Called to the Torah in Trump’s America

My daughter is approaching bat mitzvah age — but I’m ambivalent

amy brill
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readOct 7, 2019

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Illustration: Alex Eben Meyer

TThis past June, I found myself in the sanctuary of the synagogue where my daughters attend Hebrew school. It was not a Jewish holiday, and I was not praying. I was at an orientation for parents of students beginning the b’nai mitzvah program — two years of study leading up to a bar or bat mitzvah.

Introductions were made, chitchat hushed, times and dates announced. There would be tutoring, a monthly family class, a bunch of other meetings, a “donation” to the congregation, and finally, the kicker: Students would have to attend 12 Torah services each year.

I froze. On Saturday mornings, when those take place, our family is out of town, asleep, or at our bat mitzvah student’s soccer game. My hand shot into the air like a panicked first-grader with a bathroom emergency.

“Twenty-four Torah services? What if our family can’t do that?” My voice wavered, though I tried to keep it steady. To my horror, tears spilled down my cheeks. I was crying. At orientation.

The leaders rushed to explain. To become a bat mitzvah, a student must know the service she is to lead, must be familiar with its rhythms and prayers, must understand its meaning… All I heard was must, must, must. A refrain I resist in any setting, thanks to my late father, who took a my-way-or-the-highway approach to all things, including parenting and worship.

Afterward, another parent suggested I could just dial-a-rabbi and do a one-off, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of event at a different synagogue.

“We just don’t… pray,” I stammered. “That’s not how we’re Jewish.”

“Then why would you want a bat mitzvah?” she snapped.

WeWe joined this congregation during Donald Trump’s first year in office. My father, who’d insisted throughout my childhood that we dress up in nice clothes on the High Holy Days and walk around the neighborhood so that everyone would know that we were Jewish, died right after the election.

He didn’t live to witness the surge in anti-Semitic attacks the country has undergone in the past few years. Swastikas have bloomed: in synagogues and on playgrounds in

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amy brill
Human Parts

Writer, traveler, mother, napper, author of The Movement of Stars. amybrill.com