Two summers ago I was having a relaxed conversation with Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA. She mentioned to me that JOFA decided to upgrade its old Megillat Esther CD to a user-friendly, interactive smartphone app. I particularly liked that they wanted to use a single voice for all the chapters and that it would be built as a tool for learning how to leyn.
“Of course,” she said, “we’ll need someone whose voice is easy to follow and who will be precise and consistent in her recordings.”
“Yup, I agree.”
Then the kicker: “So we thought of asking you.”
I was blown away. Me? JOFA was asking me to record the whole Megillah? Wow!
I learned to leyn over ten years ago. Previously, in my secular, hi-tech world I found moments of spirituality in Shabbat and chagim (holidays), and in taking an active role in my synagogue, going to shiurim (classes), and giving divrei Torah. But when I learned how to leyn, it filled empty spaces in my soul.
After months of practicing every night and loving the involvement in something so intensely Jewish, the leyning course ended. But I didn’t want to step away from this spiritual experience!
I had heard stories about Esther Farber A”H who taught many, many girls to read for their Bat Mitzvah. Her sons Steven and Seth told me they couldn’t remember a Shabbat without a girl coming to practice her leyning. Stories about Esther shone a light on the path I wanted to take: sharing my passion by teaching others.
In an incredible twist of events, my first student was Esther’s granddaughter Eliana. Sadly, Esther passed away only a few months before Eliana’s Bat Mitzvah. They had been studying together in the pre-Skype era through video-conferencing and they hadn’t quite finished. When Eliana heard my story, she chose to finish her learning with me. Although I had never met Esther, it somehow felt like she was giving me her blessing by passing the baton on to me.
Slowly I became identified as a “go-to” woman for issues connected with leyning, davening (praying) and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. I felt my involvement deepen and broaden: I ran a weekly Torah leyning class for women at my dining room table. I learned the trop for megillot Ruth, Eicha (Lamentations), and Esther. One exhilarating Purim I read Esther in front of five hundred women and girls! I thought that I had reached my personal pinnacle, and yet, to my delight, there was even more waiting just around the corner.
So here was Judy’s offer and my heart was beating fast as I considered it. Did I have time to record the whole thing? No! Could I possibly turn it down? No way! God gives each of us special gifts. It is our responsibility to use these gifts to give back to the world and make it a better place.
I turned my study into a mini-recording studio, lining the walls with cardboard and packing material to absorb the echo. I upgraded my microphone and created a makeshift stand on a tissue box – just the right height and distance from my mouth. The app required countless hours of recording, listening, re-recording. My gentle yet exacting editors taught me to be extremely consistent and did not allow for any sloppiness in the pronunciation or the tune. My husband said that he heard more Megillat Esther during those months than he ever wanted to hear in his entire life!
The app is truly an all-in-one guide. Its interface is so easy to follow that I continue to use it myself when I practice (think: follow the bouncing ball). It’s also great when listening to the Megillah – just make sure the voice is turned off! I was delighted to find JOFA hadn’t stopped there. There are extra articles on the app about Halakha, tips on how to organize a reading, and more.
Recording the app required a lot of time and hard work. Yet the memory of all that melted away when men and women excitedly told me how they learned to leyn the Megillah using only the app! How amazing for me to go from teaching one-on-one to touching the souls of so many. Countless people have said to me: “I’ve been listening to your voice for the last two months. This app enabled me to realize my dream to read the Megillah on Purim.”
This past December I was honored to lead an introductory leyning workshop at the international JOFA conference. Leyning In has been an extraordinary journey of passion and connection with my Jewish roots and my soul. I invite you to come along with me.
Reading the Torah has always fascinated me. I grew up in a home of leyners (readers of Torah, traditionally men) and I loved nothing more than the “gossip” surrounding synagogue on Shabbat. Who had an aliyah? Why was there a hosafa (an extra aliyah, usually to accommodate a celebration or yahrtzeit)? Why did we read a special maftir?
When my three brothers came close to their bar mitzvah age, they learned how to read from the Torah. I was so fascinated that I had them teach me the trop (cantillation), but they soon tired of it, as did I. I didn’t see much point as I wasn’t able to do anything with the trop anyway.
Over the years, nothing really changed. I still loved listening to the Torah leyning; I still followed along closely with all the readings and different tunes. But the knowledge itself remained in a secret garden, one that I only saw bits of as I peeked over the hedge.
