, writing, interviews, and art. Also, be sure to check out JWA's most recent project MyBatMitzvahStory.org, a safe and engaging website where girls will explore and express their emerging identities. The site also features free activity guides for eductors and tutors to use in mixed-gender, offline settings.
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