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Chanting My Way Up the Family Tree

How learning to ‘leyn’ Torah helped me connect with long-lost ancestors

Tammy A. Hepps
October 19, 2016

When I attended High Holiday services as a child, I was baffled by the menagerie of markings around the Hebrew words in the Chumash: dots, strokes, angles, diamonds, horns, wishbones. Our cantor explained that these were a form of musical notation called trop. When it came time to prepare for my bat mitzvah, she promised, instead of having me memorize my Torah portion from a recording, she’d teach me to leyn the traditional way—by learning trop.

She kept her promise: A year before my bat mitzvah, the cantor handed me a worn packet cataloging the trop marks. One by one, she taught me the melody represented by each sign and how to apply each one to different words. The process enchanted me. A |: atop the first word of my Torah portion, vay’hi (it came to pass), instructed me to the sing the word to a melody that danced up and down the scale, an exciting fanfare for the forthcoming dreams of Pharaoh. In the second verse, a ’ atop olot (were coming up) indicated a leaping interval that musically depicted the unexpected appearance of the seven healthy cows. This same word, olot, introduced the seven sickly cows in the next verse, but this time accompanied by a < mark, whose falling interval portended the ominous difference. I delighted in how the trop and the words worked together to create the drama of the story, and I worked to memorize both so that the bare letters in the Torah, shorn of both vowels and trop, would be enough for me to chant the story properly.

When I leyned publicly for the first time on my bat mitzvah day, I beamed the entire time.

Unexpectedly, it took me much longer to truly master Torah reading. I continued to leyn during high school, but was crushed to realize at college that the aliyot I had been assigned were truncated. It took years to stretch my Hebrew skills beyond the shortest full-length aliyot. Each assignment brought me deeper into different sections of the Torah. The more I leyned, the more I learned.

When my grandmother died 13 years after my bat mitzvah, I honored her memory by taking on an entire Torah portion of seven, full aliyot for the first time. I leyned one I selected solely for its comparatively short length. She would have been amused that my attempt to honor her memory involved singing about leprosy, discharges, and how long an ish (man)—the word accompanied by the dancing tune of my favorite mark, |: —remained unclean after ejaculating.

Longer Torah portions would follow in later years. Eventually, leyning would lead me to other ancestors in a way I had only dreamed of as a child.


The dream began with my father’s stories about his grandfather, Bernhardt Hepps, who had allegedly founded a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery near Pittsburgh. My father was known for his tall tales, and since he had no other relatives around to corroborate even the existence of this mythical great-grandfather, for most of my childhood, all I had was the promise of an impressive ancestor.

Shortly before my bat mitzvah day—just as I was learning to leyn for the first time—a long-lost cousin halfway across the country chanced upon my mother’s name in our local paper and sent us her recently-completed book of family history research. Bernhardt had been a real person who had done all the things my father had said. My bat mitzvah experience was elevated by seeing myself as an American Jewish adult bound by the same obligations as my ancestor who had dedicated his life to planting the seeds of our religion on new soil.

As an adult, I took up genealogy to find out more about him, eventually finding my way in 2010 to 16 boxes of records from Bernhardt’s synagogue, the Homestead Hebrew Congregation, which had been deposited in a Pittsburgh archive in early 1993 when it closed. On the first page of the first book I opened, I saw Bernhardt’s signature. This book had been in his hands. Anniversary speeches noted his major contributions, which exceeded even my family’s recollections, but he and his efforts were only a small part of the story. For years afterward, I couldn’t shake the sense that the lost world I had waited my whole life to encounter was finally within reach.

Two years ago, I moved to Pittsburgh to read the records in their entirety. Meeting minutes, financial ledgers, and newspaper articles revealed that the congregation’s history began and ended with its Torah scrolls. At their inaugural meeting in March 1894, Bernhardt and his fellow charter members each “purchased the [open] letters of his name, and filled them out, thus placing his work in a lasting manner” on the new scroll. A century later when the synagogue closed, it donated its five scrolls to a nearby synagogue—the very one I’d joined—along with its yahrzeit tablets, which were installed around the perimeter of a cozy room called the Homestead Hebrew Chapel.

At first, the only names I recognized on the tablets were the dozen related to me. As I continued not only to push through the archival records but to meet other people in the Homestead diaspora, more and more names became familiar to me. Slowly I learned all their stories: the first Jewish doctor, the dairy farmer, the Zionist brothers, the beloved shammes. From the longest-serving officers down to the most menial volunteer, I encountered what it took them to sustain their beloved community, now beloved to me, too. I even discovered who donated the other Torah scrolls. All these names were on these tablets because their families had wanted them perpetuated. I began to feel their duty as my own. In search of a tangible way to acknowledge their legacy on their own terms, I resolved to read a whole Torah portion from a Homestead Torah in the Homestead room.

A year after moving to Pittsburgh, I entered the Homestead Hebrew Chapel for early morning Shabbat services, taking a seat next to the tablet dedicated in memory of Bernhardt and Bertha Hepps by their children. As the small group of early-risers prayed around me, I gazed at the familiar names of my ancestors and their friends, the bronze letters of their names set in relief against a dark background. At the appointed moment, their Torah scroll was removed from the ark and marched around the room, passing by all of us and all of them. I felt a great rushing in the air, an in-gathering. Their presence swirled around me as I made my way to the front of the room. The Torah was set down on a cloth embroidered with some of their names, and I wrapped my fingers around handles so many of them had gripped before me. Had Bernhardt read from this Torah?

As the introductory blessings were recited, I sensed that they were all there with me. This moment was for all of us. Re’eh (see), I began, the descending notes of the drawing our attention to the blessing and the curse the Lord set before us. They pressed in. I fell into a rhythm, all memory and reflex as I turned the letters on the scroll into the scene of the Jewish people absorbing Moses’ instructions to prepare them before entering Israel. One aliyah concluded, the next one began, and I continued relating the history and the mitzvot and the promises of the Torah portion. Seven cycles later, my offering completed, I returned to my seat and fixed my eyes on Bernhardt’s name as the heaviness in the air receded. Did he approve of the Jewish adult he had inspired me to become, a teller of the ancient stories of the Torah and the recent stories of Homestead? Had I done justice to the generations who had used that Torah scroll, or to the generations before them? They had gone, but the letters on the plaques gleamed in the light.

Combining words and traditions, I learned, we can tell all the stories that make us who we are, from our ancient origins in Israel to our more recent heritage on this distant shore. There are mysteries we can never dispel, but there is truth, too, within our reach, and ancestors just beyond the veil who want us to remember.


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Tammy A. Hepps is documenting the history of Homestead’s Jewish community.