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My Education

What I learned about myself and my family by leading High Holiday services at UCLA

Mayim Bialik
September 15, 2009
Mayim Bialik
Bialik with her grandfather Frank.Mayim Bialik
Mayim Bialik
Bialik with her grandfather Frank.Mayim Bialik

When I first attended High Holiday services at UCLA, as a 19-year-old college freshman in 1995, two sisters shared cantorial duties. I had never before been so moved by chanting; their singing wasn’t flowery or operatic, as it had been at my Reform synagogue growing up. It was simple, soulful, and understated. After several years, these sisters moved on, and the UCLA rabbi, aware that I was the director of the school’s Jewish a cappella group and that my career in show business had included singing, asked me to take over. Having seen me in services, he knew I was already familiar with the way our community davened. On a dozen cassettes, the sisters recorded the trope for the hundreds of High Holiday machzor pages so that I could practice nightly in the year leading up to my first yontif as cantor, or chazzanit.

I felt I was living out a personal destiny: my mother’s father was a lay chazzan for his community of Holocaust survivors in the Bronx and San Diego. As a nine-year-old child in Poland, he left yeshiva to earn money for his family, but I had been told that he could have been one of the greats. My grandfather Ephraim (he went by “Frank”) was a feisty, primarily Yiddish-speaking Orthodox man who barely grasped the concept of a girl having a bat mitzvah. How would I explain to him, then almost 90, that I was going to lead services? That I’d wear a lacey kippah and the white kittel, or robe, typically worn by pious men on the High Holidays?

He was incredulous that a 26-year-old woman would perform a role traditionally reserved for men. He smiled gently, opened his mouth to debate the halachic implications, then thought better of it and sighed deeply. The world was changing faster than he could grasp.

My debut as a chazzanit marked many firsts: the first time I attended all services of all of the holidays, the first time I ever attended a Musaf or Yizkor service, and the first time I fasted a full 25 hours, even though I was nursing my firstborn son every two hours. All of this was so different from my experience growing up—in my family on Yom Kippur, we fasted until we got hungry, usually around lunch.

As my grandfather got older and more frail (and less confrontational about the unconventionality of a female chazzan), the months before the High Holidays became a special time for us. Our interactions were becoming more difficult as his mind faded, but I would rehearse the traditional melodies and ancient words with him at his retirement home, helping him recall his youth. He was not very communicative or psychologically aware, so I’m uncertain exactly which parts of this time together touched him most. I know that he was thrilled that I could “kvetch it out” like he did, nursing the mournful notes and having them catch in my throat, and he would grow teary-eyed as I practiced. He would listen with his head turned once his eyesight had failed him, to eliminate even the possibility that his attempts to look at me might take away from the spiritual and melodic experience. My voice was therapy for us both; it gave us something to connect with and brought us close together. He wished he could come to shul both to hear me and to take the lead in chanting the Maftir service (his favorite duty from his youth), but, being Orthodox, he would not drive on a holiday and was, by then, too frail to walk the far distance to our shul.

When I studied for my role as chazzanit, I did so in an academic way, setting out to learn dutifully all of the prayers which I had previously skimmed as a congregant. There was a tremendous amount of Hebrew I had never recited before and had to learn to pronounce. What surprised me in this process was that it became more than a rote study of text. It became a passion. I intuitively felt the rhythms of the prayers in my body as if they were written inside me. The trope made sense as if it was a physics equation that the universe had encoded for my voice millions of years ago. I was a conduit for the community. This was true when I chanted Kol Nidre, asking for a kind of pre-anullment of all the oaths and promises that our community will make that we may fail to fulfill. This was true as I held back tears recounting the massacre of the rabbis, and as I chanted El Maleh Rachamim for those who perished in the Holocaust. I felt a sense of mystical energy surrounding the congregation when I covered my head as the kohanim made their priestly blessing. I did not feel arrogant about the responsibility entrusted to me; I felt blessed and valued beyond measure.

As I grew more observant in those years, I started feeling a bit anxious about leading services. Doing so violated the rules of kol isha, the restrictions on the voice of a woman singing before men, forbidden in Orthodoxy. Though any man sufficiently concerned with this issue would probably not have been attending the service I led, where men and women sit together, I nevertheless chafed at the idea that my leadership role was a violation of codes of modesty, to which I was increasingly faithful. Moreover, there is a traditional prohibition about women reciting collective blessings on behalf of men. I felt uneasy about challenging that.

By the time I was expecting my second child, my pregnancy made some of these issues moot—after all, I couldn’t well stand on the bimah nine months pregnant, and so I took a “maternity leave.” Taking a break felt right—my life was now about parenting and exploring observance. A year later, I held baby number two and distracted my toddler with his train set as I sat listening to the daughters of the original chazzanit sisters chanting what I used to chant. These young women, one finishing high school, one in college, were beautiful, single, and they pronounced the Hebrew I often struggled with as if it was their first language. Although they sang so well, my heart broke for the lost opportunity to serve my community even while I was certain that tending to my boys was the best job I could ever have. In retrospect, I see that the tension I felt had to do not with wanting to take on a role that men traditionally fill, but with adjusting to being satisfied with my new role as a fully present mother to young children. Finding spiritual fulfillment within the confines of Jewish law is a hefty challenge for me, but I’m up to and am enjoying the journey. This year, those two gifted daughters will be on the bimah again and I’ll sit and follow along with my boys, now one and four, still with a bit of longing for the experience they’re having. But this time I will contribute in a way that feels right to me for now—I’ll attend all services, fast the full 25 hours on Yom Kippur while, yet again, nursing. And this time, I will be on the bimah, not chanting, but proudly blowing shofar.

Mayim Bialik starred in NBC’s Blossom from 1990 to 1994. She has also appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Saving Grace and has a recurring role on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She lives in Los Angeles.