Then – one day – someone opened a door to this secret garden. Judy Rosen organized a course for women in ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks). I heard about it and thought: “Me? Learn now? Hey – I’m over forty!” And on the heels of that came another thought: “If Rabbi Akiva could learn to read Hebrew at age forty – well – I can do this too.” I didn’t know what I would do with that knowledge but I felt it touch a chord deep inside.
Signing up for that course was one of the best decisions that I ever made.
From the very first lesson, I was totally hooked. I’d stay up at night until the wee hours practicing each new set of ta’amim (tunes) that Judy taught us. In fact, I had to force myself to finish everything else that I needed to do first or I simply wouldn’t get to them. Practicing my leyning was my reward after all else was done.
At around this time, a women’s prayer group started in Ra’anana. After a few months, Judy pronounced us “ready” to read an aliyah. I was petrified. Me, ready? What if I made a mistake? What if I froze? But I couldn’t resist the siren’s call. I practiced that aliyah over and over. There was one particularly complex pasuk (verse) that I just couldn’t get right and worried over it aloud to my husband. He laughed and said: “Those are the psukim that leyners dream about.” That was all I needed to hear – I wanted to be one of those leyners too! And I learned that it’s okay to make a mistake, God knows we aren’t perfect.
Reading from a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) for the first time was an incredible experience for me. I was full of awe, apprehension and excitement. Standing so close to our holiest object, I felt honored and moved. This was truly a rite of passage for me. Everyone disappeared except me, the Sefer Torah and God.
I was thrilled to have learned to leyn and walk around that garden freely. What I didn’t know was that just beyond were many more gardens that unfolded and unlocked before me– teaching leyning, giving divrei Torah, leading davening and acting as gaba’it in a partnership minyan. Each one was a step on a path I had not taken before. Each step required taking a deep breath and placing my foot forward, at first hesitantly, then more firmly. Each time I embraced a new skill it gifted me with new insight and deepened my connection to God.
This is what has happened to me. Each garden that I enter uncovers a truer and more honest me. Over ten years have passed since that first Torah leyning class and today I am a full-time student at Yeshivat Maharat.
When you find something that fills you with passion and makes you happy – grab it. It may change your life in the most unexpected ways.
Reading megillah is a great way to enter the secret garden of leyning. Check out JOFA’s Megillat Esther app!
Anyone who knows me even a bit also knows that I thrive on social contact and interacting with people. However, during my year of mourning (avelut) for my father, I shied away from social situations. My guideline was: turn down the volume of my social life while turning up the volume of my family life. This gave me time and space to mourn and cherish my memories of my father while pondering my own role as a mother to my four children.
As I neared the end of this long year, a close friend gave me a valuable gift. About a month before the end she said: “Bracha, it’s time to start preparing yourself to step back into life.” Jewish law sets up a designated mourning period of a year for the loss of a parent. When this year comes to a close, we do not extend it as we are instructed by the Torah: “bal tosif” (do not add). When it is time – it is time.
My friend’s wise words made me mindful of this transition and allowed me time to think about how it would feel to socialize again and jump back in to life when the time came. It felt odd and a bit artificial at the beginning, but I was ready and prepared to shed my cloak of silence.
I shared this story with my Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Jeff Fox, and he pointed out that while the halakha helps enormously to transition into mourning, there are no set laws or customs to transition out of mourning. Indeed, without my friend’s counsel, it would have been much more jarring and difficult for me.
What Reb Jeff said made me realize the function of two beautiful customs created by women for women. These customs “bookend” the year of avelut, and help shape the transitions into and out of saying kaddish.
Ushering In: A woman from my community in Raanana, Israel sadly passed away from cancer after a valiant struggle. Among her children, she left triplet daughters. I went to their synagogue on the Shabbat during shiva to give comfort to both her husband and to Judi, the daughter who lives nearby. As I accompanied Judi upstairs to the women’s section after Kabbalat Shabbat (when the mourners enter the synagogue) she shared with me that the triplets had decided to take on saying kaddish together. Each sister chose a specific service: shacharit, mincha or arvit (morning, afternoon, or evening) to say kaddish each day for the entire year. I was moved to tears and hugged her in silent empathy.
