Stories My Mother Never Told: Learning to Lein

“Stories My Mother Never Told” is a three-part blog series dedicated to re-envisioning what it can mean for parents and children to engage in Torah and ritual together as a family. These stories are ones that many of our own mothers did not have the opportunity to experience and share with us growing up. By sharing them here, we hope to inspire others to consider how we can use sacred traditions in new ways to create meaningful Jewish homes.

As I sit and learn Torah with my 10-year-old son, teaching him how to learn to read with taamei hamikrah (cantillation marks), it dawns on me that THIS is the essence of the importance of an educated, progressive community.

It was not long ago that I despaired of ever being able to help my children with Hebrew (not having learned it growing up); and, because they go to a Hebrew immersion school, that meant that I couldn’t engage with them almost at all in their Judaic studies learning. We had many evenings of FaceTime with their father as they struggled through homework where even the instructions were beyond my comprehension. However, when my 5th grader came home with instructions to learn to read several pesukim (verses) with taamim (cantillation marks) and record himself, I was beyond excited. Finally! Something I could help him learn that wasn’t secular studies.

As many of my friends and family know, I had the incredible experience of learning to read Megillah for Purim this year, and it was empowering on so many levels. Not only could I access the text in a whole new way, but through the hours I spent learning I found a sense of peace in the rhythm of repetition and solace in the irregular familiarity of the tunes. So, when my son came home and had to learn this same skill (albeit with Torah instead of Megillah, and with a Sephardic tune), I was so excited to connect with him in this whole new way.

Now, despite being in an immersive environment since he was 4, my oldest son continues to struggle with Hebrew. The thought of having to master two whole pesukim and record himself to be heard by his teacher produced more  than just a little hysteria. But, after being reminded of the many days and nights he spent listening to me (who knows even less!)  learn and then eventually perform Megillah publicly, he decided he would try.  

The first passuk (verse) was hard. Huddled together with a tikkun on our laps, a recording we could pause and rewind repeatedly and a phone to record us, we took it a few words at a time, mastering each section before plodding onto the next and then retracing our steps to piece it all together. By the time we had finished more than an hour had passed. We recorded my son singing the passuk beautifully, and as we played it back before sending it to his teacher I could see the immense pride in his eyes. It’s the kind of pride that can only come with mastering a skill that seemed impossible before beginning – the joy that accompanies disproving your own self-doubt.

It was then, at that moment, that I realized just how meaningful my own learning had been. Not long ago, at least in the Orthodox world, it would have been extremely uncommon for a woman to have experienced this kind of learning. Boys would have to be taught by their fathers or rabbis or mentors, and girls? They certainly wouldn’t be learning Torah with taamei hamikrah as they do at my children’s school. I would have missed this opportunity to connect with my son. Because of my own inability, I would have been shut out of his ultimate success in learning to read Torah with melodic fluency.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to acquire this skill in adulthood, and even more appreciative of just how many doors it will open for me. Ultimately, in providing for our kids a Jewish education, we are all learners–the children, the teachers and the parents. Through my own learning I also became a teacher, and I’ve added to the ways in which I can connect with my sons and my daughter, all of whom will surely remember struggling to get the reading perfect for the first time just as I did.

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