The First Time I Read Torah

When I took on the daunting task of learning to read Torah I didn’t realize how the experience would change me.

by Marcela Kogan

After my first son’s bar mitzvah, I mentioned to the cantor in passing that I may want to read Torah someday. I wanted to do a lot of things back then—play piano, do yoga, get a master’s degree. But I wasn’t doing anything to make any of those things happen. So when the cantor called to schedule our first appointment, I figured, ‘Why not?’

As soon as I hung up I wanted to call back to cancel. The thought of learning something new terrified me and triggered painful memories of courses I never took because I thought they’d be too hard, or meetings I skipped because I was terrified of making presentations.

When we met to pick a date for the reading, I shared my fears with the cantor. He reassured me that I could learn to read Torah and then handed me a copy of Parashat Vayeira, a passage from Genesis that describes Abraham’s encounter with three angels who prophesied that Sarah would bear a son.

He asked me to start reading. Though I attended yeshiva for a few years as a child, that was long ago and I was an indifferent student. At least the basics came back, though, and I was able to jump into the reading and rattle off the first few sentences. “Very good,” the cantor said. “You read well. Go on.”

Confident, I forged ahead. But the next passage proved more difficult. I muddled through each syllable, guessing at the vowels and fudging the pronunciation. The cantor corrected me at every turn. Finally, he pulled out a copy of a basic Hebrew grammar book. “We’ll work through it together.”

The next month was grueling. Session after session we worked through rows and rows of drills. “That’s the aa sound. You’re doing the ee sound.” I tried again. “That’s the uu sound, not the aa sound.”

Four weeks later, he asked me to pull out a copy of the Torah portion and read it. I pronounced each letter slowly, pausing to look up at him for approval. A word turned into a sentence and a sentence into a verse. I could read Hebrew!

“You’re ready to learn trope,” he said, and pulled out a copy of Torah portion. The cantor explained that the symbols which appeared above and below the text were called tropes and they indicated how to chant the melody, where to pause and which syllables to accentuate.

The first step, he said, was to learn to chant the tropes using the trope names. He gave me a pink handout listing the trope families as well as worksheets to practice identifying each trope. The next step was learning to chant each trope melody using the words of the Torah text. The cantor highlighted each trope in the text with a different color and I learned to read them one color at a time. The colors helped me remember the trope melodies.

The last step was to read the text in the calligraphy of the Torah scroll itself without vowels and punctuations. This was much scarier. He handed me a copy of the same parashah with just Hebrew text and asked me to start chanting.

Tentatively, I began the reading. But I struggled. Each step along the way presented different seemingly insurmountable challenges. I could chant each trope by heart but kept mixing up the melodies when I read the text. I struggled to switch melodies from one trope to another. I’d chant the right trope but accentuate the wrong syllable.

Meanwhile, the day was quickly approaching. But the cantor calmed me down, saying, “I learned it and so can you.”

My reading improved dramatically over three months, but my panic climbed off the charts as the day neared. I rehearsed incessantly and the cantor set a limit on daily practices. A night before reading, I resigned myself to fate. And then, surprisingly, I asked God to help me do a good job.

I’m not a religious Jew and rarely pray. I noted this thought and tucked it away.

When I arrived at the synagogue on Saturday morning, the sanctuary was practically empty except for a row of my relatives who came to cheer me on as I read Torah in the big sanctuary for the first time.

Fidgeting in my seat, clutching the prayer book, I waited to be called to the bima to read my aliyah, the Torah portion I was assigned to chant.

The cantor motioned me to approach the bima and handed me a yad, a pointer used for Torah reading.

I looked up at my husband for reassurance. My mother, next to him, smiled at me, marveling at the miracle that her once rebellious daughter stood among the learned.

After a congregant recited the prayer for the Torah, I leaned over the scrolls as I had through so many practices. But something was wrong. Before me was an ocean of script I could not decipher—letters squeezed together with lines shooting out everywhere.

I stood before the most important text in the Jewish religion, the symbol of our heritage. I should have felt proud, honored and blessed.

But all I felt was fear. On the bima, paralyzed with fright, I thought back to my prayer from the day before and my fear subsided. The words came into focus, and I started chanting, the yad cruising over the words leading me from one word to the next. I found my rhythm and told the story.

I thought I heard someone else singing, the voice was strong, rich, confident and reverberated back to me. Suddenly aware of the microphone in front of me, I realized that the voice was my own. My shoulders relaxed and I crossed the finish line.

My favorite part was afterwards when people shook my hand, congratulating me for the reading. I fell into my mother’s arms, and, choked up, asked her if I made her happy. The cantor shook my hand. “Thank you,” I said, lowering my eyes.

The euphoria lasted several days as I visualized a new life with boundless possibilities. I wanted to be a better writer, a better mother, a better wife. I wanted to face my fears, learn new skills, make a difference.

And, in quieter moments, I realized that working hard under the guidance of a great teacher, I could do more than I thought.

I continue studying with the cantor. I have read five times so far—and each time I quiver and doubt my ability. But that doesn’t stop me from taking my chances.

The rabbi of the synagogue once told me that few people can read the Torah.

I looked up at him and smiled, knowing I earned the privilege to be among them.

Marcela Kogan is a freelance writer who lives in Chevy Chase, Md.