Author Archives: Phyllis O. Berman

Phyllis O. Berman

About Phyllis O. Berman

Phyllis Ocean Berman directed Elat Chayyim's Summer Program and is coauthor of Tales of Tikkun.


Excerpted with permission from A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC).

Phyllis recalls: As the moon hovered on the edge of Hanukkah, 36–a magical number–of my women friends assembled to celebrate not only the Festival of Light, not only my 50th birthday, but also my menopause. Thirty-six women joined together to end an age-old silence. We had gathered not only to speak about menopause but also to celebrate it. Just as my journey beyond menstruation was still unknown to me, so this ceremony I had just created was a journey still unknown to them.


Ending the Silence About Our Inner Selves

Why did I think it was so important to end the silence about menopause? Three months before my 13th birthday, I "got the curse" and "became a woman," to use two common euphemisms about menstruation. My mother whispered the news to her friend Selma and to Mrs. Goldstein who lived next door, and it was thus that I learned about "women’s things"–and about whispering. In my seventh-grade classrooms, other girls/women were, like me, embarrassed to talk about the changes that had, or had not yet, happened to them. Nothing could have been more on our minds and less on our lips.

Silence is profound. When we cannot speak about what is happening in our bodies, in our hearts, and in our souls, we draw some reasonable but damaging conclusions. We learn that what is public is limited to the world of our minds and, more likely, to the most superficial layers of our minds. We then begin making the distinction between the inner, consuming conversations we have alone or with an intimate few, and the outer disconnected ones we have with others. The disconnections are not only from others but also from ourselves: We lose the at-one-ment we could feel when we perceive ourselves whole and holy in relation to others.

For much of my adult life, I have wanted to speak about the unspeakable. I have longed to move the body and the emotions and the spirit out of the shadows, where they appear hidden, trivial, shameful, even dirty, into the sunlight, where they are real, important, central, and acceptable. For me, the process of making an inner experience public helps me to see my experience as normal, to speak my experience with passion and sureness, and to feel myself integrated within and without.


Excerpted with permission from A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC).

The night arrived–not exactly as imagined, but powerful nonetheless. Rain clouds and thick trees hid the full moon. An early closing of the Palisades Interstate Park forced us to move from the flowing Hudson to a trickling brook. The arrival of police cars–keeping the neighborhood safe–gave this most natural of ceremonies a hint of the forbidden and eerie.

More than a dozen of us, holding candles to share with the moon the task of illuminating the dark, gathered in a circle with Morissa and the other young girls in the center. We sang the song "Love Is the Only Answer" from a David Zeller album, which ends with the words "watch our circle grow."

Sharing Woman-Experience

As I gazed at the faces of loved friends in the circle, I realized that a world of possibilities of living as a woman were represented in that circle: married women with children; unmarried women with children; married women without children; unmarried women with lovers either male or female; unmarried women without lovers. The straight-and-narrow slice of the world that was offered to me as truth-and-all when I began to menstruate, has, like the full moon, swelled with possibilities for Morissa and the young women of her generation. But do we dare show it to our children?

I began the ceremony by supplying some background:

"We bring the ordinary into holy consciousness through ceremony/service/celebration. By moving a life-moment from its private enclosure, often clouded with secrecy, fear, shame, and curse, we confront those feelings that have lived for generations within us, and replace them with pride in the miraculous workings of our body.

"For many of us who have grown up with ambivalent messages from our mothers and grandmothers, this affirming message does not come so easily to pass on to our daughters. We don’t really know where or why we hide this life passage–which many cultures don’t hide–but we have internalized the need for secrecy.

The D’var Torah as Religious Struggle

The preparation and delivery of a talk on the Torah portion, a
d’var Torah
, by a bar/bat mitzvah child is an old custom that is very much alive today. This encounter of each child with his or her Torah portion is unique and personal, and the process of deriving meaning from this text and sharing it with others is a serious undertaking. Excerpted with permission from A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC).

[The d’var Torah] is the core of the bar mitzvah event, the moment at the heart of the ritual when there is the deepest and closest encounter with God, or with the boy’s [or girl’s] own wrestling with his life. It crystallizes the life-path that Jewish men have been ideally expected to walk: not only hearing God’s Voice through the words of Torah and the Prophets, but also engaging with these words–wrestling with them–so as to bring into the world their own new Torah. 

Only in this way could they become full adult members of the people “Yisra-el.” For the very name of the people echoes the night of terror and transformation in which Jacob turned his lifelong struggle with his brother into a Wrestle with the Nameless One, and was himself renamed Yisra-el, “Godwrestler.”

So the encounter with God is intended to feel like an earthquake, shaking the new 13-year-old loose from his old attachments and assumptions. His response, his own d’var Torah, is intended to bespeak his adulthood–his ability to do what for centuries Jewish men have done, teach their own Torah


Choosing The Date

For Waskow and Berman, the selection of a date is the first of many decisions that a family must make together in planning for a bar/bat mitzvah. Through this mutual decision-making process, the family itself defines its relationship to Judaism, to its extended family, and to the Jewish community. Excerpted with permission from A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC).

The very first intimations of the wrestle with reality may come long before the crucial birthday, as the family seeks to choose a date for the synagogue ceremonial:

-How does the birthday work with family needs, school schedules, the timing of other bar/bat mitzvah celebrations at the same congregation?

– Does the family already have ties to a congregation that will organically become the venue for the ceremony, or does it need to choose a congregation, or even create an ad hoc one to meet its needs most authentically?bar bat mitzvah choosing pick date

-How do Jewish teachings and practices themselves interact with the family’s situation?

For example, how does the youngster feel about the content of the various possible Torah portions and haftarot [weekly prophetic portions]? Would s/he like to choose a date according to the Torah content, rather than accept the content that comes with the date? Does s/he want to read some part of the weekly portion other than the conventional maftir (the last few lines of the portion), because s/he finds the alternative passage more meaningful, more life-connected?

If crucial family members and friends reside elsewhere and live in accordance with the traditional practice of not traveling on Shabbat [Sabbath], might the whole thing be easier if it is set not on Shabbat but on a Monday that is a secular holiday (like Labor Day or Memorial Day), since traditionally the Torah is read on Monday and Thursday mornings as well as Shabbat?

Might the family want to set the Torah reading in the late-afternoon Shabbat service (when traditionally the beginning of the Torah portion for the next Shabbat is read), then celebrate the end of Shabbat with the Havdalah ceremony [that distinguishes between the end of Shabbat time and the beginning of everyday time], and then move into a Saturday-night party?

What seems the simple matter of setting the date may thus become the family’s first revelation of its journey into a new understanding of itself, its community, Judaism and the Jewish people, its relationship to God, or some other way of talking about wholeness.