Austria and United States J. Nina Lieberman

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Austria and United States
J. Nina Lieberman
In everyone’s life, there are many paths that lead to important decisions. So it was when I
decided to become a bat mitzvah. I came from a rabbinical home in Austria with a
progressive slant. My father encouraged learning in his daughter and always held up to
me the example of Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, a sage living in the Roman era. She
was as erudite as her husband, and he listened to her voice. But when it came time to
signify our maturity in the mid-1930s, we girls of Salzburg were called up en masse to
the bimah on Shavuot and asked to recite the Ten Commandments.
Soon world events uprooted me from Austria, and after spending the war years in
England, I arrived in the United States in 1946. While earning a livelihood and
completing my education, which had been interrupted, I had little time to devote to
Hebrew. I was fluent in reading and knowing the meaning of prayers, but without the
grammatical underpinnings of the language. I made some efforts, but only by fits and
starts.
By the time of my retirement from work as a college professor of psychology, my
involvement in women’s rights transferred itself naturally to the Jewish religious scene.
A bat mitzvah was no longer an oddity. Under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, I
started to prepare for my bat mitzvah ceremony. My parsha (Torah portion) was
Kedoshim (Holy Things, in Hebrew). While the Hebrew gave me no trouble, the
cantillation did, since I have no ear for music. I developed a somewhat idiosyncratic way
of chanting, which the rabbi accepted as perhaps the way I heard it in Austria. I now call
it my “Alpine yodel.”
I became a bat mitzvah at age fifty plus thirteen. I have since recited the haftorah
(reading from the Prophets) on many occasions, including the yahrzeits (anniversaries of
the deaths) of my parents. One Shabbat, we had no rabbi at our synagogue, and a learned
talmid chacham (Judaic scholar) felt that the next best person to chant the haftorah was
the daughter of a rabbi. I even managed to chant it to the special niggun (cantillation) of
Echa (Book of Lamentations), used at that time of year, as that Shabbat was the one
before Tisha-be-Av (a fast day commemorating the destructions of the ancient temples in
Jerusalem). This was the last prayer I heard my father, Rabbi Dr. David Samuel
Margules, recite before he passed away.
After my bat mitzvah I was privileged to meet Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, zichronah
l’vracha (may her memory be a blessing), the first-ever bat mitzvah in this country, and
to count her as a close friend. She introduced me to the term “PK,” meaning preacher’s
kid, since my father and hers were rabbis. We started a chug (club) with two other
women, reading and speaking Hebrew. When Judith was 83, she repeated the bat mitzvah
ceremony. She is no longer with us, and we do not meet as a chug anymore. However, I
carry on the study of Hebrew on my own, and will occasionally recite a haftorah. During
the recent Simchat Torah morning service I was given the honor of being called up as
Kallat Torah (literally, “bride or bridegroom of the Torah,” the person who reads the end
of the Torah.) It was the honor that was always given to my father while he held pulpits
in Czechoslovakia and Austria. I am now 81, and God willing, may I live, like Judith, to
have a second bat-mitzvah at age 83.
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