As the B’nai Mitzvah approached, I worried about many things. My son gets the occasional nosebleed when the weather gets dry and cold. Once we attended a friend’s Bat Mitzvah and Elroy’s nose started bleeding in the middle of the service. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the size of the donation we would have to give the temple should my son get a nosebleed during his Torah reading. Is it even possible to clean blood from a Torah scroll? There must be a place in Brooklyn that specializes in such things but I didn’t want to have to find out. Then on the day before the B’nai Mitzvah, I woke up to find I had gotten my period . . . five days early. God was testing me, not unlike when he tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac (which coincidentally happened to be the kids’ Torah reading the following day). And it wasn’t like, “Oh, my period is just beginning.” No. It declared itself as boldly as when Moses turned the Nile to blood.** “Better you than me,” said Princess Leia. I worried it was going to be the first mitzvah service in five thousand years of Jewish history with an intermission. “And to think you were worried that Elroy might bleed on the Torah,” said my husband.
But most of all, I worried about that cringeworthy Jewish tradition--the Horah, which is Jewish for embarrassing chair dance that may cause injury or psychotherapy. From what I learned on the Internet, the Horah has its origins as a Romanian folk dance. It was commandeered by the Jews 100 years ago, then mashed together with the Jewish tradition of lifting a bride and groom on chairs, which probably came from the tradition of carrying royalty on chairs. When my ancestors came to this country from Russia and Poland in the early 20th century, they brought with them the Horah and bagels.*** Since then, the lifting of the honoree on a chair has expanded from brides and grooms, to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah child, to parents and grandparents of the guest of honor.
Generally it goes like this. The band or DJ plays Hava Nagila, the Israeli folk song that accompanies the Horah. As soon as the first few bars of the familiar clarinet riff is heard, like a Pavlovian response inbred from years of living in the shtetl, Jews stampede the dance floor forming giant clumsy circles. The guest of honor is seated on a chair in the center and the chair is lifted up and down in time to the music, more or less. It’s not all that different, really, from riding a mechanical bull in a country western bar.
I didn’t want to be in that chair. I don’t like being the center of attention in that way, which I realize seems ironic coming from someone who blogs about her life. It may have something to do with my own Bat Mitzvah experience over thirty years ago. Suffering from a clinically diagnosed excessive perspiration condition at age 13, the last thing I wanted was to be hoisted on a chair above 100 people with my mother yelling at me to raise my arms for a picture when my armpits were like the day after a tsunami—water everywhere.
But I knew I would be expected to be in that chair. And, it wouldn’t be enough to just submit to the Horah. I had better look like I was enjoying it. I had relatives coming from the old country (Brooklyn) and they expected it. Doing the Horah was viewed as a crucial part of the B’nai Mitzvah on par with the Torah reading, lox spread, and photo booth. And if you think the pressure from my Jewish relatives was bad, the pressure from my gentile friends was worse. Being married to a non-Jew, half the party was going to be non-Jewish and they wanted an authentic mitzvah experience.
I tried to imagine how the classiest people I could think of would do the Horah. How would the great Meryl Streep hold herself while being lifted in the chair?
I asked my older sister Lisa Simpson* for advice. We combed the Internet looking for inspiration. From our research, we determined that a strong straight posture is important or you risk looking like you’re seated on the toilet. Women must also keep their ankles crossed to avoid flashing Uncle Mordecai while he’s grasping a chair leg. And above all, you must look like you’re having fun. I can’t stress this last requirement enough. You need to convincingly show you’re capable of celebrating appropriately or cousins you haven’t seen in 10 years will gossip that you’re too uptight to enjoy the moment, and for all the success you’ve achieved in your life you haven’t learned what’s truly important, which makes you a terrible mother and role model to boot.
At the luncheon, as soon as Hava Nagila started playing, the crowed grabbed Princess Leia. So petite, she floated up on that chair like a helium balloon. Then came Elroy Jetson. He wore the same expression as when he rode the Frog Hopper at the amusement park last summer, saying it was fun, but not scary. My husband said he never believed he was in any danger of falling when he was in the chair, but from all eyewitness accounts, it looked like a real possibility.
My brother grabbed me when it was my turn. Within seconds I was above the crowd. My friend snapped a photo with his phone and I’ve been studying it like Torah ever since. I was sitting straight up with my back away from the chair, grasping the sides of the seat, my ankles crossed. My eyes were closed and mouth open. I don’t remember much during my 20 seconds in the chair except making one loud continuous noise somewhere between screaming and laughing. Lisa Simpson said my form was perfection.
*Not my children’s or sister’s real names.
**The first of ten plagues Moses brought upon Egypt in an effort to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery in ancient times.
***I realize they brought over other more important things too, but I’m not focusing on those right now.