Learning the Aleph-bet

This past Saturday, I attended my first B’nai Mitzvah ceremony. I was not very knowledgeable about this Jewish tradition, so I checked with a friend beforehand for advice to be sure I wouldn’t commit a terrible faux pas at this important event. She kindly sent me a task analysis on How to Behave at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony, and I was very grateful for that because there was a lot to know. I learned that when a boy reaches the age of thirteen, he becomes a Bar Mitzvah—and accepts responsibility for himself, before friends, family and his congregation,  as a member of the Jewish community. For girls, the term for this transition to adulthood is Bat Mitzvah. The ceremony I attended on Saturday posed a unique challenge as far as terminology goes because it was for triplets—two boys and a girl. Apparently, there is no term to describe that.

The service itself was beautiful—rich with tradition, serious but celebratory, shared with friends, family and community. It takes months—even years—for a child to prepare for this day. In order to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a child must demonstrate sufficient competency to participate in the ceremony. This means that, among other things, the child must learn to read Hebrew.  Since this blog is about reading, I must point out several things about Hebrew. First, the Hebrew alphabet (called Aleph-bet) looks nothing like the English alphabet. Second, the text reads from right to left. Third, the books open from the “bottom” or right-most page, and flip to the “top” or left-most page, bringing “Concepts of Print” to a new level for those of us who only read English.

During the ceremony, each child was called upon, one by one, to read from the Torah. From my second row seat (with my reading teacher hat on) I watched in awe as each child scanned from right to left (not left to right!) and carefully pronounced the Hebrew words.  I saw, from the corner of my eye, the children’s grandparents leaning slightly forward, flush with pride. Each child gave a short speech—called D’var Torah—about the personal meaning of the occasion and the parents, too, spoke to each child about the individual gifts he or she brings to their family and congregation. I was glad I followed my friend’s advice to “bring tissues, in case you cry at this very happy occasion” because I did, in fact, cry. It was joyful and moving and—I hesitate to use this word, but it fits—it was special. Because one of the triplets—Louisa—has Down syndrome. Her preparation, as you might imagine, was more complex than her brothers’. For her passage, the Hebrew characters were enlarged. The passage was not as long as her brothers’ passages. A few times in the ceremony, when the Cantor sang (and I am pretty sure that the Cantor was intended to sing alone) Louisa burst into song, notably accurate in her pronunciation. When, toward the end of the ceremony, the children were to stand to the far left and Louisa stayed firmly planted to the far right, the Rabbi and Cantor and her brothers gracefully sidestepped to the right and the ceremony continued. It was not what was planned but it was perfect. It was beautiful.

I have known Louisa since she was in kindergarten. She is a proficient reader, thanks to her parents’ unrelenting advocacy. I can only imagine the effort and persistence it took for Louisa to learn to read that Hebrew passage. But she did learn it, as well as the words to all the songs and prayers in the ceremony. There, among her family and her community, she participated fully in what I now know is one of the most important moments in a Jewish child’s life.  She participated because her parents never considered that she would not become a Bat Mitzvah. She participated because the Rabbi and the Cantor and her tutor and the entire congregation provided her with the support she needed to be successful. That, to me, is the definition of community. Mazel tov, Louisa, on this important milestone in your life. And thank you for inviting me to share in your journey.

Photos courtesy John Videler Photography

12 thoughts on “Learning the Aleph-bet

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this beautifully written story — I can picture it all, from Louisa singing to all three reading right to left, to everyone, except Louisa, shifting to the right. I’m all teary-eyed and so proud of Louisa and her brothers and her parents.

  2. Thank you, for this wonderful post. I’m crying even now after reading it. Mazel Tov to Louisa and her family and friends.

  3. What a beautiful story! We only wish we could have been there to share in the celebration! It warmed my heart and filled it with hope. Our children are changing the world with the help of those heros who sing their praises and recognize their accomplishments. Thank you Kathy!

  4. After reading this story, I thought to myself, “How extraordinary!” I have personally babysat for a Jewish family. (Being of another religion, I had little information of this celebration). I really learned how much hard work and dedication the family and candidate must undergo! The oldest daughter spent over a year in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah! Each week she would attend temple services on Sunday and one day during the week. She practiced with a private tutor and independently at night. As Dr. Whitbread has stated, not only do young teens have to learn a new alphabet, but individuals must also adapt to reading text from right to left! I am absolutely impressed with Louisa’s story and success. I can not imagine learning a new language and the pressure of standing in front of my loved ones and reading alone! This is an extraordinary accomplishment and I can not imagine how proud her family must be!