As we walked into synagogue, I was surprised to see my friend Talia sitting and waiting as she doesn’t usually pray in that synagogue. She rose to greet the new mourner. That’s when it clicked – and fresh tears arose in my eyes- Talia had just finished her own year of saying kaddish for her father. She was there to accompany the new mourner at her first appearance in synagogue saying kaddish. Talia showed Judi when and where to say kaddish and she hugged Judi when tears slipped down Judi’s face. I could see how comforting it was for Judi to have Talia’s support as she ventured into this new space.
Escorting Out: My friends Sharon, Talia and others have marked the end of their year of avelut in a unique and special way. Each of them hosted a se’uda shlishit on the Shabbat following their last kaddish of the year. Only women with some connection to saying kaddish were invited. This included women who said kaddish three times a day, once a day, only on Shabbat and only on the yahrtzeit. There were also women who had attending minyan specifically to answer amen to other people saying kaddish.
At each gathering, there was a powerful feeling within this circle of Jewish women. We felt a strong link with each other – both through our personal loss and through our choice to step forward and give honor in our bereavement. There were palpable layers of warmth, understanding and comfort as we helped escort the avela (mourner) and (I felt) the neshama of the deceased as well. This tradition has been passed along — from woman to woman – marking the transition from actively saying kaddish to fading back into the general circle of congregants who answer amen.
The short conversation with Reb Jeff shed a new perspective for me on these and other recently created traditions. I believe that these customs have a much larger role to play in our spiritual lives. They help us celebrate life-cycle events, move through transitions and achieve closure after difficult ordeals.
I see empty spaces just waiting for us to fill. Let’s do it!
Check out A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish to explore the halakhic sources surrounding women and kaddish.
Purim and drama have always been passions in my family. This year they intertwined in a totally unexpected and unique way.
Having recently moved to Riverdale, I immediately joined the Shachar partnership Minyan which happily cushioned my arrival in a new neighborhood. After actively participating in a few tefillot (prayer services), I casually asked whether they read the megillah on Purim. The answer was:
- “Of course, but we do it a bit differently”
- “Hmm” (I wondered) “what could that be?”
- “Think of the Megila as a play…”
- “Cool – different – how do you do it?”
- “Here’s how we do it”
In addition to having a narrator for each perek (chapter), there are also actors for all the speaking parts:
- King Achashverosh
- Queen Esther
- Na’arei HaMelech
I was intrigued, I was curious, does it really work?
It was A M A Z I N G !!!
Just imagine: a roomful of people dressed up, a bima at the end, men on one side with a megillah, women on the other side with a megillah. Excitement crackling like electricity around the bima; sometimes there are as many as 6-7 people up there one time. Wherever there is dialog, the reading goes back and forth – often in the middle of a pasuk (verse). Here’s a sample from perek 6, pasuk 5:
- Narrator: “ויאמרו נערי המלך אליו”
- Servants: “הנה המן עומד בחצר”
- Narrator: “ויאמר המלך”
- King: ”יבוא”
Haman had his own megillah and was just phenomenal – he walked around with his megillah so that he could place himself at strategic positions while both reading and playing his part to the hilt. When dreaming of power, his voice was rich and full, when actually leading Mordechai, his whole body drooped and his voice was despondent. Not to mention hanging himself when the time came…
I’ve been listening to the megillah for many years but this year it came alive such as never before.
Did you know that Mordechai has but a short line that he actually speaks? He is a man of action but few words. Did you ever notice that when Esther turns to the King it’s always with a beseeching and fawning opening?
I had the privilege of reading perek 1 (with Memuchan) and perek 6 (with Achashverosh, Na’arei HaMelech, Haman, Zeresh). I truly felt as if I was a part of the scene, delivering lines to the actors while telling the kahal (congregation) the story. The speaking parts were read with drama, emotion and trop (cantillation); we weren’t reading about Shushan – we were in Shushan!
A short word of caution to you readers out there: the next morning I joined a women’s reading in Scarsdale. A moment before the reading started, I was offered the opportunity to read my prakim again. I said yes – but then I realized – I know perek 6 as I’ve read it before in its entirety. But not perek 1 – I was missing the 5 psukim of Memuchan’s speech! Definitely on my list for next year…but only after going back to Shushan at night with Minyan Shachar.