You Broke Your Back So I May Stand (For My Mother)

Women working at sewing machines with stacks of fabric and finished garments piled around them, 1970 
Photo of female sewing machine workers (1970) by Kheel Center, Cornell University via Flickr

At the Bat Mitzvah
She parted the
Ark of the Covenant

She, not yet old enough to drive
To vote
To drink

Gently she lifted the Torah scrolls
And placed them in the arms of the proud aunt
Who didn’t know that in Orthodox shuls

Women don’t do that sort of thing.

Like an innocent child the aunt grinned
And as the joy spilled across her face like sunlight
I stood there, horrified

As I heard a childhood voice whisper -
"If you drop the Torah you must fast for forty days
Did anybody tell her that?"

And then the girl came back
She took the velvet scrolls as if taking a baby
Laying them over her left shoulder
Siddur in her right

Gingerly she stepped forward
So that the women on the aisle
Could raise their books for a symbolic kiss.

It was theater-style seating and we watched the show
To welcome this child to tradition
We gathered together. Older women, younger, infant
Mostly women, men in the back
Some in hats befitting Orthodox tradition
Others bareheaded, or with obligatory doily

Holding yawning babies, squirming babies
Running out as impatient toddlers
Announced loudly they had had enough.

A clowning around boy runs in, holding his shoes up
His horrified mother claps one hand over her mouth
Laughing behind it as she shoos him out the door.

All the women gathered, in the women’s chapel
Ugly and beautiful
Skinny and fat
Young and old
Our skins melded together, a rainbow of colors
And even faiths.

All are welcome here.

A woman reads from the Torah – no she sings -
And it sounds like opera, or something
I can’t exactly name.
A foreign language in a foreign voice
Because the women are supposed to be silent.
And I’m incredulous that this is allowed

It’s decades ago, and I’m as young as this girl
A rabbi bangs his fist on the desk
 “What is this outrage! Stop it now!”

Then a prayer-shawled man runs in meekly to get his wife
It’s the women’s service, but there’s a hum of  “We understand”
The baby needs her.

She returns, swishing quietly down the aisle
Allowing the newcomers in to the service
Somebody says, “Make way, make way”
And the row stands up as one to allow the people in.

No questions asked.

At the bimah the service continues
Run by a gaggle of women, helping each other along
A woman’s hat slides forward as she looks down at the Torah
Then back as she gestures to the open door
With her hands, “Close it close it, the noise is too loud.” Repeat.
The door is closed.

My eyes well up with see-through blood
Tears of I-can’t-believe-this
As my daughter, to the left, shoulders shrugging
Asks me with her eyes
"What has happened? What is wrong?"

I envision that shrieking headline, “HILLARY HAS NO MAKEUP”
Remembering that she looked good as she actually was.

And turn back to my daughter.
“Nothing is wrong.” (Only that it’s a miracle)

The ordinary of that scene
Extraordinary in the making.

Back in time, now it’s thirty years ago
The old fashioned film is playing
As the grownups argue at the Shabbos table
While Grandma (O”H) brings in food,

“That’s crazy, women cannot hold the Torah.”
“They’re impure.”
“They’re holier than men, they don’t need it.”
“They have children to watch and can’t be bound by time.”

Quietly my mother ignored the back-and-forthing
A nurse, she knew how to bandage the pain
And her focus was on getting through it.

Ma had reached the end of her personal bridge
And held out her hands, knitted
Full of violin lessons, piano, drama classes, voice classes, what didn't she....

Where her life was only "gonna" go so far
The children would be stars, covered in glitter.

To stand me up straight
My mother bent her neck
And broke her back
She did what it took
So that I may stand.

My mother doesn’t know it. I can never pay her back.
So she sits there in my brain, everywhere
I want her to see the fruits of her labor.
The Bat Mitzvah girl steps forward
Hesitantly, breathy, gasping
She ekes the blessing out

A hush.
And then the crowd goes wild
Hollering and clapping
Mazel Tov! It’s done!
An army of Tootsie rolls and sour candies and gummies wrapped in plastic
Flying all at once from the women towards her head

(Miss, of course, and hit a kid two rows in front of me. She turns her head, and so do I
Pretending it’s the lady an aisle back.)

We mothers throw our love to this girl, together
Standing straight, but with our backs outstretched
Praying, silently
That she doesn’t have to cross the bridge of broken flowers

As did our mothers, and their mothers before them.

Silently I am thanking G-d.

This most ordinary of scenes – to my daughter, that is
Is the miracle I prayed for all these years
It is my personal giving of the Torah
The parting of the Red Sea

And when we leave the synagogue
The scene, as if from a movie
Is branded iron-red inside my mind.

“If you can break, you can fix,” said Rabbi Nachman

And he rose from his grave this Shabbos to prove it. 

~~Happy Mother's Day~~