  5. This is a truly inspirational story. It is also a testament to the dedication of this community, and the power of that dedication. They ensured the success of this child. Preconceived notions can be detrimental to any person, especially those who have special needs. I can only hope that others realize what I have, never underestimate the will and ability of any child.
    Rebecca

  6. Reading this story filled me with great happiness for Louisa. I work very closely with an Orthodox Jewish woman who is very open about the customs of their religion. She has seven kids and three of them have made their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This is a huge celebration in the Jewish community and requires tremendous amount of preparation. The families of the children have to prepare for a large reception after the ceremony and the children are required to practice reading passages for the torah, which can take months to learn. My friend has shown me her torah and the passages in it, and has expressed how difficult reading Hebrew can be. Reading Hebrew for a typically developing child who does not have any reading deficits can be difficult, let alone for a child with down syndrome whose reading ability may be limited. Louisa was able to persevere and successfully accomplish this task. She should feel very proud of herself for being able to successfully be Bat Mitzvah!

  7. This is such a beautiful story that is definitely something I can see in my head. This is such an accomplishment not only for Louisa but for her brothers as well. This story shows that with a little help and support from those around them any child is capable of accomplishing anything. It never crossed my mind how difficult it would be for a child with Down syndrome to learn Hebrew, but this story showed me that it is difficult and that the child was able to successfully do it! I truly hope that by reading this story people realize to never underestimate the ability of any child. Learning English can be a challenge to students, never mind having to read Hebrew. I am so proud of Louisa for making her Bat Mitzvah and I am sure her family is as well. Definitely a very touching story!

  8. This is both an inspirational and extraordinary story! Not only does this story show the incredible obstacles that Louisa was able to overcome in order to participate in her Bat Mitzvah Ceremony, but it also proves that there should never be limitations placed on what any child is able to accomplish. The amount of time and dedication that Louisa’s family must have contributed to teaching her to not only read but also to memorize songs in a completely different language is truly inspiring. This seems to be a momentous moment for any Jewish child transitioning into adulthood and serves as a great exemplar of how important is it for children to have parents/community who are motivated to help them accomplish goals that sometimes seem unattainable.

  9. As Louisa’s mom — and also an educational consultant who works with many students with significant disabilities — I feel the need to comment as well. Although I am incredibly proud of Louisa (and her brothers) for achieving this special milestone, it’s also important to note that in some ways her preparation was easier than her brothers’. We introduced Louisa to her torah portion far earlier than is typical, and what we soon discovered is that her extraordinary memory kicked in — and she was literally able to memorize her entire portion, sound by sound, in a very short period of time; she was ready to go before the boys had even begun their preparation! What was especially difficult for her was dealing with the transitions — alternating “turns” with her brothers and the clergy, repeatedly alternating between the “bimah” (podium) and her seat, etc. We addressed this issue by having all three kids remain at the bimah for much of the service, and positioning Louisa in strategic locations (frequently between her brothers). The important lesson here for us all is that all kids (with disabilities and without) learn differently, and have unique strengths and challenges. What made Louisa successful is that she was surrounded by people who weren’t swayed by preconceived notions of where she’d struggle, but rather came ready to support her in whatever ways she ultimately needed it — and not where she didn’t.

  10. I thought this was an excellent example of how support can really encourage a child to persevere. I can imagine that Louisa’s Rabbi, the Cantor, her tutor, and her family provided her with support every step of the way! Not only did they provide her with support, they provided her with unique support that helped her learn. Since every child learns differently, and at a different pace, everyone was able to provide Louisa with support that made her successful. I cannot imagine learning a new language, especially one that is so different from english! I give Louisa a lot of credit for her extraordinary accomplishment!

  11. I enjoyed reading this article. I don’t anything about the Jewish culture but by reading this article I can imagine how hard it is to read Hebrew and for someone who has Down Syndrome it probably is twice as hard but the little girl was able to do it. I also liked the fact that the church was able to accomodate her by “enlarging the passage” and modifying it by having her read a short passage from the Torah and because of the accomodations and modifications she was able to participate in the event. I think it’s wonderul to see places in the community be able to accomodate people’s needs.

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